Providence Spring – A Miracle At Andersonville
In the summer of 2016, I drove down an isolated road in Southern Georgia. There wasn’t much around – just a few run-down houses here and there. Cotton fields stretched to the horizon. Silence hung heavy along with the heat.
Only a few signs with arrows pointed me to my destination. I followed them to a small parking lot that was practically empty of cars. A quiet visitor center beckoned. Behind it lay a sprawling field, fully exposed to the hot, Georgia sun. A few concrete monuments were scattered across the horizon. I also spotted a row of gnarled shanties, and a section of a stockyard wall. Other than that, there was nothing. Nothing… as far as the eye could see. This was all that remained of one of the most notorious Civil War prisons – Andersonville.
Back then, a lot of boys called the place “Camp Sumter,” and it was known for miles around. In fact, the mention of it sent a chill down the spine of every soldier in the Union army. The stories leaking out of there were so bad some soldiers opted for death on the battlefield rather than getting captured.
Indeed, there weren’t many worse places a soldier could wind up than Andersonville. Even the journey there was hard. In an overcrowded train racing over torn up tracks, some prisoners didn’t even survive it. The ones that lived had little better to look forward to. Once those wooden doors slammed shut behind them, they found themselves in a whole other world.
The prison yard comprised of a vast prairie split in half by a swampy, stinking stream, surrounded on all sides by a towering stockade wall of felled logs. Prisoners had no shelter from the grueling heat, other than pitiable self-made shanties of torn blankets and wood scraps. Thirty-thousand people were crammed into this awful space, which was built for a third of that. Their foot traffic had turned the terrain into a slimy mud pit covered in corn-bread crumbs, human waste, and hordes of vermin. The stream, Andersonville’s only water source, was used communally for bathing, a latrine, and laundry by everyone in the prison yard, which made it far from sanitary. Food consisted of scant helpings of moldy corn bread, and weevil-filled spoiled pork. Starving and emaciated prisoners cooked the rations with sprigs of pitch pine, which left a heavy black residue all over their skin.
With such poor living conditions, sickness paid frequent visits to Andersonville. The most common, and lethal, was scurvy. A disease caused by poor diet, the first symptom was bleeding and irritation in the gums. This progressed into loose teeth and rotting tissues in the mouth. Then it worked its way to the extremities such as fingers and toes. Prisoner John McElroy lamented that once scurvy reached a patient’s legs, he was dead by the end of the day. Dysentery and infection also struck down plenty of men, along with measles and even the occasional small pox outbreak. Disease became so prevalent that at the prison’s peak, over one hundred people a day died from illness alone.
Along with disease, violence from other prisoners was also a common killer. A band of murderous thugs known as “the Camp Raiders” preyed on people throughout the prison. Mostly from criminal backgrounds before the war, they found a home befitting their skills in Andersonville. Newcomers were their favorite targets, and the Raiders pounced as soon as fresh feet landed inside the stockyard. Already at a bad disadvantage, new prisoners fared even worse when Raiders robbed their food, blankets, and any goods they managed to carry into the prison.
All of that, combined with the brutal antics of Commandant Captain Wirz and his Georgia guards, meant prisoners only lasted a few months in Andersonville. This was especially true as the summer months wore on, and the heat took its toll. Mountains of bodies piled up in the dead house, and the hospital got overwhelmed with malnourished, dying prisoners.
Lack of drinking water put more people in the hospital than anything. Anyone who dared drink from the putrid swamp water died fast and without mercy. All other water had long-since run out. Rainstorms, although they brought their own sets of troubles like flooding, mud, and disease upticks, were the only source of water. And with August pressing in, those dropped off to a trickle. Along with running out of faith, the prisoners were running out of time.
Then, there came a miracle.
Accounts are mixed on how the spring first appeared on that August night of 1864. The more dramatic tales have it bursting out of the ground after a lightning strike from a towering storm cloud. Other accounts say it sprung up after a heavy rain storm saturated and shifted the grounds underneath the prison. Still others say it just appeared during the night while the prisoners slept. Either way, to the Andersonville prisoners, the sudden emergence of a bubbling spring of fresh water on the North side of the stockyard felt like the work of divine Providence.
Prisoner John McElroy wrote – “…the camp was astonished beyond measure to discover that…a large bold spring had burst out…about midway between the swamp and the summit of the hill. It poured out its grateful flood of pure, sweet water in apparently exhaustless quantity. To the many who looked in wonder upon it, it seemed as truly a heaven-wrought miracle as when Moses’ enchanted rod smote the parched earth in Sinai’s desert waste…”
Prisoner John Ransom, who kept a diary during his entire imprisonment, also mentioned the sudden appearance of a spring. “A nice spring of cold water has broken out in camp,” he wrote. “Enough to furnish nearly all here with drinking water. God has not forgotten us.”
The story of “Providence Spring” is one of the most legendary ones of the Civil War. It brought hope to thousands of battered prisoners who felt forgotten, and for many of them, it made the difference between life and death. In their most desperate hour, deliverance arrived out of nowhere. The story is so miraculous it might not even seem credible to people today. However, if one needs proof of Providence Spring, all they need to do is visit the Andersonville Historic Site. Because the spring still flows there to this very day.
On that hot summer day in 2016, I made my own visit to the prison, and I beheld the miracle water source of 1864. Indeed, the cool water still bubbles, and visitors are allowed to bottle some to take home with them (although you are highly discouraged from drinking it – what counted as sanitary back then is not as much so today). I could hear the words of John McElroy as I dipped my hands in the refreshing water. He said of the spring – “When I hear of people bringing water for baptismal purposes from the Jordan, I say in my heart, how much more would I value… the divine flow from that low sandhill in Western Georgia.”
As the sun beat on my back, and my eyes stung from the sweat and searing heat, I caught a small glimpse of what he meant. I took a look around at the vast, open space. It had no protection or nourishment to offer. Back then, this was hopeless ground where death lurked in every corner… until this spring appeared. If that is not a miracle, I’m not sure what is.
All of that sadness still hangs in the air at Andersonville. You can feel it when you walk by the stone-cold monuments in the burning hot prairie. You can hear it in the thirsty grass crunching under your feet. It’s all so heavy with tragedy. Until you kneel at the banks of Providence Spring, and let a miracle run over your fingers.
“This Was Andersonville” – J. McElroy
“John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary” – J. Ransom
“Andersonville” – M. Kantor
“Army Memoirs” – L. Barber
Andersonville National Historical Site
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on Andersonville National Historic Site and the Civil War, please visit my photo gallery
Thanks for a great post. Another good book about Andersonville is “A Captive of War,” by Solon Hyde. He was captured at Chickamauga along with my great-great grandfather, David Benedict. He also suffered from scurvy. I don’t remember him writing about the spring. It is a wonderful, inspiring story.
Thanks for the recommendation! I will have to try and get a copy! Im glad you stopped by and that you liked the post
This is awesome! I never even heard of this Spring until now. I wonder if my cousin Steve knows this story? The prison sounds like it was truly horrible. Thanks for sharing this miracle story! M, you have a beautiful gift. So proud of you!
Thanks! Oh I’m sure Steve is all over it haha. He knows everything.
Wait til I tell him you said that! He really loves the history of the Civil War and does know quite a lot about it.
This was very interesting. I read a rather large book on Andersonville many years ago and was shocked. Your post is a good reminder. Sadly, Union prisons in Chicago and Elmira NY were not much better.
Yes the prison system as a whole was pretty terrible in the Civil War. Reading accounts is pretty tough. I’m glad you stopped by and liked the post. Was the book you read the one by M. Kantor? Its pretty long, and very graphic.
Incredible post. And a depressing look at just how badly people treat other people. Even war shouldn’t be an excuse for that.
I totally agree. I can’t tell you how hard it is to read some of the stuff I do for writing my books. Humans can be awful sometimes.
What I think gets us all through it is stories like this, and the amazing stories of people helping each other that are scattered throughout the awfulness that is war. It’s a little bit of hope! As always, so glad when you stop by and share your thoughts Dave 🙂
My father and his family was born there now i understand why we had to go back there e every year when i was a child it break my heart to hear about such distress of that town but thank God for the miracle he he did i so graceful Delores Range p.s. i know why August so important to my family
Yes – thank God for the miracle of the spring! I can’t imagine what it must have been like not only in the prison, but also for the town’s people nearby. Such a terrible thing all around!
Such a sad and wonderful story all rolled into one!
I’m glad you stopped by and got a ray of hope from it. I’ve really been enjoying your poems 🙂
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed you account of Andersonvillle.
Thanks. My great-grandfather was 19 when he was released from Andersonville, but I have read very little about it. We were able to look him up on an electronic register in the visitors’ center, but I did not know about the spring.
Wow, thats amazing you were able to look him up on the register. I’m glad the post helped you learn a little about the prison. If you’re interested in more, the book by McElroy listed in my sources is one of the best books ive read on andersonville, direct from a survivor. Thanks for stopping by!
Evocative writing, M.B. I am moved by the stories that you narrate and the plight of the prisoners. How did they ever carry on? It sounds almost like a blessing to have been relieved of the pain of living in such conditions. I can imagine the spring as a metaphor for life for the poor men trapped within Andersonville. x
Glad you enjoyed the post. I love that it moved you. Visiting Andersonville was a powerful experience and the story of that spring definitely helps me believe in miracles! Glad you stopped by!
My pleasure always 🙂 I am behind my feed but once I get back home to my routine I will be more regular. x
Whoa! Being a Canadian, I had no idea about this (or other) prisons during the Civil War. I can’t imagine anyone surviving these conditions. It’s almost enough to make you weep.
However, what a wonderful thing to have a stream of fresh water suddenly appear. It must have been life-giving to those prisoners in so many ways.
It is pretty humbling reading about the prisons of the Civil War for sure. I’m glad you liked the story. If you’re interested in the movie end, there’s one called “Andersonville” that came out in 1996 or so. I thought it was a pretty accurate representation, although I cant remember if they mention the spring or not. Thanks for stopping by and giving this a read!
Hey, I see the Andersonville film is on YouTube. I’ve bookmarked it to watch later. Thanks!
Its pretty accurate, I have a copy in my movie collection. Make yourself comfortable when you watch, its long. You will also see some familiar faces in there!
What a great story!
Thank you! I thought it was pretty incredible. Seeing it in person even more so. Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the post
Such a mix of cruelty and hope, hard to comprehend.
Reading survivor accounts is tough! I can’t imagine being imprisoned in such an awful place. Glad you stopped by and gave this a read
Great article! Very well written, and I learned something lol
Thank you! I’m always glad when I can teach 🙂 Thanks for stopping by
You are very welcome!
First of all, thanks for the comment on my latest post. I do enjoy your posts, and with this one you exceeded most other accounts I have read about Andersonville. I just finished reading “Sinking the Sultana” by Sally M. Walker which details the loss of many of the survivors of both Andersonville and Cahaba aboard the steamboat that was supposed to be their way home. The book was very well written but very hard to read because it depicted just how horrific the explosion of the Sultana was. I had no idea that the spring still flows in Andersonville. I have to plan a trip there in the near future. And, yes there are miracles.
Oh I’ve had that book on my reading list for awhile. Sounds like I better move it up a few slots. I highly recommend a trip to andersonville, it is something that should never be forgotten. Thank you so much for stopping by, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And you are most welcome!
I get Likes from Joel too (thank you!), but am unclear: does he contribute blog posts here, as well?
Joel is my husband, and he doesn’t do any blog posts or photos, but he did design the whole page for me and helps keep it looking nice, since I’m not the best with technology 🙂
Awesome!! I love this! My kind of adventure!!
Yes I too love exploring and finding the hidden history in new places. I also love trying the local foods! There was lots of good food in Georgia – especially Atlanta, you would love it.
Oh Atlanta… So beautiful old Southern USA. I love the country (as historical as possible); urbanization gets in the way.
Savannah is fantastic too if you’ve ever been there. Beautiful and historical!!
I greatly enjoyed your story and I a foreigner can learn from your way of writing
That is very flattering – I thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment!
Blogging is about being interested in other bloggers and their work too
Yes I have sure come to learn that! I was very unsure what to expect when I got started with blogging, but I must say I enjoy very much how interactive a community it is 🙂
My great grandfather was Charles Case Bacon. He was in the 16th Iowa Company F and was captured in the battle of Atlanta. He was taken to Andersonville Prison. I have a copy of the General Affidavit he filled out in his own handwriting that is stamped by the US Pension Office dated April 8, 1893 wherein he states in his own handwriting that he was taken prisoner in 1864, taken to Andersonville, stripped of his coat and blanket, and he was in Andersonville Prison “…….the time the spring broke out……”. It gives me chill bumps every time I read it. He later escaped when he and some other prisoners were being moved to another place. He was the only one that got away as the others were recaptured. He rejoined the Union troops and was in Sherman’s march to the sea. He never completely recovered from his bad health in Andersonville and he died in 1925.
What an incredible story! I always love it when people share family stories on posts like this. And an Iowa boy huh? That’s my old stomping grounds. I have a very old volume in my civil war collection that is all accounts from Iowa soldiers. It’s an amazing read. Thanks so much for reading and sharing that account
Years ago I went to a large re-enactment at Andersonville. Outside of Gettysburg it was one of the best. William
I’ve never seen the re-enactments at Gettysburg or Andersonville, but I have been to a couple here and there, including one at Appomattox that was pretty good! 🙂 I bet that Gettysburg one was something, I’ve heard they’re the best.
I have an ancestor that in Andersonville prison during this time period. In his pension record which includes his medical records of the course of his life time states all of the horrible problems that he had when he was Andersonville Prison. I cannot even begin to think about those conditions they lived in at that time. He made it out alive went on to become a Tinner across the country.
I can’t either. I don’t have any relatives that were there but I have read a lot of memoirs and “awful” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word. Thanks so much for sharing your family history and connection to this place.
Certainly an interesting blog. I love to learn something new. But why are you writing in third person? Still, I love the quotation of Theodore Roosevelt. If you can, please look up my new post that will be published this Saturday. I write about him there. Thank you for reading and liking my blog.
Glad you learned something new – thanks so much for your visit!
Fascinating to read this. Being on the other side of the Atlantic, I know very little about American history. Your blog makes me want to learn more!
Well I always enjoy hearing things like that! 🙂 Hope you find equal enjoyment of the other posts here as you did this one. Thanks much for visiting 🙂
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