Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

Local News

November 19, 2012

A night of living history

ANDERSONVILLE — Guards jeer from watch towers. Prisoners huddle around flickering fires, cooking salt pork and gnashing on hard tack. Sailors complain about thirst and long for home and hearth.

Eye-stinging smoke hangs low over the reconstructed northeast corner of the prison. Guests shuffle through the living history volunteers who portray captured Union soldiers in the winter of 1864 and 1865.

Trying not to trip over the stays of the replica tents and shelters, nearly 100 visitors experienced what it must have been like to have endured thirst, hunger, cold and overcrowding at Camp Sumter.

Volunteers dressed in period attire assumed the characters of actual prisoners and told the tales of the men who suffered through one of the darkest periods of the nation’s history.

Andersonville National Historic Site’s education and interpretation ranger, Eric Leonard said that the first night museum program Saturday was hosted to provide new opportunities and experiences to learn about the experiences of prisoners of war.

Many of the volunteers and visitors came from outside of the area for the early evening event. William Summe, originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., traveled from his home in Griffin, Ga., to portray a German immigrant. One of his mother’s ancestors had been a survivor of interment at Camp Sumter.

“He taught my great aunt to roller skate when he was in his eighties,” said Summe.

Nine-year-old Samuel Leonard asked Summe how many Confederates he fought before being captured. With a convincing accent, he maintained character and told the inquisitive young fellow “a goodly chunk.”

Eight-year-old twins Roy and Troy Williams drove up from Albany with their parents because they “wanted to see the soldiers.” The Baconton Charter School students thought it was “neat.” Their favorite thing was what the soldiers were cooking.

Ryan Freeman of Columbus teaches history at Harris County High School. He is working on his master’s degree and volunteered because he wanted to get involved in the living history project at Andersonville. He regaled an audience of youngsters with tales of the difficulties of staying warm through the cold winter months.

A group of sailors encircled a camp fire, cooking salt pork and ground corn on a melted down canteen. They complained that the guards gave little food and nothing to cook it with. One pledged to drink the entire pond when he returned to his farm after the war.

“We were captured down around Savannah,” the cook explained to Awyn Leonard, a Sumter County Primary School student. “A cavalry of Confederates came riding up in the middle of the night and took us.”

Americus-Sumter County High School students Carl Johnson and Tye Skala were asked to volunteer by park ranger Chris Barr.

“I came out here for the spring living history,” Johnson explained. “You get the feel for what it might have been like.”

A special program by Civil War historian Michael J. Bennett was called “Lost Souls: Union Soldiers in Richmond Prisons.” Bennett is the recipient of a 2011/12 Prisoner of War Research Grant Program funded by the Friends of Andersonville.

He published “Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War,” which earned the 2004 Fletcher Pratt Award for the Best Civil War Book. He has taught at Kent State and Wake Forest universities and has held the Earhart Civil War Fellowship from the University of Michigan, as well as the Mellon Fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society. His current project is called “The American Soul in Battle: Restraint and Retaliation in the Civil War.”

Patrons warmed up in the museum’s theater after chilly strolls through the living history exhibit to hear the presentation. Josh Lodde brought his seven-year-old daughter Allora and four-year-old son Andrew to the night museum.

“We are part of a POW/MIA group from Warner Robins,” said Lodde.

Bennett’s animated lecture focused on the violence of war. About 30 people listened to his assessment of how learning to kill, destroy and hate challenges the morals and values of soldiers during war time. His research on the actions and beliefs of soldiers and war administrators — especially against unarmed men — gave a startling perspective on the violent nature of modern warfare.

Although his presentation featured research on Libby and Belle Isle prisons in Richmond, the message illuminated the residual impact of the Civil War on the fabric of the American culture. He explained in graphic and chilling detail how captured soldiers were processed. Processing amounted to little more than robbery and humiliation sanctioned and encouraged by Gen. John H. Winder and Gen. Richard “Dick” Turner.

Stories of Winder’s and Turner’s sadistic treatment of prisoners set a cruel precedent followed by guards, who would be rewarded with paid furloughs for executing prisoners. As infamous as conditions at Andersonville had become, Bennett’s description of the overcrowding, withholding of rations and inadequate medical treatment in Richmond were compared to “the black hole of Calcutta.”

He presented an overview of two major schools of thought regarding culpability for the atrocities committed in prison camps during the Civil War. He outlined points that still provoke heated debate among historians. His analysis of documents, letters and diaries gave an insight into the experiences that led to the slow, excruciatingly painful deaths of so many captives.

Prisoners were held in Richmond’s most swampy area swarming with typhoid-bearing mosquitoes. The camp was set up to house a few thousand prisoners on four acres. The stream passing through Belle Isle was already polluted from industrial waste from the iron works before the excrement of 10,000 prisoners further fouled the stream and well. Dysentery was the leading cause of death. Conservative estimates account for the deaths of over 5,000 of the 30,000 prisoners who passed through Belle Isle.

An even more troubling story emerged from his research and underscored the outrage of those souls fortunate enough to survive and tell about their experiences. The sadistic humiliation of prisoners, blatant robberies, random shootings, starvation from a systematic pattern of withholding sustenance, and abuse of corpses fueled post-war anger against captors and war administrators.

He explained that problems with food and medical supplies “could have been alleviated by prison administrators. But government bureaucracy and politicians created a system” where it is difficult to assign specific blame to any single party. He likened the situation to the movie Shawshank Redemption where the prisoners struggled with maintaining integrity and self worth in an institution controlled by corrupt officials.

“State policy was the smoking gun,” he said.

Bennett closed the evening with “one last thought that is a real head scratcher.”

Americans during the Civil War never believed that the violent actions against unarmed soldiers “were outside the purview of morality. Soldiers commit horrible acts in war. But we always come back to the moral content of those actions. The gruesome challenge detaches people from their own morals.”

Night Museum programs at the Andersonville National Historic Site are scheduled for Jan. 26, 2013, and Nov. 16, 2013.

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