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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Keogh

An American Horror Story: Andersonville Prison

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

I don’t remember how old I was when I read John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary, but I was somewhere in my early teens. It made a lasting impression on me, so much so that many years later Andersonville found its way into my writing. Perhaps my fascination and desire to learn more was influenced by the spirit of one of my ancestors, Newman Easlick, who was a prisoner at Andersonville, a fact I was unaware of when I first wrote The Edge of Hell.

If you saw the above picture of this emaciated prisoner out of context, you would no doubt think he was of a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. However, the man in the photograph was a Union soldier who had been a prisoner at Andersonville. If America had its own Holocaust, it was Andersonville. Just as Hitler was responsible for the extermination of thousands of his own citizens, the Southern Confederacy during the American Civil War was responsible for the deaths of thousands of its countrymen in Andersonville’s brief, infamous history. In fairness, I will add here that Northern prisons during the Civil War had notorious histories too, but nothing truly compares to the horrors of Andersonville.

Andersonville, located southwest of Macon, Georgia, first opened in late February 1864 and saw its last prisoners depart in May 1865. During that time 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there, and nearly 13,000 died. That was more deaths than on any battlefield in the war. Many of the diseases that killed prisoners by the thousands could have been eradicated simply by improved and more plentiful food and water, and better sanitation. But by 1864, the Confederacy could barely feed and equip its armies, let alone care for its ever-growing prison population. Henry Wirz, the camp commandant, was put on trial after the war for conspiracy to kill or injure prisoners in violation of the laws of war. One hundred and fifty witnesses testified against him, and he was hanged on November 10, 1865.

Andersonville (latrines in the foreground)

The largest number of prisoners held at one time was 33,000 in August 1864. The original wooden stockade covered approximately 16.5 acres but was enlarged in June 1864 to 26.5 acres. Imagine 33,000 men crammed into that space, living with no permanent shelter and exposed to the elements. For perspective, imagine a modern-day sports arena, like the Staples Center in Los Angeles or Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit. Those venues hold 20,000 spectators. Now add 13,000 more men to those confines, and you’ll have a better idea of the overcrowding at Andersonville.

While researching The Edge of Hell, I traveled to Andersonville National Historic Site where I was graciously assisted by Alan Marsh, Cultural Resources Specialist. The physical location of the prison includes reconstruction of parts of the stockade such as one of the gates, shown below, for educational purposes.

(Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress)

A spring house was built where Providence Spring burst forth from the ground during a violent storm in August 1864, depicted in my novel, providing the prisoners with much-needed fresh water.

(Photo courtesy of Dsdugan via Wiki Commons)

There are also a few monuments, many erected by individual Northern states. I found the inscription on the Wisconsin monument particularly moving. It’s from poet Thomas Campbell and reads: “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

The cemetery contains row upon row of small, starkly white, tightly spaced headstones. Prisoners were buried in trench-like mass graves. To see the thousands of markers in person is overwhelming. It brought me to tears. While there, I visited the individual markers that bore the names of some of the real-life prisoners who appear in my novel. It felt like I was visiting the graves of old friends. A sobering experience, to say the least.

After the war ended, Dorence Atwater—an ex-prisoner who had kept record of the names of deceased Union soldiers—and Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, traveled to Andersonville. Thanks to their efforts of identifying the dead, only 460 of Andersonville’s graves had to be marked “unknown U.S. soldier.” Barton once said, “We owe it alike to the living and the dead, that a proper knowledge and a realization of the miseries which they endured be entertained by all.”

I hope my novel helps perpetuate the memory those who suffered at Andersonville, including my ancestor.

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