Monday, March 3, 2014

Andersonville Anniversary

The sesquicentennials go on. Last week marked the 150th anniversary of the arrivals of the first prisoners at Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Georgia. Andersonville is one of those iconic names in history that enjoy (or suffer) a meaning wider than their individual realities. A Judas is a betrayer. A Benedict Aernold is a traitor. An Andersonville is a horror among prisons and POW camps. In reality, Andersonville was one of several camps, north and south, that saw thousands of prisoners die, mostly of disease, but also of starvation and occasionally of murder. It was not necessarily the worst (although it way have been) but it certainly was the best known.

Its infamy was partially due to a pair of New Englanders who arrived within a couple of months of its liberation. Dorence Atwater. a young cavalryman from the Terryville section of Plymouth, Connecticut, was captured late in 1863 and became among the first prisoners marched to Camp Sumter. Deaths came quickly in a wet and cold north Georgia winter, and camp officials chose Atwater, whose handwriting was excellent, to keep a record of the dead, both names and locations of burial. He became known as the “Clerk of the Dead” of Andersonville.

Although he was told to make two official copies, Atwater suspected rightly that neither list would survive intact. So he kept another list for himself. After the end of the war, with the assistance of others including Clara Barton of North Oxford, Massachusetts, he took his list and traveled to Andersonville.

Barton had already been inundated with requests from families to help track down missing Union prisoners. When she was contacted by Atwater she was eager to become part of the identification and recovery effort.

The party located and identified thousands of graves. Some were noted with markers. Other bodies were returned to families and towns. For example, the town of Norwich, Connecticut, sent a delegation south to recover the bodies of Andersonville dead from their town. The bodies were returned, reburied in the ancient Yantic cemetery, and marked by a Parrott rifle obtained from the U.S. government. It’s now known as the “Andersonville gun” and is a landmark in the town. Other war dead have been buried there since, but the site remains a monument to the victims of Andersonville.
The Andersonville Gun in Norwich, CT

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