In 1864, my great-great-grandfather, Private William Davies, was captured in battle by Confederate forces and spent three months in Andersonville Prison, the largest and most notorious of the Civil War prisons. Although he kept a diary of his service with the 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, he wrote only two entries about his stay in Andersonville, where nearly one-third of the 42,000 inmates died while incarcerated.
What did it mean to be in Andersonville Prison? What did Davies do while he was there? Conditions changed over the 14 months the prison was in operation. What was it like during the three months he was there? I decided the best way to find out was to go there in person.
It’s February, and I am approaching the Andersonville National Historic Site on Georgia State Route 49 when a turkey vulture settles down on an animal carcass in the middle of the road. As I drive past, I can see the rippled red skin of the vulture’s head, a few feet past my window. A half-mile later, I turn onto the former prison grounds.
A National Prisoner of War Museum was established at the Andersonville site in 1998 to articulate experiences of U.S. POW’s throughout history. I have an appointment to spend four days researching at the museum archives, and I expect to spend time roaming the 26.5 acres where the prison stood.
At the museum, historian and park ranger Eric Leonard tells me, “A lot of people come here who had an ancestor in the prison. Most of them are on some kind of journey to understand that part of their ancestor’s path, to make sense of it and fit it into their family narrative and the national narrative.”
He said that public opinion about POW’s has changed over the years. Today, we tend to respect their sacrifice and suffering. Before the 1970s, POWs were considered failures. They had been captured. They were losers.
Most Civil War prisons, on both sides of the conflict, were established under brutal conditions, but Andersonville was the largest and the worst, taking inhuman conditions to shocking heights. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to place the country’s only POW museum on its grounds.
In the museum archive, I found diaries of other prisoners who were at Andersonville at the same time as Davies. From these accounts, I tried to reconstruct his experience.
For instance, I learned that he arrived during a period of rain.
Friday June 10  Was captured at Guntown Miss, by the Rebel Genl Forrest our Army was defeated with great loss 19 of my Co was captured and 137 of the Regt
Sgt. James H. Dennison of the 113th Illinois was also captured at Guntown. His account of June10 notes:
It was a bad loss for us. I went 23 miles before I was taken I was tired out..after I was taken one the rebels [shot] his gun at me but it did not go off
Dennison reached the prison a few days before Davies did. On his second day, Dennison wrote:
rained all afternoon laid out on the wet ground did not get eney corn bred this is a crowded place I feel well fifty men dies hear everey day
On the 21st, the morning was fair but later in the day, “it rained [and] some more prisoners came in.” One of them was Davies:
Tuesday 21 Arrived at Andersonville Prison, where 32,000 of our men prisoners confined in 22 acres of land
While these figures are incorrect, the proportions are pretty accurate.
The prison was enclosed by a stockade of square-hewn logs with their bases buried five feet deep in the ground. The 16-foot-high stockade has long since rotted away, but archeologists have found the underground sections and traced the exact outline of the camp.
Two sections of the stockade have been recreated, including the North Gate, by which prisoners entered the camp for the first time, stepping through huge wooden gates into a holding pen. The guards closed the doors behind them and then opened the inner doors into the prison.
I spend some time in the holding pen, trying to imagine what my great-great-grandfather felt, standing in the rain, crushed against other bodies as men were crammed into the space, waiting for the inner doors to open and admit him to a new life. Had he already heard what Andersonville was like? Certainly he could hear the shouts of arguing men and the moans of the dying. He could smell the reek of the “sinks,” or latrine, which backed up into the swamp that bordered the prison’s only water source at the time, a three-foot-wide stream called Stockade Branch. Impeded by the walls of the stockade and polluted by the cookhouse and guards’ camp located upstream, the brook spread into a greasy swamp ridden with dysentery.
A month earlier, when those doors opened before Sergeant-Major Robert Kellogg of the 16th Connecticut, he saw men he described as “mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.” One of his companions wondered, “Can this be Hell?”
I walk through the gate and emerge onto a gently sloping hillside, bare of trees, covered with short brown winter grass. In the blank, peaceful space, I try to picture thousands of men, some with tiny shelters made of sticks draped with blankets or clothing. Other men lay directly on the ground with no covering.