Further Reflections: Andersonville lessons still call out to us
Jan. 24, 2014

Timothy Walch

“Andersonville” — it’s a place that evokes the inhumanity of one brother toward another. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of that notorious Confederate prison where 13,000 Union soldiers died between 1864 and 1865.

Located about 100 miles south of Atlanta, Camp Sumter was commonly known by the name of a small village a few miles away. But Andersonville was more than a place on a map. The squalid conditions in the camp came to define the very horror of wartime captivity. There were other Confederate prisons, of course, but Andersonville was the worst and generated anger and sorrow for generations after the war.

Filled with prisoners well beyond its capacity, the camp became a breeding ground for disease. The lack of adequate shelter left many to suffer in the elements, and the lack of food meant that many men slowly starved to death. Those soldiers who survived Andersonville were changed forever.

And the memories did not fade. In May of 1884, nearly two decades after the war, Iowa journalist Benjamin Gue traveled south to reflect on the sacrifices made by thousands of young Iowans in that horrible place. He published his account on May 30 in the Iowa State Register, a predecessor of this newspaper.

Gue wrote that his first challenge was to locate the prison. When he asked about “Andersonville,” Southerners feigned ignorance or denied that such a place had ever existed. “Andersonville is not to be found on any map in the South,” wrote Gue. “I carefully searched, not only the railroad maps, but all others to be found at bookstores and on none — not even in the railroad guides — can this place be discovered.”

A chance meeting with a former resident of Fort Dodge provided Gue with the information he needed. “The ‘ville’ had been dropped,” observed Gue, “in order to better disguise the spot that has become a synonym for more fiendish barbarity and cold blooded cruelty, than was ever before perpetrated by a people professing civilization since the days of the thumbscrew, the rack and the faggot.”

In his story Gue told the woeful history of the camp and included a list of the 201 Iowans who had died there “so that their names may go out in the Register to the thousands of homes all over our fair State and again revive the memory of those who so bravely suffered and nobly died for us twenty years ago.”

And Iowa never forgot Andersonville as long as there were veterans alive to give testimony. Over the next half century, on front porches across the state, old men regaled wide-eyed youth about what had happened in Georgia.

That was the case in Webster City in the 1930s, when an impressionable young boy named Benjamin McKinlay Kantor first heard about the camp. Kantor later channeled what he heard into a literary tour de force titled, simply, “Andersonville.” First published in 1955, the book is still in print and is considered by many to be one of the greatest Civil War novels of all time.

For Kantor, writing the book was a spiritual experience. He visited Andersonville many times and always sensed the presence of the prisoners buried there. In fact, he wrote that those ghost soldiers sustained him in his work.

“I am grateful to those many boys I heard walking toward me in the rain on that dark February 5-o’clock-in-the-morning,” Kantor wrote of one visit in 1953. “I hope that I have kept the pledge they seemed

[to be] extracting; and that they and others will approve.”

Memorial Day is the traditional time to remember those who have given their lives for this nation. But this month we are also called to remember the Civil War prisoners who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, gave their last full measure of devotion to this nation. Among these are the men who died at Andersonville. May they forever rest in peace.

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