The Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, was the most infamous of the American Civil War. Subject to disease, massive overcrowding, and lack of food and water, the prison, which held forty-five thousand men during the course of the war, and at which thirteen thousand died, became emblematic of the sufferings of captured soldiers during the war. This account by soldier Prescott Tracy of his experience at Andersonville was part of an attempt by the United States Sanitary Commission to record the conditions faced by Union prisoners during the Civil War.
The following "Account of the Sufferings of Union Prisoners of War at Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Georgia" was given by Private Prescott Tracy on August 16, 1864, for the report Narrative of Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers and Soldiers while Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Rebel Authorities by the United States Sanitary Commission. The full text of these accounts are made available online by Archive.org.
I am a private in the 82nd New York Regiment of Volunteers, Company G. I was captured with about eight hundred Federal troops, in front of Petersburg, on the 22nd of June, 1864. We were kept at Petersburg two days, at Richmond, Belle Isle, three days, then conveyed by rail to Lynchburg. Marched seventy-five miles to Danville, thence by rail to Andersonville, Georgia. At Petersburg we were treated fairly, being under the guard of old soldiers of an Alabama regiment; at Richmond we came under the authority of the notorious and inhuman Major Turner, and the equally notorious Home Guard. Our ration was a pint of beans, four ounces of bread, and three ounces of meat a day. Another batch of prisoners joining us, we left Richmond sixteen hundred strong.
All blankets, haversacks, canteens, money, valuables of every kind, extra clothing, and in some cases, the last shirt and drawers had been previously taken from us.
At Lynchburg we were placed under the Home Guard, officered by Major and Captain Moffett. The march to Danville was a weary and painful one of five days, under a torrid sun; many of us falling helpless by the way, and soon filling the empty wagons of our train. On the first day we received a little meat, but the sum of our rations for the five days was thirteen crackers. During the six days by rail to Andersonville, meat was given us twice, and the daily ration was four crackers.
On entering the Stockade Prison, we found it crowded with twenty-eight thousand of our fellow-soldiers. By crowded, I mean that it was difficult to move in any direction without jostling and being jostled. This prison is an open space, sloping on both sides, originally seventeen acres, now twenty-five acres, in the shape of a parallelogram, without trees or shelter of any kind. The soil is sand over a bottom of clay. The fence is made of upright trunks of trees, about twenty feet high, near the top of which are small platforms, where the guards are stationed. Twenty feet inside and parallel to the fence is a light railing, forming the "dead line," beyond which the projection of a foot or finger is sure to bring the deadly bullet of the sentinel.
Through the grounds, at nearly right-angles with the longer sides, runs or rather creeps a stream through an artificial channel, varying from five to six feet in width, the water about ankle deep, and near the middle of the enclosure, spreading out into a swamp of about six acres, filled with refuse wood, stumps, and debris of the camp. Before entering this enclosure, the stream, or more properly sewer, passes through the camp of the guards, receiving from this source, and others farther up, a large amount of the vilest material, even the contents of the sink. The water is of a dark color, and an ordinary glass would collect a thick sediment. This was our only drinking and cooking water. It was our custom to filter it as best we could, through our remnants of haversacks, shirts, and blouses. Wells had been dug, but the water either proved so productive of diarrhea, or so limited in quantity that they were of no general use. The cookhouse was situated on the stream just outside the stockade, and its refuse of decaying offal was thrown into the water, a greasy coating covering much of the surface. To these was added the daily large amount of base matter from the camp itself. There was a system of policing, but the means was so limited, and so large a number of the men were rendered irresolute and depressed by imprisonment, that the work was very imperfectly done. One side of the swamp was naturally used as a sink, the men usually going out some distance into the water. Under the summer sun this place early became corruption too vile for description, the men breeding disgusting life, so that the surface of the water moved as with a gentle breeze.
The newcomers, on reaching this, would exclaim: "Is this hell?" yet they soon would become callous, and enter unmoved the horrible rottenness. The rebel authorities never removed any filth. There was seldom any visitation by the officers in charge. Two surgeons were at one time sent by President Davis to inspect the camp, but a walk through a small section gave them all the information they desired, and we never saw them again.
The guards usually numbered about sixty-four—eight at each end, and twenty-four on a side. On the outside, within three hundred yards, were fortifications, on high ground overlooking and perfectly commanding us, mounting twenty-four twelve-pound Napoleon Parrotts. We were never permitted to go outside, except at times, in small squads, to gather our firewood. During the building of the cookhouse, a few, who were carpenters, were ordered out to assist.
Our only shelter from the sun and rain and night dews was what we could make by stretching over us our coats of scraps of blankets, which a few had, but generally there was no attempt by day or night to protect ourselves.
The rations consisted of eight ounces of corn bread (the cob being ground with the kernel), and generally sour; two ounces of condemned pork, offensive in appearance and smell. Occasionally, about twice a week, two tablespoonfuls of rice, and in place of the pork the same amount (two tablespoonfuls) of molasses was given us about twice a month. This ration was brought into camp about four o'clock p. m., and thrown from the wagons to the ground, the men being arranged in divisions of two hundred and seventy, subdivided into squads of nineties and thirties. It was the custom to consume the whole ration at once, rather than save any for the next day. The distribution being often unequal some would lose the rations altogether. We were allowed no dish or cooking utensil of any kind. On opening the camp in the winter, the first two thousand prisoners were allowed skillets, one to fifty men, but these were soon taken away. To the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, our ration was in quality a starving one, it being either too foul to be touched or too raw to be digested.
The cookhouse went into operation about May 10, prior to which we cooked our own rations. It did not prove at all adequate to the work (thirty thousand is a large town), so that a large proportion were still obliged to prepare their own food. In addition to the utter inability of many to do this, through debility and sickness, we never had a supply of wood. I have often seen men with a little bag of meal in hand, gathered from several rations, starving to death for want of wood, and in desperation would mix the raw material with water and try to eat it.
The clothing of the men was miserable in the extreme. Very few had shoes of any kind, not two thousand had coats and pants, and those were latecomers. More than one-half were indecently exposed, and many were naked.
The usual punishment was to place the men in the stocks, outside, near the Captain's quarters. If a man was missing at roll call, the squad of ninety to which he belonged was deprived of the ration. The "dead-line" bullet, already referred to, spared no offender. One poor fellow, just from Sherman's army, his name was Roberts, was trying to wash his face near the "dead-line" railing, when he slipped on the clayey bottom, and fell with his head just outside the fatal border. We shouted to him, but it was too late. "Another guard would have a furlough," the men said. It was a common belief among our men, arising from statements made by the guard, that General Winder, in command, issued an order that any one of the guard who should shoot a Yankee outside of the "dead-line" should have a month's furlough, but there probably was no truth in this. About two a day were thus shot, some being cases of suicide, brought on by mental depression or physical misery, the poor fellows throwing themselves, or madly rushing outside the "line."
The mental condition of a large portion of the men was melancholy, beginning in despondency and tending to a kind of stolid and idiotic indifference. Many spent much time in arousing and encouraging their fellows, but hundreds were lying about motionless, or stalking vacantly to and fro, quite beyond any help which could be given them within their prison walls. These cases were frequent among those who had been imprisoned but a short time. There were those who were captured at the first Bull Run, July 1861, and had known Belle Isle from the first, yet had preserved their physical and mental health to a wonderful degree. Many were wise and resolute enough to keep themselves occupied, some in cutting bone and wood ornaments, making their knives out of iron hoops, others in manufacturing ink from the rust from these same hoops, and with rude pens sketching or imitating bank notes or any sample that would involve long and patient execution.
Letters from home very seldom reached us, and few had any means of writing. In the early summer, a large batch of letters, five thousand we were told, arrived, having been accumulating somewhere for many months. These were brought into camp by an officer, under orders to collect ten cents on each. Of course most were returned, and we heard no more of them. One of my companions saw among them three from his parents, but he was unable to pay the charge. According to the rules of transmission of letters over the lines, these letters must have already paid ten cents each to the rebel government.
As far as we saw General Winder and Captain Wirtz, the former was kind and considerate in his manners, the latter harsh, though not without kindly feelings.
It is a melancholy and mortifying fact, that some of our trials came from our own men. At Belle Isle and Andersonville there were among us a gang of desperate men, ready to prey on their fellows. Not only thefts and robberies, but even murders were committed. Affairs became so serious at Camp Sumter that an appeal was made to General Winder, who authorized an arrest and trial by a criminal court. Eighty-six were arrested, and six were hung, beside others who were severely punished. These proceedings effected a marked change for the better.
Some few weeks before being released, I was ordered to act as clerk in the hospital. This consists simply of a few scattered trees and fly tents, and is in charge of Dr. White, an excellent and considerate man, with very limited means, but doing all in his power for his patients. He has twenty-five assistants, besides those detailed to examine for admittance to the hospital. This examination was made in a small stockade attached to the main one, to the inside door of which the sick came or were brought by their comrades, the number to be removed being limited. Lately, in consideration of the rapidly increasing sickness, it was extended to one hundred and fifty daily. That this was too small an allowance is shown by the fact that the deaths within our stockade were from thirty to forty a day. I have seen one hundred and fifty bodies waiting passage to the "dead house," to be buried with those who died in hospital. The average of deaths through the earlier months was thirty a day; at the time I left, the average was over one hundred and thirty, and one day the record showed one hundred and forty-six.
The proportion of deaths from starvation, not including those consequent on the diseases originating in the character and limited quantity of food, such as diarrhea, dysentery, and scurvy, I cannot state; but, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, there were scores every month. We could, at any time, point out many for whom such a fate was inevitable, as they lay or feebly walked, mere skeletons, whose emaciation exceeded the examples given in Leslie's Illustrated for June 18, 1864. For example: in some cases the inner edges of the two bones of the arms, between the elbow and the wrist, with the intermediate blood vessels, were plainly visible when held toward the light. The ration, in quantity, was perhaps barely sufficient to sustain life, and the cases of starvation were generally those whose stomachs could not retain what had become entirely indigestible.
For a man to find, on waking, that his comrade by his side was dead, was an occurrence too common to be noted. I have seen death in almost all the forms of the hospital and battlefield, but the daily scenes in Camp exceeded in the extremity of misery all my previous experience.
The work of burial is performed by our own men, under guard and orders, twenty-five bodies being placed in a single pit, without headboards, and the sad duty performed with indecent haste. Sometimes our men were rewarded for this work with a few sticks of firewood, and I have known them to quarrel over a dead body for the job.
Dr. White is able to give the patients a diet but little better than the prison rations a little flour porridge, arrowroot, whiskey, and wild or hog tomatoes. In the way of medicine, I saw nothing but camphor, whiskey, and a decoction of some kind of bark-white oak, I think. He often expressed his regret that he had not more medicines. The limitation of military orders, under which the surgeon in charge was placed, is shown by the following occurrence: A supposed private, wounded in the thigh, was under treatment in the hospital, when it was discovered that he was a major of a colored regiment. The assistant-surgeon, under whose immediate charge he was, proceeded at once, not only to remove him, but to kick him out, and he was returned to the stockade, to shift for himself as well as he could. Dr. White could not or did not attempt to restore him.
After entering on my duties at the hospital, I was occasionally favored with double rations and some wild tomatoes. A few of our men succeeded, in spite of the closest examination of our clothes, in secreting some greenbacks, and with these were able to buy useful articles at exorbitant prices: a tea-cup of flour at one dollar; eggs, three to six dollars a dozen; salt, four dollars a pound; molasses, thirty dollars a gallon; nigger beans, a small, inferior article (diet of the slaves and pigs, but highly relished by us), fifty cents a pint. These figures, multiplied by ten, will give very nearly the price in Confederate currency. Though the country abounded in pine and oak, sticks were sold to us at various prices, according to size.
Our men, especially the mechanics, were tempted with the offer of liberty and large wages to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, but it was very rare that their patriotism, even under such a fiery trial, ever gave way. I carry this message from one of my companions to his mother: "My treatment here is killing me, mother, but I die cheerfully for my country."
Some attempts were made to escape, but wholly in vain, for if the prison walls and guards were passed and the protecting woods reached, the bloodhounds were sure to find us out.
Tunneling was once attempted on a large scale, but on the afternoon preceding the night fixed on for escape, an officer rode in and announced to us that the plot was discovered, and from our huge pen we could see on the hill above us the regiments just arriving to strengthen the guard. We had been betrayed. It was our belief that spies were kept in the camp, which could very easily be done.
The number in camp when I left was nearly thirty-five thousand, and daily increasing. The number in hospital was about five thousand. I was exchanged at Port Royal Ferry, August 16th.