Andersonville Prison, Race, and the Whitewashing of History

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andersonville.JPG

The Deadline at Andersonville.

andersonville shanty.JPG


African American Shanty at Andersonville.

We know of the suffering and death at Andersonville prison during its fourteen months as a Confederate prison for captured Union soldiers in 1864 and 1865. After the war, it was a focal point of African American resistance to white supremacy, white terror, and the efforts of the adherents of the Lost Cause to rewrite and erase history.

Adam H. Domby is assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, had an interesting article in the September issue of Civil War History entitled The Contested Legacy of Race at Andersonville National Historic Site. Dombyis tells I story I had never heard before, that perhaps bears some examination here.
 
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Professor Domby begins his article with the story of the Reconstruction Era attack by a white mob on a group of 200 freedpeople living on the site of the former Andersonville prison. After the prisoners had been liberated by the army, the army took possession of the stockade and began the creation of the cemetery there. The area of the stockade not being used for the cemetery was turned over to former slaves by the military commander. Many of them worked at the cemetery interring the remains of the prisoners and performing other work. When the military commander was called away to Marietta, the pre-war owner of the land took action against the blacks. According to Domby:

Turner Hall’s faith was surely tested on July 29, 1868, when a mob of his white neighbors destroyed his home in Sumter County, Georgia. He could do nothing as the crowd of armed men struck his neighborhood. The inhabitants—all recently freed from slavery—must have feared for their lives. Members of the mob entered each dwelling in turn, tossing belongings into the yards. Then they nailed the doors shut from the inside before climbing out of the holes they broke in the ceilings. The mob included the county sheriff as well as most of the white men who lived within a ten-mile radius. Benjamin Dykes, the local planter who led the mob, had owned much of the land on which these freedpeople resided before the war. Now three years after the war, he intended to reclaim what had been his. Aided by armed whites, Dykes turned “out thirty odd families,” or around two hundred people, from their homes. Stunned and outgunned, the unarmed freedpeople could do nothing for the moment. As they stood homeless with their possessions scattered about, it began to rain. That weekend, the mob returned to burn at least nine dwellings and destroy the freedpeople’s crops.

The expelled African Americans were now blacklisted by local whites and could find neither employment nor housing. Many moved away.
 

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Domby writes that a contest over the memory of what happened at Andersonville developed after the war:

While postwar southern defenses of Confederate treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) display a Lost Cause version of Andersonville’s past, the countless prisoner narratives published after the war were rarely forgiving. As Caroline Janney and M. Keith Harris have correctly pointed out, although many northerners “promoted reunion, they were not necessarily calling for reconciliation,” as the two terms “are related but not interchangeable.”7 Indeed, the version of the past created by former captives was often embittered and unforgiving. For many years, the dominant discussion about Andersonville within white newspapers continued to center on who bore responsibility for the suffering at the camp. Not until significantly after the war did a strong “reconciliationist memory” calling for bygones to be bygones develop among many former prisoners—and even then, forgiveness often remained conditional. White southerners’ refusal to admit their poor treatment of prisoners constantly hampered efforts at reconciliation, as former prisoners and their descendants refused to accept a Lost Cause narrative of the prison.
 

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Do many Civil War readers realize that some of the worst Civil War prison camps only existed after the Emancipation Proclamation? I wonder how many associate Elmira and Andersonville with the USCT. According to Domby:

From its inception, Andersonville Prison was linked to African American freedom and white supremacy. Not only was the prison built during a war fought over slavery, but its creation became necessary due to a fundamental disagreement over race and prisoners of war: were black soldiers to be treated differently than white soldiers? During the early years of the war, prisoners were frequently paroled and exchanged. Initially on an ad hoc basis, often overseen by opposing army commanders, the two sides signed a formal exchange agreement in July 1862...When the United States began enlisting black troops in 1863, fears of slave insurrection swept the Confederacy. In response, Confederate president Jefferson Davis declared that captured black troops would be sold into slavery, and white officers leading them would be tried for inciting a slave insurrection, a crime punishable by death. The Lincoln administration initially ended the exchange because the Confederacy refused to treat all Union troops equally. Forced to house increasing numbers of captured troops, Confederate authorities soon found the Richmond prisons overwhelmed. Bad sanitation and fears of a mass breakout in the Confederate capital forced Confederate authorities to locate a new prison farther south. In December 1863, slaves began construction of a stockade in southern Georgia outside the small hamlet of Andersonville.
 

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Rather than locate the cessation of prisoner exchanges with the treatment of black soldiers, post-war Lost Cause accounts blamed Ulysses Grant for the starvation at Andersonville. Domby writes:

Confederate accounts of prisons almost unanimously placed the blame on northern leaders because starving Union prisoners to death contradicted the myth of white southerners’ moral superiority. This exculpation of white southern guilt was premised on the fact that Union authorities ceased exchanging prisoners, leading to the deadly overcrowding at Andersonville. This white southern version of the past conveniently ignored the fact that the Confederacy’s refusal to recognize black Union prisoners as legitimate soldiers had led to the exchange’s suspension. Even in their denials of moral responsibility, local propagators of a southern white version of the past displayed a discomfort with the reality of what occurred. In 1911, just ten miles up the railroad from Andersonville, in Montezuma, Georgia, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) unveiled a monument to the Confederate soldiers of Macon County. Its inscription is revealing: “NO NATION ROSE SO FAIR AND WHITE OR FELL SO PROUD AND PURE OF CRIME.”
 

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There were early questions of what to do with the site:

In addition to debates over what occurred, the reunited nation also faced the question of what to do with the physical site at Andersonville. The fate of the prison grounds became especially pertinent after a team including famed nurse Clara Barton oversaw the marking of the approximately thirteen thousand graves in the nearby cemetery. In August 1865, the day before Barton first raised the American flag over the newly designated Andersonville National Cemetery, the New York Times published an editorial titled “Shall the Rebel Barbarities Be Remembered or Forgotten?” In attempting to answer the question of how the war should be remembered, the article declared: “We believe that such a positive good is to be gained by preserving the memorials of rebel cruelty. The thing most needed since the prostration of the rebellion is to make it odious and infamous. It is not so now in the South. The great body of the people there yet speak of it with respect.” Only by preserving a memory of Andersonville could the North force white southerners to recognize the Confederacy’s culpability and thus “repudiate the rebellion,” wrote the author.17 The Times was not alone in its opinion: the famed poet Walt Whitman expressed the sentiments of many when he wrote of Andersonville: “There are deeds, crimes, that may be forgiven; but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless ****ation.”18Despite such calls for remembrance, once Barton’s team finished the laborious process of identification of the graves, the question of what to do with the prison site was largely forgotten.
 

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African Americans were allowed to move on to the prison grounds soon after was ended. Symbolically, a black school was opened in what had been the hospital for the prison guards. The school taught children by day and adults at night.

African Americans made Andersonville a special site of commemoration. Domby writes:

In an effort to define the meaning of the war, African Americans purposefully linked the sacrifices and sufferings of the prisoners at Andersonville with their own freedom struggles. Memorial Day celebrations at Andersonville made manifest African Americans’ distinct understanding of the prison’s past. Each May, thousands of freedmen began traveling to Andersonville to decorate the graves within the cemetery, imbuing the actual site with special importance, even as the physical remains of the prison were “being eradicated” from the landscape.25 As early as 1870, newspapers reported that large numbers of African Americans were annually traveling to Andersonville on May 30 for Decoration Day, or, as it became known locally, “Andersonville Day.” Railroad companies ran special excursion trains from around the region. One observer of the 1888 Decoration Day celebration described a lively scene: “The morning was spent by the negroes in strolling over the grounds and decorating the graves.” In the afternoon, two black militia companies drilled, and ceremonies included speakers and prayers. A brass band, ice cream cake vendors, and an “all you can drink for a nickle” lemonade stand contributed to the festive atmosphere. That year, approximately two to three thousand African Americans attended the festivities at Andersonville. As the celebrations grew in popularity, African American attendees continued to vastly outnumber white visitors. According to one account, of the ten to twenty thousand people estimated to have traveled to Andersonville for the celebrations in 1891, approximately 90 percent were black.
 

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Blacks who participated in the Andersonville Day commemorations used the time together to celebrate their new freedom to travel, to gather together in large numbers, to enjoy a picnic with other former slaves. They also asserted a commonality with the former prisoners. They had all been imprisoned by white Southerners, hunted by dogs if they tried to escape, and punished with pain for infractions.

Blacks could also remind Northern whites that the graves of their dead brothers were kept by the Black community in the South. Domby writes:

The honoring of the Union dead also complemented African American claims to citizenship and equality. In 1883, a black newspaper editor in Kansas declared, “Who is there to visit and scatter flowers upon the graves of that vast city of the union dead at Andersonville but the black man?” The editor recognized that Decoration Day ceremonies allowed black veterans to remind the nation, “There is no ‘Union’ save that which was consecrated and made permanent by [black] blood mingled along side of that of the white soldier.”31 The decoration of graves at Andersonville by former African American soldiers was thus not simply a tribute to dead countrymen. Ownership of Andersonville’s memory demonstrated African American equality with—and even moral superiority over—disloyal white southerners.
 

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In 1890 the GAR bought the land to create a memorial park. In the 1890s the white veterans turned the Memorial Day ceremonies into somber occasions, taking control of them away from the black community that had organized them for the previous three decades. Black militia units that used to parade at the site were replaced by white Southern militiamen who seemed intent on intimidating the blacks who still came on Memorial Day. Domby writes:

The racism of white Union veterans further contributed to the end of Andersonville Day ceremonies. Some white veterans desired the exclusion of African Americans from the Memorial Day festivities, even as the ceremonies celebrated Union valor. The local posts of the Georgia Department of the Grand Army of the Republic were segregated, and the all-white E. S. Jones post had little interest in including African Americans as they planned the annual observances.41 The changing mood of the formal ceremonies would have discouraged African Americans from attending the official events. Increasingly, African Americans gathered separately, often near the train station, to picnic and celebrate, leaving the cemetery to the GAR and local whites.

Those black visitors who pushed past the white militia company must have been dismayed at what they found. In 1890 and 1891, former Confederates delivered keynote addresses that stressed reconciliation between whites, North and South. During his 1891 speech, former Confederate J. F. Hanson related how “the Federal Government did not wage war upon the South for the purpose of destroying slavery. It was a war for Union, and . . . the people of the North . . . would never have volunteered for the purpose of destroying slavery in the Union.” Hanson did not end here in cutting African Americans from the story. One can only imagine the disgust a black veteran might have felt upon hearing Hanson declare: “The negro is not responsible for residence or citizenship in this country. . . . In patient submission he wore the chains that were riveted upon him, and remained a passive witness for fifty years of the struggle he innocently provoked. He did not ask for freedom, nor the ballot with which to protect it.” Is it any surprise that African Americans stopped attending the speeches, especially given that Hanson’s address then shifted from the war to discuss why “it is best for the negro that white men should rule”? Undoubtedly, few African Americans would have agreed with Hanson’s conclusion that southern whites should use “stringent” voter qualifications to ensure white rule, to legally disenfranchise freedmen without explicitly mentioning race.43 In a reversal of how African Americans had used the history of the site to lay claim to citizenship, Hanson was trying to use a perverted version of the past to justify taking the vote from them.
 

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The effort by Southern whites to bar blacks from a role in the memory of Andersonville was soon transformed into an effort to take control of the Andersonville narrative by depicting it as a place where a white Southerner had been persecuted and killed:

On May 12, 1909, just a few weeks before Andersonville Day, the Georgia United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a monument to Henry Wirz, Andersonville’s commandant during the war, just outside the prison grounds. Though northern veterans condemned the monument for celebrating the Confederacy’s crimes, thousands of white Georgians took special excursion trains to see the unveiling. This granite monument honoring a Confederate executed for war crimes angered Union veterans, undermining efforts at reconciliation. The monument aimed to rescue Wirz’s name and celebrate him as a martyr to the Confederacy. As a monument to the Lost Cause and, implicitly, white supremacy, the obelisk left a physical stamp on the land that declared the Confederacy irreproachable and untarnished.
 

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The Southern white revisionist history was not uncontested. Domby describes one incident in which World War I soldiers painted the Wirz monument in the colors of the German flag:

The outcry over this defacement was immediate, and newspaper editorials called for justice. Recognizing a public relations disaster, a military court-martial tried one enlisted man and sentenced him to three months’ hard labor. Additionally, a military spokesman declared, “I am firmly convinced that it was not done through any feeling against the Southern People.” The use of German colors—directly after World War I, no less—and the soldiers’ decision to drive to Andersonville to deface the obelisk nonetheless undermined the spokesman’s effort to portray this as “done simply out of a spirit of vandalism.” The intent was clearly to link the foreign-born Wirz with recently defeated Germany. White Georgians took this desecration seriously; Georgia governor Hugh Dorsey even offered to request the extradition from California of two former soldiers who had been implicated. For the offended white southerners, the attack upon Wirz’s legacy was a condemnation of the Confederacy and all it represented.
 

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In the 1930s, Georgians interested in offering a "true history" of Andersonville devoid of Confederate responsibility for the suffering there made efforts at turning the stockade area into a garden. This was resisted by Union veterans who saw it as an effort to impose Lost Cause romanticism on a place of suffering. The Union groups began involving African Americans in their Memorial Day celebrations once again.

The ability of the story of the prison to still arouse resistance among some Southern whites was exemplified when the play The Andersonville Trial came South. In 1960, the play was cancelled in Atlanta and Birmingham by its producers because it was considered so controversial. This was a play about a trial that happened 95 years earlier!
 

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The creation of Andersonville National Historic Site owed a lot to the economic boost that local Georgians though the place could give:

With so much attention on Andersonville, a group of prominent southern Georgians, including future president Jimmy Carter, began lobbying for the designation of Andersonville as a National Historic Site. There had long been local interest in the economic benefits of tourism to the infamous prison. In 1890, a local paper reporting the GAR’s purchase of the site had noted the potential profit that might be realized from such a famous site.81 The Andersonville Memorial Association had recognized that a peace garden would not only reinterpret the meaning of the site in a manner more positive toward the South, but it would also provide an incentive for tourists to visit. Carter, who had grown up about twenty miles away from the site, and other backers recognized the economic advantages that would result from such a designation. One estimate put expected visitation at 30,200 a year by 1975. Throughout the process, there were no objections locally, but supporters were always careful to state that the National Park Service (NPS) would provide an “accurate and unbiased account” in an effort to avert any protests.83 With the dual aim of avoiding controversy and keeping the park relevant, the 1970 act creating Andersonville National Historic Site stated as its mission the interpreting of “the role of prisoner-of-war camps in history, to commemorate the sacrifice of Americans who lost their lives in such camps.” The site would then commemorate not only the Civil War but all American wars. The narrative presented at Andersonville would be universalized, making specific wars insignificant by focusing on a shared collective prisoner experience across all conflicts.
 

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Andersonville came to be associated less with the Civil War and black freedom, and more with the then raging Vietnam War. As Boch wrote, you have to understand the present to understand the past, or at least what is interpreted about the past. Henry Wirtz was seen as an analogue to Lt. Calley. POWs of the Vietnam War were in the new Anersonvilles.

Since the places where Americans were held captive in Vietnam could never be National Parks, Andersonville would be used as the place to commemorate them and the POWs of other wars. While visitors accept this without much reflection today, it is a really odd thing, isn't it? Imagine going to Gettysburg and finding out that a lot of the museum is about D-Day!
 

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Domby writes:

Universalizing Andersonville’s story to include all American POWs made the site a monument to American service members across all wars, at the expense of diluting the site’s significance as a reminder of Confederate inhumanity. The mission given to Andersonville National Historic Site called for a narrative that depicted former prisoners as suffering willingly for their nation—not unlike the memoires written in the decades after the war. But by including the willful suffering of prisoners in every conflict in which the United States was a belligerent, the new narrative neglected to look at the imprisoners’ agency and their role in causing said suffering. As Andersonville’s narrative became a universal story of sacrifice, the old narrative of Confederate barbarity became less remarkable. After all, POWs suffered in all wars, according to the congressionally mandated interpretation of the site.
 

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In the 1970s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) waged a campaign against the designation of Andersonville as a National Historic Site. Even though the new historic site was set to dilute the Civil War association of Andersonville, the UDC still mounted a national letter writing campaign against its preservation. Even when the necessary legislation passed in Congress, the Confederate heritage groups fought to repeal it in the name of preserving Southern history.

For example, Mary Lore Moore, the president of the North Carolina division of the UDC, wrote Senator Sam Ervin a letter calling for rescinding the designation. She wrote that she could “not see how any community—no matter how poor or backward—can be so hungry for the tourist trade as to betray their ancestors and their heritage.” She said that creating the Andersonville historic site might cause her children to “lose even more of their basic rights.” Moore requested advice from Ervin on “anything we can do to slow down this mad attempt to stifle our southern heritage and culture.” To her, the preservation of the site was an attack on “southern heritage and culture."
 

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Domby says that, whatever the fears of the UDC, the historic site that the NPS established was diluted in its message:

But what of the site today? How has the NPS interpreted its mandate to create a universalized narrative of American POW history that the site would tell visitors? Since 1970, the NPS has struggled to present a narrative of the POW experience that includes both Andersonville’s unique history and commemorates all American POWs. In completing its stated mission, the NPS incidentally succeeded where the AMA’s intentional efforts failed. By turning a site of tragedy from disunion into a place of celebration of patriotism, the NPS was forced to brush over aspects of Andersonville’s unique legacy, a past that had made it a contested space for over a century.
 



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