Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

Local News

November 14, 2012

In remembrance of suffering, sacrifice

ANDERSONVILLE — With so many Veterans Day celebrations around the community, selecting the best ones to honor our service men and women posed a challenge. The special program held Sunday afternoon at the Illinois Monument in the Andersonville National Cemetery was a rewarding and educational experience.

Macon County High School’s Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps performed the color guard ceremony to launch the memorial service. Freshmen trainees Ramsey Jackson, Luis Astronomo, Walteria Hosley and De’Nautica English presented the colors and set the tone for the presentations and rededication of the monument.

Historian Robert I. Girardi of Chicago, Ill., delivered a breathtaking speech on the experiences of those interred at Camp Sumter during the Civil War. He enlightened the audience sitting beneath the avenue of flags on the importance of the monuments constructed by each state to recognize and memorialize the sacrifices of those Civil War veterans.

“Andersonville! The very name sends chills of horror and sympathy through the hearts and minds of anyone familiar with the history of this place. The stories of suffering and service here has left an indelible impression upon our consciousness,” Girardi explained.

“The effort to commemorate inherently is an effort to understand. A unique brand of suffering occurs in a prison camp. Human beings exhibit their best and worst qualities under adverse conditions and this is certainly true here. Yet the innate desire to live, even amongst the ever day horrors, is a testament to the human spirit,” the Civil War historian explained.

He gestured toward the many grave stones, with the shadows of the flags playing across the solemn faces.

“The effort to understand and explain the history of this camp has led to many books, articles, essays, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, a stage play and a motion picture. But in many ways, the only way to understand this place is to come here.”

Giving a primer on Camp Sumter, he noted that the camp was established in “February 1864 in order to alleviate overcrowding in other prison camps. It was intended to house 10,000 prisoners. At its peak, however, the camp housed 35,000 men, making it the fifth largest city in the Confederacy by population. That is a staggering fact, considering the camp covered only 26.5  acres of ground.”

He spoke of the volume of prisoners overwhelming the ability of the captors to care for the men and reminded that this “was true of all such camps.” He maintained that “it was here at Andersonville that the inherent cruelty of the POW experience was the most pronounced. For a variety of reasons, Andersonville became synonymous with hell on earth.” This experience was shared by both the captives and the guards and “those who learned of the conditions there.”

He explained how the prisoner exchange system broke down and confinement was no longer the temporary experience it had been in the early days of the war. By 1864, controversial policies led to refraining from putting “combatants back into action.”

“The result was tragic in terms of the human cost. All told, 13,000 prisoners died here, roughly one in three of those who came through the gates. It is an appalling statistic to contemplate, yet in Chicago, 6,000 Confederate soldiers imprisoned at Camp Douglas perished, and throughout Illinois, including those from Chicago, the number rises to more than 10,000; casualties of prisons at Alton, Rock Island and Camp Butler.”

Girardi said that he was honored by the invitation to come to Andersonville for the Veterans Day memorial service. He spoke a few words about the sons of Illinois and their experiences at Camp Sumter.

“During four years of the war, Illinois sent 259,000 men into the ranks. Of these, 37,000, or one in six, would die in the war.”

Of the 1,720 soldiers who died as prisoners, more than half are buried in Andersonville.

“But even those who survived the ordeal here were scarred for life. Nobody can calculate how many of them went to premature graves because of what they endured here. Their sacrifice is the reason we are gathered here today.”

He summarized the stories of several specific soldiers and reminded that the imposing monument was erected and dedicated on Dec. 20, 1912 “one hundred years ago, and it is fitting that we rededicate it a century later, and a century and a half after the war. We must never forget the service and sacrifice of those who gave up God’s most precious gift, for our benefit.”

The Illinois Andersonville Monument Commission was created to install a monument that would be a “credit to the State of Illinois” for $12,000.

“The result stands before us today. The monument stands 18 feet high upon a pedestal 20 x 24 feet. Lady Columbia stands above a young boy and girl, pointing to the graves, to underscore the sacrifice of those who are buried here.”

The monument also features two eagles, state seals and two aged veterans. The symbolism was described and the Abraham Lincoln quotes read before the laying of two wreaths for the rededication. Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Maribeth Brannen and Marguerite Dyal placed a wreath. Theirs is the only Union group in the State of Georgia. Sarah Meyer placed a second wreath on behalf of the Department of Illinois.

Girardi closed the ceremony with a reminder that “almost one in three men interred at Andersonville died here. No one knows how many died later from the effects of the suffering endured here. That is a number that we will never know. We cannot undo what happened, and we can never repay those for the sacrifice they made here, except to remember them, and honor them, as we are doing today. Let us forgive — but never forget.”

 

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