The deadliest ground of the American Civil War lies in rural southwest Georgia.
It is not a battlefield.
It's a small area, 26 ½ acres, roughly half the size of Hartford's Bushnell Park. There, over the course of 14 months beginning in February 1864, nearly 13,000 Union prisoners of war died, principally from disease, starvation and maltreatment.
Known to history as Andersonville Prison, after the nearby village, Camp Sumter was a place of horror and despair. More than 300 Connecticut soldiers perished there, and today lay buried in the Andersonville National Cemetery, established in July 1865.
How the nation learned about the conditions inside the stockade, and why most individual graves are marked by name, was largely due to the efforts of two Andersonville survivors from Connecticut — Sgt. Maj. Robert H. Kellogg of Wethersfield and Pvt. Dorence Atwater of Terryville.
Like many prisoners, Kellogg kept a diary during his captivity. It became the basis for a book, published in Hartford in 1865, that provided readers with a first-person account of conditions inside Andersonville and other Southern prisons.
Its publication briefly thrust Kellogg into the national spotlight, and he testified for the prosecution in the trial of the camp commander, Capt. Henry Wirz.
Decades later, he would speak for all fellow survivors at the 1907 dedication of the Connecticut monument at the Andersonville cemetery. A copy of the memorial's statue — known as the Andersonville Boy — stands outside the Connecticut Capitol.
Atwater, as a teenager, assisted the camp surgeon in recording prisoner deaths. Unbeknownst to his captors, and at considerable personal peril, he secretly copied the camp's official roll and smuggled it out of camp after being paroled.
He returned to Georgia in the summer of 1865 with his friend Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, and helped the U.S. Army match individual graves with their occupants, then notified family members of the fate of their loved ones. The Atwater death roll, containing nearly 13,000 names, was published by Horace Greeley in 1866.
"We go as far to say here he was single most important prisoner to be held here,'' said Eric Leonard, chief of interpretation and education at the National Park Service Andersonville National Historic Site.
Neither Kellogg nor Atwater (despite his modest memorial in his hometown of Plymouth), is much remembered today.
Hell On Earth
The deplorable treatment of prisoners of war — both Union and Confederate — remains one of the Civil War's most shameful legacies.
Of the 194,000 Union prisoners, more than 30,000 died in Southern prisons; 26,000 of 214,000 Confederate POWs lost their lives in the North.
Most of the deaths occurred during the war's final two years. Formal prisoner exchanges were halted in mid-1863 because of the Confederacy's refusal to return black POWs, and the South's increasingly desperate manpower shortage gave Union military leaders little incentive to resume the exchanges.
By early summer 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's bloody overland campaign to take Richmond, and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's campaign to capture Atlanta, had swelled prison rolls on both sides.
The prison at Andersonville, located in an agricultural region with pine woods and fresh-flowing streams, was supposed to relieve overcrowding at other Confederate facilities. Designed to hold 10,000 captives, it opened on Feb. 1, 1864, with early occupants transferred from other prison hospitals.
The prison had already established a less-than-savory reputation by the time Kellogg and other men from the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment were led through the stockade gates on May 3, 1863.
Nearly the entire regiment, 459 men, had been taken prisoner on April 20 at Plymouth, N.C. Before surrendering, the men had cut up their regimental flag and distributed the pieces among themselves. After the war, the surviving fragments were restitched into the banner that today hangs in the Hall of Flags in the state Capitol.
First Sgt. Oliver W. Gates, Co. F., 16th Connecticut, recorded his initial impression of the overcrowded, filthy camp in one of several diaries of Andersonville captives held by the Connecticut Historical Society.
"And if any sight would make a man's heart sink, the middle of this pen would. Twelve thousand men turned into this place just like so many cattle not a tree or shelter of any kind to protect from the sun or rain or cold ... it was the hardest trial of my life."
The rectangular stockade constructed of vertical, embedded pine logs originally encompassed 16 acres. It was enlarged to 26 ½ acres in July when the inmate population had risen to 31,000. Water was provided by a small brook that bisected the stockade. The "Plymouth Pilgrims," as members of the 16th Regiment were known, camped along the stream, whose life-sustaining waters became increasingly foul. The notorious "dead line" where a man could be summarily shot by guards if he ventured too near, ran along the interior perimeter.
Prisoners who had retained blankets and haversacks used them to fashion makeshift tents and shelters. Those less fortunate burrowed into the soil like gophers or simply lay nakedly exposed to drenching rain or scorching sun. Rations were less than meager on the best of days and often infested with maggots. Sanitation was nonexistent. Disease was rampant and lice were everywhere.
To add to their misery, prisoners endured an indifferent administration and hostile, trigger-happy guards. Kellogg described Wirz, the camp commander, as "a wretch of the first or worst degree; insolent, overbearing, heartless and of course a coward, for no man but a coward would come into camp and draw a revolver upon helpless men as he had done."
A series of thwarted escapes and false rumors of impending exchanges further depressed morale. And for several months, there was the constant threat posed by a gang of prisoners, known as the raiders, who preyed upon the others.
"There is four or five hundred men in here that make a business of plundering and robbing and they do not hesitate to kill any man for ten dollars several have been found dead," wrote Gates, who, with his buddies, slept with clubs nearby and beat several raiders nearly to death who dared venture too close.
Maintaining camaraderie and regimental discipline allowed men of the 16th to improve their chances for survival. "If you came in as a cohesive network, statistics say you will survive,'' Leonard said.
Even so, by August 1864, hundreds of men were dying each day. No one's chances of survival looked very good. Kellogg, a 20-year-old veteran who had enjoyed fairly good heath to that point, developed scurvy, which had claimed hundreds of lives already.
"I wonder if they knew at home of our real condition here," he wrote. "If the nation itself knew of it, it seems as if we would be liberated, even if an army had to be raised for this work alone.''
Remembering The Dead
That month, Atwater secretly began copying the prisoner death registry.
A store clerk before the war, Atwater had enlisted at age 16 in August 1861. While acting as a courier for a light cavalry regiment following the battle of Gettysburg, he was taken prisoner in Hagerstown, Md., and sent to Belle Island Prison in Richmond.
His youth and excellent penmanship earned him a parole from the general population to assist with record-keeping. He was transferred to Andersonville In March 1864, fell ill and was taken to the prison hospital where, beating the odds, he recovered.
He was then assigned to the camp surgeon to log camp deaths, being assured that the list would eventually be turned over to the U.S. government.
Those assurances began to seem suspect as the registry grew and grew.
Each body was assigned a grave number listing the soldier's name, company, regiment, date and cause of death before removal to the burying grounds a half-mile from the stockade. The dead were laid out side-by-side in 4-foot-deep trenches. There were no coffins.
Atwater felt that he needed to do something so that family members would know the fate and final resting spot of their loved ones. "His imperative was to have answers for everyone,'' Leonard explained.
When Atwater was paroled from Andersonville in March 1865, he smuggled his copy of the registry inside the lining of his coat.
After returning briefly to Terryville to regain his health, he traveled to Washington, D.C. with the document. The evidence set into motion a U.S. Army expedition to the prison camp in July 1865, with Clara Barton and Atwater in tow to locate and mark individual gravesites.
Some 12,920 wooden headboards were erected, and Barton informed family members that "for the record of your dead you are indebted to the forethought, courage and perseverance of a 19-year-old soldier named Dorence Atwater."
The young soldier's postwar experiences became a scriptwriter's dream: court-martialed and sentenced to 18 months hard labor in September 1865 after a dispute with the Army over the ownership of the registry, he was released after two months through the efforts of influential friends such as Barton and Greeley.
He then began a career in the diplomatic service which led to a posting in Tahiti in 1871. There, he prospered in business, married a native princess and became close friends with author Robert Louis Stevenson
Not until 1898, through the lobbying of Connecticut officials, did the War Department set aside his court-martial. He returned to Terryville with his bride in 1908 to view the memorial dedicated to him in Baldwin Park the year before, with his friend Barton in attendance.
Atwater died in San Francisco in 1910. The following year the body of the man known to the Tahitian natives as Tupuatooroa, or "wise man," was transported back to the island for burial with honor.
Kellogg drifted off the national stage following his testimony at Wirz's trial. His former tormentor was found guilty of war crimes by military tribunal and executed in November 1865, the only Confederate official so convicted.
"Our government cannot be held vindictive for only holding one person responsible," Kellogg remarked afterwards.
In October 1907, he and 102 other former Connecticut POWs boarded the "Andersonville Special" in New Haven for a return trip to Georgia for the dedication of the Connecticut Memorial at the Andersonville National Cemetery.
He noted wryly that unlike more than 40 years earlier, when they were jammed into freight cars, the aged veterans this time traveled first class. At the dedication ceremony, Kellogg spoke eloquently on behalf of all about their awful, shared experience and what it meant.
"Andersonville becomes an object lesson in patriotism. To this retired and beautiful spot will thousands resort in the long years to come, to learn again and again lessons of heroic sacrifice made by those who so quietly sleep in these long rows of graves."
His words proved prophetic. In 1998, the National Prisoner of War Museum, honoring POWs from all the nation's wars, opened at Andersonville.
Kellogg, who had moved to Ohio after the war, died in February 1932.
To learn about Andersonville and the prisoner-of-war experience in the Civil War, visit the website for the National Park Service Andersonville National Historic Site at nps.gov/andeCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun