Tragic environs begat modern-day tourist site

March 02, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach

Getting to Andersonville is a lot easier nowadays -- just head south on Georgia Route 49 and hang a left at the sign.

But knowing what went on more than a century ago in this desolate stretch of central Georgia can make memories of a visit here as indelible as ever.

Administered by the National Park Service since 1970 as a memorial to all prisoners of war, the 250-acre Andersonville National Historic Site has all the trappings of a tourist attraction: a nice, modern visitor center, a self-guided auto tour, a quaint little town nearby where you can get some lunch.

But don't fall prey to such easy access. Get out of your car and walk around the encampment.

The fence that surrounded the prison is long gone, save for a small reconstruction. But the boundaries remain, two rectangular perimeters, one inside the other, marked off by posts stuck into the ground. One marks off the stockade itself, while another -- the inner box -- marks offs the "deadline," a barrier which, if breached by a Union prisoner, meant a bullet to the skull.

Look at tiny Stockade Branch, a stream so narrow at times that you can step across it without getting wet. Imagine 30,000-plus prisoners trying to survive with that as their primary water source.

Scour the ground with your eyes and search out the 100-plus circular discs embedded in the soil. Each marks a hand-dug well from which prisoners were able to obtain life-giving water.

Lastly, visit the cemetery, gaze out on row-upon-row of uniform headstones, 13,699 Civil War graves in all. Except for about 500 unknown victims, each grave is marked simply, with a name and a state.

Off in a section by themselves, determinedly isolated from everyone else, are the six Raiders, the men who preyed upon and murdered their fellow prisoners before being hanged.

Like few other Civil War sites, Andersonville is a place for introspection, for thinking about the terrible cost of war and wondering why any nation would choose to pay it.

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