Andersonville Historic Site Trip

Turn you to the stronghold ye prisoners of hope - Zechariah 9:12

I’m not an artistic person and I don’t claim to be an art critic but this is one of my favorite sculptures.  The prisoners depicted here could be from any war so they’re representative of all prisoners.  When you see this dark statue in front of row upon row of tightly packed headstones you can’t help but feel chills.  It greets you as you enter the gate of Andersonville National Cemetery and truly puts you in the frame of mind to take in what lies ahead of you.  The first time I saw it was in the late 1980’s when I visited the Andersonville Historic Site with my father.  Today I visited again and it is just as powerful as it was then.

Last night I decided I wanted to take a day trip while I was on vacation and settled on Andersonville.  It had been a long time since I visited Andersonville so this morning I left Savannah around 0500 for the 3+ hour trip.  The sun began to rise as I left the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Dublin and by the time I was on State Highway 26 it was a beautiful morning to drive through the hills of middle Georgia.  The sun rose behind me and illuminated the fields and woods with a beautiful golden glow.  Just before State Highway 26 passes over I-75 I was lucky enough to see a bald eagle flying low over a farm pond, perhaps fishing for his breakfast.  It was a magnificent sight to behold!  Another interesting sight along the way was the United States Air Force Space Command Hawkinsville Site, just west of Hawkinsville on State Highway 26 (more on it later).

I arrived at the Andersonville Historic Site just after 0900.  It was cold at 30 F but the skies were clear and blue making it a good day to tour the site.  I went in and toured the National POW Museum, which is new (it opened in 1998) since I last visited.  The Museum honors all American Prisoners of War regardless of which war they served in.  It has a lot of interesting displays including recreations of cells, examples of restraints, items that were made by POWs and other artifacts.  The first section of the museum contains two items which almost form bookends (minus wars pre-Civil War and post-Desert Storm) to America’s POW history.  First there is an original POW uniform worn by a Civil War prisoner at Andersonville.  Last in the first section is the flight suit worn by Flight Surgeon Major Rhonda Cornum when she was shot down during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.  There is also an original timber from the Andersonville stockade and as well as an original hinge and lock and key from the stockade.  I didn’t expect it (although in retrospect I should have)  I found some radio related items:  two homebrew crystal radios built by World War II POWs to clandestinely listen to shortwave radio broadcasts.

Original POW Uniform worn by a prisoner at Andersonville
Flight suit worn by Major Rhonda Cornum when she was shot down and taken prisoner in the Persian Gulf War (1991)
Original Lock, Hinge, and Key from the Andersonville Stockade
Homemade Blower Stove made by a World War II POW
Homebrew Crystal Radio made and used by an American POW in World War II
Homebrew Crystal Radio made and used by an American POW in World War II

After watching videos on the Andersonville POW camp and American POWs, I went outside and took the tour of the Stockade and the Cemetery.  You can check out a CD with audio for a self-guided tour of both and I highly recommend doing so.  You simply pop the CD into your car’s stereo, drive thru the site at 10 mph and stop at the various points.

Looking south from the north end of the stockade

The photo above is from the north end of the stockade site looking south.  The white posts in the distance denote the positions of the stockade walls and the inner deadline.  The deadline was formed by rails constructed inside the stockade walls and guards were ordered to shoot and kill any prisoner that went beyond the deadline.  The cubes in the foreground mark spots where prisoners dug wells or attempted to dig escape tunnels.  The Star Fort can be seen in the distance just to the right of center.  The monuments in the right foreground are the Michigan and Ohio (obelisk) memorials of their respective state’s dead at Andersonville.

Recreation of the stockade's North Gate
Providence Spring
Looking downhill past Providence Spring to the south end of the stockade

The first of the three photos above shows the recreation of part of the stockade walls and the north gate.  Just inside the north gate is Providence Spring, which is located under the block structure built as a memorial to the spring that burst forth after a August 1864 thunderstorm.  The spring provided a much needed source of fresh water; the Stockade Branch that was supposed to provide water to the camp was rendered unhealthy because of waste runoff spreading disease and death throughout the camp.  The third photo looks down hill from the North Gate toward the southwest corner of the stockade. The row of white posts to the right show the location of the stockade walls while the left hand row of white posts shows the location of the deadline.  The two shorter stone markers in the upper left mark the location of the South Gate while the taller stone marker shows the location of the southwest corner of the stockade.

Interior of Andersonville's Star Fort

The Star Fort and other earthworks built around the perimeter of the camp outside of the stockade served two purposes.  First, they defended the camp against attack from Union cavalry.  Second, due to the topography of the site, their cannon could sweep the camp with cannon and grape shot in the event of a prisoner uprising.  The Star Fort also housed the camp commander’s quarters.  This shot looks to the east; past the fort walls in this photo were the sites of the second and third hospitals as well as the dispensary.

Stockade Branch

Stockade Branch ran through the camp and was supposed to supply the prisoners with water.  By the time the water got to the prisoners, though it was already polluted by runoff from the guard’s quarters.  Instead of being a source of drinking and bathing water, it instead was a source of disease and death.

Recreation of the northeast corner of the stockade

This photo shows the recreation of the northeast corner of the Stockade and recreations of the tents, lean-tos, and other make do shelters that the prisoners constructed.  There were no buildings to house the prisoners, they were out in the elements with just these kind of shelters for protection.  The railing just to the right of the row of tents is the deadline rail.  Any prisoner crossing that rail would have been shot dead by a guard in one of the guard towers at the top of the stockade walls.

What Does 12,000 Dead Look Like?

This is the most sobering part of the Andersonville experience.  Over 33,000 Union Prisoners of War were held at Andersonville in 26.5 acres of camp.  Over 12,000 of those POWs died in captivity.  Those dead are buried in the Andersonville National Cemetery.  Everyone is familiar with the uniform spaced rows of Arlington National Cemetery and other Veterans’ Cemeteries throughout the country.  What sets the graves of the Andersonville POWs apart though is their spacing.  Due to the high death rate, the POWs were buried in trench graves rather than spaced apart in caskets.  As a result, the dead are close together as seen in the headstone spacing.  Rows after rows of closely spaced headstones are a punch to the gut; you can’t see this and not have an emotional reaction to it.  You can see the camp and see how the POWs lived, but the Cemetery is a physical representation of the inhumanity of Andersonville.  These photos are what 12,000 dead look like.

After 4 hours at Andersonville (and one could easily spend much, much more time there), I left to head back to Savannah.  When I’m on road trips I like to avoid fast food and chain restaurants and try local restaurants.  On the way back to Savannah, I stopped by Yoder’s Deitsch Haus Restaurant and Bakery in Montezuma. Yoder’s is a Mennonite cafeteria type restaurant that serves some of the best homestyle cooking I’ve ever had.  If you ever find yourself in Montezuma you simply must try lunch at Yoder’s.

Sign at the USAF Space Command Hawkinsville Site
The "Space Fence" radar is just visible as the line of objects beyond the fence

During the return trip, I also stopped by the USAF Hawkinsville site that I saw on the morning trip.  It turns out that the USAF Space Command Hawkinsville Field Site is part of the Air Force Space Surveillance System or “Space Fence.”  Along with 5 other sites (including another one in Tattnall, GA) the Hawkinsville radar site tracks orbital objects passing over the United States. The Hawkinsville site is one of two that are designed track higher altitude sites.  It was interesting to see this during the trip, I never knew it was there!  I was listening to MilAir with the mobile station throughout the trip and just as I passed by the Hawkinsville Site on my way to Andersonville I began hearing BANDSAW KILO, an E-3 AWACS – what a coincidence!

There was plenty to listen to on the radios during the road trip to Andersonville.  Throughout the morning, I heard a P-3C, CARDFILE 71C on both UHF (285.000) and HF (8.971 USB) in communication with FIDDLE, the USN Tactical Support Center in Jacksonville.  I also heard MACE and VIPER flights of F-16s from the SC ANG doing air combat maneuvering and suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses training in the Bulldog MOA (343.750).  While at Andersonville I discovered that the park uses 171.750 in P25 digital mode for park communication (it was not frequently used and I wasn’t able to determine the NAC).  For medium wave fans, there is also a visitors information radio station on 1610 AM.

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