Saturday, 24 September 2011

Birmingham to Americus via Andersonville

Location: Andersonville, GA 31711, USA
I've always fancied going to Birmingham, Alabama, mainly as when I was new to the internet as an acne-covered tween in the 90s people would assume I was from there when I told them where I was born. "No," I'd have to inform them, "I was brought into this world in a large city in the English midlands which boasts the production of such international treasures as Ozzy Osbourne, Jasper Carrott, Noddy Holder and Roy Wood."

Unfortunately, however, I had to be out of the state in the early afternoon and it was rush hour when I left, so I was unable to drive through the city. I've been reliably informed that's not such a loss. Apparently they don't even have a Bull Ring.

The drive through rural Alabama to Georgia was beautiful - it's like going back in time to the America of the 30s and 40s - and some of the place names are brilliant: Prattville, Shorter, Chattahoochee, Ellaville, Lumpkin, Benevolence, Box Springs (I'm not kidding).

As I drove, little town squares with court houses, bakeries and old style gas stations gave way to white timber-framed churches proclaiming your imminent damnation and a Sunday bake sale, and then fields and fields and fields of cotton, wheat and pasture land. Every second car is a pick up, and the closer I got to Georgia the more the redness of the earth stained the highway the colour of fox fur.

I crossed the state line into Georgia at Fort Benning, but was unable to do any tooting as there wasn't a sign, damn it. Still, the trip was very pleasant and I arrived at Andersonville at 2pm.

I've wanted to visit Andersonville for about five years now. It's the location of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, as well as the US National POW Museum, and has a rather grisly history. The prison was opened towards the end of the war, when the prisoner-swapping agreement between the sides had broken down. The north realised that the south needed men more than they did, so keeping their soldiers prisoner made more sense, and they also objected strongly to the south's policy of re-enslaving or even executing any black union troops who were captured. As such, prison camps were erected across the country to house the men who were captured during battle from 1863 onwards.

Andersonville was built in February 1864 and was originally meant to hold a few thousand men. At its greatest capacity more than 33,000 troops were imprisoned there, and the subsequent food shortages, inadequate shelter from the Georgia sun and winter snow, as well as the poor water supply (they had one small stream for drinking, washing and toilet) meant over 12,000 men died. Most perished from water-borne diseases, but many died of starvation or of their battle wounds. It was a grim place.

The stream itself is pitiful; named Sweetwater Creek (lol, irony) it is a slow running water way now surrounded by BEWARE OF SNAKES signs, which I presume the prisoners did not have the advantage of. It was a hot day (90 degrees F at the end of September - that's Georgia for you) and not hard to imagine how awful the situation must have been for the incarcerated men. The humidity, the stench, the thirst and the fear of infection, as well as the constant hunger and uncertainty must have been truly terrible.

After the war, the conditions at the prison shocked the country, even though the state of some northern camps weren't much better. The sheer size of Andersonville, and the number of the dead overwhelmed people, and the camp's commander, Henry Wirz, was tried and executed for war crimes - the only person to be so accused in the war's aftermath.

The prison's grounds are now a site of historic interest, and part of the stockade has been rebuilt for visitors to see how it might have looked at the time. There is also a partial reconstruction of the "deadline" - a low fence about five feet from the stockade walls, which created a sort of no man's land between them. If a prisoner crossed the deadline, he could be shot on sight by the guards. The name of the fence has prevailed in history, and is the origin of the phrase we now use to mean "time limit".

Still, as the museum indicated, many men did survive the prison and went on to tell their stories about their experiences there. They chime fascinatingly with those of prisoners of war in many other conflicts, which the museum also covers, including the world wars, revolutionary war, gulf wars and the Vietnam war. In one testimony from solider James B. Stockdale, who was captured by the Viet Cong, he said, "It's part of my identity now that I lived like an animal." I think the men of Andersonville would relate to that.

After I'd wandered around the peaceful cemetery and bought some souvenirs I headed off to my hotel for the night, in nearby Americus. It was a slightly surreal experience as I both had the same room number as the night before (I wonder what the odds of that are?) and there was also a Jimmy Carter convention taking place there. Lots of people wore badges with his grinning face on. He wasn't there, though. I stayed in my room and watched A&E, too scared to engage any of them in discussion. I'm not really an expert in peanut farming.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a great blog of a fantastic trip, Rachel - I have so enjoyed your photos and reading your impressions of my native land!
    FYI, Vice Admiral Stockdale is probably best known as running mate of Ross Perot's 1992 presidential candidacy - he's renowned for opening a debate with "Who am I and why am I here?" His Wikipedia page is interesting;)