Civil War Ghosts: Haunted Andersonville
It’s easy to see how the place could be haunted. I mean, even when you walk towards it, down a quiet road in the shadow of the tall, wooden gate, there’s something in the air at Andersonville. Just the very name conjures up chills. Andersonville, otherwise known as Camp Sumter. Arguably the most notorious prison of the entire Civil War.
Andersonville opened in February of 1864 – built to house the massive influx of Union prisoners streaming into the Confederacy. Shortly before then, housing prisoners wasn’t a big problem. In the early years of the war, it was more common for them to be paroled and exchanged through a sort of honor system set up between North and South. However, as the war ground on and got a bit nastier, prisoner exchanges came to an abrupt halt. It was an exceptional advantage to the Union side, who had more or less inexhaustible sources of men to tap from. Whereas the South, with a population not nearly as dense as their Northern counterparts, had already been crippled by years of blood-draining battlefields. Losing countless men to the prison system was a huge blow to their manpower.
And Grant’s non-stop Overland Campaign drove prisoner numbers up considerably on both sides. As more men fell on the battlefields of attrition, many more also wound up captured by their enemies. For Union soldiers in the Eastern Theatre, this meant a trip down to the snarled depths of Georgia for an indefinite stay at Andersonville.
By the spring of 1864, the place had already garnered a terrible reputation. It was little more than a penned in mud pit sitting on a putrid swamp – broken in half by a stream so polluted that people who drank from it often died. Although the prison had been built to accommodate ten thousand people, tens of thousands would have to cram their way in. Some had the good fortune to build shanties from wood scraps and trash, but most lived in the complete open – subject to the merciless sun and even more merciless rainstorms. Not to mention the criminals and villains who ran rampant throughout the camp – beating, stealing from, and harassing the prisoners. Food was scarce, and paired with the unsanitary drinking water, this invited swaths of diseases into the prison. The graveyard quickly became one of the most populated areas of Andersonville.
Overseeing all this hell was a scrawny, gimpy-armed, European eccentric in a gray uniform – Captain Henry Wirz. He was feared throughout the entire camp, known to exact cruel punishments on unruly prisoners. Like chaining them up to a heavy ball and leaving them to rot in the sun, stringing them up by their thumbs for days, and one of the most dreaded punishments – taking away what little food they had. Sometimes, in a fit of rage, Wirz held the entire camp hostage by withholding food from everybody. He also had men shot for stepping too close to the camp fence, and he released practically rabid bloodhounds on anyone who had the audacity to try and escape.
By the time the war ended, very few prisoners remained at Andersonville. A lion’s share of them had died, but many had also been shuttled to prisons further inside the rebel lines. When the Union arrived to liberate the camp, they couldn’t believe the state of the men who stumbled out of the gates. They were completely emaciated, with open sores on their bodies from scurvy. Their skin had been coated black from the pitch pine used for their pitiful fires. In short, they looked like walking corpses.
Andersonville became the ultimate example of atrocity in the Civil War – thousands of men left to suffer and die under the burning hot sun, their graves barely marked in the overcrowded cemetery. Although it was far from the only camp to exist, Andersonville was vastly agreed upon to be the worst.
Which is why Union soldiers arrested Wirz upon the camp’s liberation, and eventually put him on trial for war crimes. His trial consisted of a parade of former prisoners, all with tales to tell that were more ghastly than the last. As for his defense, Wirz stirred a bit of controversy when he claimed he hadn’t intended to starve anyone. He didn’t want his camp to be so run down. Rather, he had suffered, like so many in the Confederacy, from a deplorable lack of resources and supplies. The Confederate government, already more or less in shambles by 1864, simply didn’t give him what he needed to adequately run the prison.
Perhaps he had a valid point, or perhaps he really was that cruel. Whichever was true, the courts didn’t buy his excuses. Captain Henry Wirz was convicted in 1865, and eventually executed by hanging. He remains the only person of the entire Confederacy to be executed for war crimes.
And according to local legend, he may have had a hard time letting that go. Captain Wirz’s ghost has been seen multiple times across the grounds at Andersonville. Most notably walking along the road leading into the prison – now a part of a National Historic Site. He has also been spotted pacing back and forth in the stockade, looking anguished and angry.
He isn’t the only one who stayed behind either. Some of Wirz’s prisoners haven’t exactly left the stockade where they were once confined. While the prison was demolished after the war, the site was partially reconstructed and preserved as part of the National Park System. Today, there is a museum there, parts of the guard wall have been rebuilt, and you can actually walk the same grounds the prisoners once did. Even the miraculous Andersonville spring still exists (click here to learn all about that).
Some visitors to the prison have been treated to… let’s call it some very interactive history. Including the phantom sounds of prisoners milling about the stockade. Moans of pain and hunger have sometimes floated across time, landing upon the ears of frightened historical tourists. One shook up visitor allegedly met the ghost of one of the infamous Camp Raiders, all six of whom are buried in the Andersonville graveyard. Then there’s the smell. Several visitors have complained of a nauseating odor coming from the camp cemetery – the thick, heavy stench of rotting human flesh. Park Rangers have even been called to investigate the grounds, never finding any real reason for such a putrid stink.
It all begs to question – are there ghosts at Andersonville? And if there are, what are they trying to tell us?
I visited Andersonville National Historic Site back in 2016. While I never saw any spirits, and I certainly didn’t smell any phantom odors, I still felt very haunted. Especially when walking around the graveyard. It’s one of the most crammed, crowded cemeteries I have ever beheld. Really bringing home the scale of death at places like Andersonville.
Do those ghosts want us to remember what happened at Camp Sumter? Is that why they’re sticking around? I wouldn’t blame them if that’s the case. After all, my own website is filled with the tragic photos and stories of what happens when we forget to humanize our neighbors. So I could certainly understand if ghosts wanted to warn us about that.
And what about Wirz? Did he stay behind because he had a conscious in the end? Was he really as tormented as he claimed to be about the role he played in the demise of so many?
I suppose we can never answer these questions – unless we meet a ghost and ask it ourselves. All we can do is take our own lessons from it. Try to piece together what those people of the past want us to know. As for me, when I took a walk through Andersonville, I was particularly struck by how many people had passed through those gates. People from all kinds of backgrounds, many of them so young, dying well before they could leave any sort of legacy. Exceptionally tragic, because that is one of the biggest human needs in the end, isn’t it? To make an impact with our brief time on this mortal coil. To leave something behind, and avoid disappearing all together into the sands of time.
It might not be much, but it’s what I took out of my visit to Andersonville, and the many stories of the ghosts who linger there. All of us want to be remembered. All of us want to go on living when we’re gone. Through our words, our art works, our children. Through our actions, and the impressions we might leave upon those we encounter. So much of that was stolen from these prisoners, and the hundreds of thousands of people who fell on those battlefields.
How can I give that back to them? How can anyone? It’s a monumental task, and frankly, it sometimes feels like an awful lot to take upon my frail little shoulders. However, as I stood there amongst the wreckage of so many human lives, I realized there was one easy thing I could do for those men (and a few women who went through those gates, according to the museum). I could take their pictures.
A lot of times I use my words to bring life back to the forgotten, but pictures are just as capable of it, aren’t they? In fact, they are their own kind of magic spell, if you think about it. Pictures can freeze time, they can hold on to memories, and tuck people into a space where they can never be forgotten. Pictures help us visualize things that are all too easy to forget. Whether it’s a beautiful flower in a meadow, the streets of a new place we visited, the crashing waves of the sea, or a terribly tragic war graveyard. Pictures can put it all in the palm of our hands, where we can visit again anytime we want. Or share it with people who might not have seen it otherwise.
So, as I walked through that graveyard, I decided to use my own kind of magic and I took as many pictures as I could. Here I share them with you now, so you can remember all those people who suffered in Andersonville. Together, we can heed their warnings, we can give them back what they lost, we can help them live on.
All we have to do is remember, learn, and pass it on.
This Was Andersonville – J. McElroy
John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary – J. Ransom
Army Memoirs – L. Barber
Civil War Ghost Stories – A. Konstam
Andersonville National Historic Site
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from historic Andersonville – click here.
THANK YOU, DEAR READERS!
I wanted to thank everyone for the incredible support shown to me for my D-Day debut novel, “All the Lights Above Us.” My book tour has pretty much wound up now, and it was just incredible. I never dreamed I would see and meet so many people eager to read my book! You can learn more about my novel by clicking here, and I truly can’t wait to see the next steps in my author journey. Which may or may not involve a prequel to this book. Stay tuned….