An upcoming Veterans Day seemed the appropriate time for a visit to Andersonville National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service that serves as a memorial to America’s prisoners of war.
We discovered the National Park Service had scheduled several special events for the Veterans Day weekend.
Kay was fortunate to be present on April 9, 1998, when Sen. John McCain, a former POW in Vietnam, offered remarks during the dedication of the National Prisoner of War Museum but neither of us had visited for more than a decade.
Andersonville, witness to unimaginable misery, has become a place of learning and remembering, and also of final peace for soldiers who have been laid to rest. Terrible suffering took place where today’s visitors come to honor those who served their country.
The park consists of three interrelated parts: a former Confederate prisoner of war site, a national cemetery and a prisoner of war museum. Each alone is worth a visit. Being able to experience all three during a single stop is a bonus.
Our first stop was the park visitor center where we picked up an information folder and map plus a guide to the POW museum. The theater shows two 25-minute films that offer visitors some idea of the misery suffered by POWs.
The visitor center includes a sales area for books related to the subject of prisoners of war. The National Prisoner of War Museum houses dimly lit themed exhibit rooms that describe, in chronological order, the experiences of a POW from capture to freedom.
Themes include living conditions, privation and relationships. Particularly riveting are video interviews with friends, relatives and spouses regarding how they coped during the time loved ones were being held as POWs.
Following our tour of the museum, it was time to walk though the former Confederate POW camp once known as Camp Sumter.
The camp opened in February 1864. Just more than 16 acres in size, it was surrounded by a 15-foot stockade built with slave labor.
The camp’s location in South Georgia satisfied several military criteria: it was remote from the fighting, had a source of fresh water, was near a rail link and was heavily wooded to provide a source for timber.
We were fortunate to be able to join Katherine Williamson’s guided walking tour of the prison site.
During our walk, we learned that although the camp was designed for 10,000 prisoners, by August of 1964 the prison had been expanded and held more than 32,000 POWs who had no shelter and little food or water. Conditions were worse than miserable and nearly 13,000 soldiers died, mostly from disease and starvation, during the 14 months the prison was in operation.
Our tour ended at a replicaportion of the stockade that included the prison gate. Katherine asked us to image ourselves as Union POWs as we stepped through the opening.
The replica represents only a small portion of the stockade whose border ismarked with white posts.
Following Katherine’s tour, we walked about the grounds while viewing the numerous monuments when we came upon Mark Hale who was portraying Father Peter Whelan, a Catholic priest who ministered to both Northern and Southern prisoners of war.
Soldiers who died in Andersonville prison were buried prior to the grounds becoming a national cemetery in July of 1865. By 1868 total burials numbered nearly 14,000, a number that today has grown to more than 20,000.
Andersonville National Cemetery is one of 14 national cemeteries managed by the National Park Service, and one of only two that remains active.
We have visited a number of national cemeteries through the years, each of which was peaceful, sobering, and quite beautiful. Andersonville was no exception.
During Veterans Day weekend, the cemetery was decorated with its Avenue of Flags, an array of American flags flanking both sides of the main drive that leads from the main gate into the cemetery. Wreaths will decorate the gravesites during December.
After spending most of Saturday morning and early afternoon at the historic site we returned for a rare evening program that included April Baldwin talk about African Americans at Andersonville.
This was followed by a stroll down an outside walkway lit by candle lanterns to the prison site where soldiers were gathered around a campfire.
There, we listened as park ranger Jennifer Hopkins offered short bios of several interesting veterans who are buried at Andersonville. On a cool Georgia evening, it seemed an appropriate way to end our return to Andersonville National Historic Site.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html.