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A Memorial To All POWs

Prison Ships Used by the British During the Napoleonic Wars to House French Prisoners, 1805

Andersonville, Georgia, is the site of the best known of all the American Civil War (1861-1865) prisoner-of-war (POW) camps. Grim life was suffered by prisoners of war, both North and South, during the war. In November of 1863, Confederate Captain W. Sidney Winder was sent to the village of Andersonville in Sumter County, Georgia, to assess the potential of building a prison for captured Union soldiers. The deep south location, the availability of fresh water, and its proximity to the Southwestern Railroad, made Andersonville a favorable prison location. In addition, Andersonville had a population of less than 20 persons, and was, therefore, politically unable to resist the building of such an unpopular facility. So Andersonville was chosen as the site for a prison that would later become infamous in the North for the thousands of prisoners that would die there before the war ended.

After the prison site was selected, Captain Richard B. Winder was sent to Andersonville to construct a prison. Arriving in late December of 1863, Captain Winder adopted a prison design that encompassed roughly 16.5 acres which he felt was large enough to hold 10,000 prisoners. The prison was to be rectangular in shape with a small creek flowing roughly through the center of the compound. The prison was given the name Camp Sumter.

In January of 1864, slaves from local farms were impressed to fell trees and dig ditches for construction of the prison stockade. The stockade enclosure was approximately 1010 feet long and 780 feet wide. The walls of the stockade were constructed of pine logs cut on site, hewn square, and set vertically in a wall trench dug roughly five feet deep. According to historical accounts, the poles were hewn to a thickness of eight to 12 inches and "matched so well on the inner line of the palisades as to give no glimpse of the outer world" (Hamlin 1866:48-49). A light fence known as the deadline was erected approximately 19-25 feet inside the stockade wall to demarkate a no-man's land keeping the prisoners away from the stockade wall. Anyone crossing this line was immediately shot by sentries posted at intervals around the stockade wall.

Included in the construction of the stockade were two gates positioned along the west stockade line. The gates were described in historic accounts as "small stockade pens, about 30 feet square, built of massive timbers, with heavy doors, opening into the prison on one side and the outside on the other" (Bearss 1970:25). Each gate contained wickets (door-sized entryways).

Prisoners began arriving at the prison in late February of 1864 and by early June the prison population had climbed to 20,000. Consequently, it was decided that a larger prison was necessary, and by mid-June work was begun to enlarge the prison. The prison's walls were extended 610 feet to the north, encompassing an area of roughly 10 acres, bringing the total prison area to 26.5 acres. The extension was built by a crew of Union prisoners consisting of 100 whites and 30 African Americans in about 14 days. On July 1, the northern extension was opened to the prisoners who subsequently tore down the original north stockade wall, then used the timbers for fuel and building materials. By August, over 33,000 Union prisoners were held in the 26.5 acre prison.

Due to the threat of Union raids (Sherman's troops were marching on Atlanta), General Winder ordered the building of defensive earthworks and a middle and outer stockade around the prison. Construction of the earthworks began July 20th. These earthworks consisted of Star Fort located southwest of the prison, a redoubt located northwest of the north gate, and six redans.

The middle and outer stockades were hastily constructed of unhewn pine logs set vertically in wall trenches that were about four feet deep. The middle stockade posts projected roughly 12 feet above the ground surface and encircled the inner prison stockade as well as the corner redans. The outer stockade, which was never completed, was meant to encompass the entire complex of earthworks and stockades. The posts of the outer stockade extended about five feet above the ground surface.

By early September, Sherman's troops had occupied Atlanta and the threat of Union raids on Andersonville prompted the transfer of most of the Union prisoners to other camps in Georgia and South Carolina. By mid-November, all but about 1500 prisoners had been shipped out of Andersonville, and only a few guards remained to police them. Transfers to Andersonville in late December increased the numbers of prisoners once again, but even then the prison population totalled only about 5000 persons. The number of prisoners at the prison would remain this low until the war ended in April of 1865. During the 15 months during which Andersonville was operated, almost 13,000 Union prisoners died there of malnutrition, exposure, and disease; Andersonville became synonymous with the attrocities which both North and South soldiers experienced as prisoners of war.

Nearly 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps from starvation and disease — a quarter of those deaths happened at one camp. Prior to the war, no American POW camp had ever held more than 100 men at once, but during the war, each camp held hundreds and sometimes thousands. Poor sanitation, overcrowding, and lack of food and medical supplies led to the deaths of an untold number of prisoners. Of the 150 or so prison camps during the war, Camp Sumter in Georgia (Andersonville Prison) was the most notorious. The camp held nearly 40,000 soldiers over its time in operation–nearly a third of those men died in captivity.

After the war ended, the plot of ground near the prison where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers had been buried was administered by the United States government as a National Cemetery. The prison reverted to private hands and was planted in cotton and other crops until the land was acquired by the Grand Army of the Republic of George in 1891. During their administration, stone monuments were constructed to mark various portions of the prison including the four corners of the inner stockade and the North and South Gates.

From the Revolutionary War to Operation Iraqi Freedom, American prisoners of war have endured untold hardships, and shown tremendous courage. Andersonville commemorates the sacrifices of these brave Americans. In 1970, Andersonville National Historic Site was designated by the U.S. Congress as a memorial to all POWs in American history. Just as Andersonville and the story of POWs is of great interest for historical research, the issue of fair and ethical treatment of POWs continues to be an issue around the world today. In fact, it was Andersonville and the public interest associated with it that led to world-wide concerns and eventually to the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners-of-war.

123 flyers of the U.S. Air Service were forced down inside enemy lines and captured. Two officers were captured when their balloon drifted into German territory, and 19 Americans flying with the British, 10 with the French and one with the Italians became prisoners of war (one enlisted man of the 22nd Aero Squadron was captured when he drove his auto too close to the front lines).

U.S. flying personnel were not segregated during World War I as they were in World War II. Flyers were often interned with non-flyers, officers with enlisted personnel, and Americans with POWs from other nations. Many U.S. flyers were placed in a POW camp at Villingen, a short distance from Germany's border with Switzerland; however, at least one was sent to a camp at the other extreme, on the coast of the Baltic Sea near Stralsund, north of Berlin.

When WWI ended, there was no organized program as in WWII, the Korean War or the Vietnam War for returning POWs. As unrest spread throughout Germany and the prison guards left their posts for home, the POWs were left to fend for themselves. This included getting back to France by whatever means they could arrange, even including walking.

Immediately after the onset of World War II (WWII), plans were made for the internment of enemy alien civilians within the United States. As early as December 9, 1941, preparations were started for the construction of the first permanent alien enemy camp on the Florence Military Reservation in Arizona, and ten emergency camps on Army posts located on each coast and land frontier of the United States. Populations housed within these camps remained small (less than 4000 enemy aliens and 1881 POWs) through the end of 1942.

In anticipation of housing more than 150,000 POWs from Great Britain late in 1942, the Provost General submitted plans for the distribution of the first 50,000 among existing facilities, and construction of new facilities for the second wave of 100,000 POWs. By September 1942, seven permanent internment camps were completed, eight other permanent camps were under construction, and six more were authorized for construction. All aspects of POW life, from the layout of the camps, the facilities available, processing, transport, and work and recreation programs abided by the Geneva Convention of 1929.

The total number of POWs interred in the U.S. ultimately reached over 428,000, and were housed in 155 base camps and 511 branch camps located in 45 of the 48 states. Of this total, approximately 370,000 were Germans, 53,000 were Italians, and 5,400 were Japanese. The repatriation of POWs from the U.S. was completed by June 30, 1946, except for 162 POWs who were serving prison terms in penal institutions.

While POW camps took several forms, including both permanent and temporary encampments, a significant number were incorporated into military installations. As a result, a number of current Department of Defense (DoD) installations include the locations of former POW camps. Many of these camps exist only in ruins or in installation records; others consist of extant buildings, POW cemeteries, and POW-constructed landscape features.

The North Koreans severely mistreated prisoners of war. The North Vietnamese captured many U.S. service members as prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, who suffered from systematic mistreatment and torture during much of the war. Regardless of regulations determining treatment to prisoners, violation of their rights continue to be reported.

The National Prisoner of War Museum is dedicated to the men and women of this country who suffered captivity so that others may remain free. Their story is one of sacrifice and courage; their legacy, the gift of liberty. The museum was officially opened and dedicated on April 9, 1999. The concept of a museum to honor all prisoners of war in American History goes back to the legislation passed by Congress in 1970. In the 1980's the park staff developed a partnership with the American Ex-Prisoners of War that led to a small temporary POW museum on the park grounds.

Prisoners of war have faced the same hardships since the American Revolution. The 10,000-square-foot museum includes exhibit rooms depicting what soldiers and civilians experienced in enemy captivity from the American Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf War.

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