In the Hell on Wheels Handbook, AMCtv.com takes a deeper look at the real history behind The Swede’s story about Andersonville Prison in Episode 2.
The Andersonville Civil War Prison (also known as Camp Sumter) was one of the largest Confederate prison camps during the Civil War. Over the course of 14 months, 45,000 Union soldiers passed through the prison — and nearly 13,000 of them died from conditions like diarrhea, dysentery and starvation. When Harper’s Weekly published photos of prisoners after the war, Americans were shocked to see POWs reduced to skin and bones.
The 16-acre prison opened in Andersonville, GA, in February of 1864, intended to hold 10,000 prisoners. By June, the population had ballooned to twice that size. “Place so full can Scarcely Walk,” wrote one miserable prisoner. Confederates hastily built an extra 10 acres, but the prison was still overcrowded and low on resources. Food was especially scarce; a typical daily meal for the prisoners was a slice of cornbread and a paltry piece of pork, and the food was often rotten. “This is no other than a place of Starvation — a disgrace to any Government,” the same prisoner wrote.
Many POWs lacked basic shelter and clothing to protect them from the elements. “A good many tore up their underclothes, shirts, drawers, &c., and sewed them together and managed to make a little shelter,” recounted a prisoner. Despite rampant conditions like scurvy and gangrene, medical supplies were in short supply. “Many undressed wounds were fly-blown and swarming with maggots,” wrote an imprisoned Union captain.
Prisoners didn’t just die from disease: They were also killed if they crossed “the deadline,” a line of wooden posts that stood about 19 feet from the stockades. Prisoners who ventured beyond this line were liable to be shot by sentinels. Some men, desperate to end their misery, intentionally stepped over the line.
After the war, Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant at Andersonville Prison, was found guilty of “conspiring to impair and injure the health and destroy the lives of federal prisoners” and “murder in violation of the laws of war.” Many prisoners testified against him, though some supporters argued that he was a scapegoat who was merely following orders. Either way, he was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865.
After the war ended in April 1865, nurse Clara Barton and former prisoner Dorence Atwater marked the graves of the dead prisoners who were buried in shallow graves near the prison. The government has since designated it as a national cemetery.