National Historic Site

Andersonville GA

November 30, 2001

This week found us in central Georgia reviewing yet another civil war memorial. Our friends, the Tarkins had written in their gypsy journal about a small city campground at Andersonville, Ga. They had made the place sound so interesting we decided to try it. We were not to be disappointed. South central Georgia is the home of peaches, cotton and that wonderful delicacy, pecans. In addition to all the other benefits, each morning would find me off walking the lanes surrounding the small quaint village, armed with my home made Pecan picker, a walking stick with a piece of paper tape attached to one end. The town was created in 1853 as a train stop community. It is not much bigger today. A solitary monolith in the middle of the street is the only reminder of a man who would die in infamy on the gallows for act which he may or may not have had any control over. Peggy Sheppard, the author of "Andersonville Georgia U.S.A.", a documentary on the history of the prison and the town, talked with us outside the visitor's center. We learned much of what had happened here, from her as she walked with us through the Pioneer Village, which is maintained by the town. In 1864, the town, and the landscape changed forever. The Civil War was raging and prisoner exchanged between the North and South had broken down. Both sides found themselves with literally thousands of prisoners and no facilities to handle them. About a mile away, two hills separated by a small stream became the most notorious prison in American History. Sixteen and a half acres were closed in by a 15 foot wall of hand hewn pine logs. Every 88 feet or so, a tower was built from which a sharpshooter stood guard. About 20 feet inside the fence was a death line, marked by a single pole running horizontally about 3 feet off the ground. The land between the death line and the fence was a free fire killing zone. Many a Union prisoner would end his agony by simply walking within the bounds and inviting a shot. The prison was destined to last for only 14 months. Originally built to house 6000 prisoners, it would swell to over 32,000 by 1865. The small creek, called Stockade Creek became the sole source of water until late in the year when a well broke through after a storm. One end of the creek was for drinking and the other end was for human waste. Baths were taken in the middle. The creek was blocked at its exit to prevent contamination further downstream. There simply were no housing facilities inside the stockade. The prisoners were marched into the stockade and turned loose to fend for themselves. They had a tendency to group together according to States. All the boys from Ohio being in one place and the ones from Indiana in another. With no shelter it was every man for himself. Gathering whatever material they could find on the ground or acquire on many of the out-of-stockade details, small lean-to structures were built.As we walked through the site with our guide, Jennifer Gainous, she explained that these shelters were known as Shebangs, and usually held from 4 to 6 people. As conditions worsened, the death rate from disease rapidly increased until there were over 100 people a day dying from heat, exposure and illness. It is believed that an expression was born of the devastation. If you woke up in your shelter to find that all the others in there with you had died during the night, you were said to have "The whole shebang" to yourself, until others found out and moved in. The man responsible for the prison was a Confederate Army Captain named Henry A Wirz. Captain Wirz was a Swiss born American who joined the Confederacy as a Sergeant. He was hit in the right wrist with a mini-ball at the Battle of Seven Pines. With a wound that would have sent most soldiers home, he continued on, being promoted to Captain and serving in several ranking administrative positions before being assigned to prison duty which resulted in his duties at Andersonville.