Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andersonville Prison

A Baby Born in hell

The condition of inmates at Andersonville (Library of Congress)
The condition of
inmates at
Andersonville
(Library of
Congress)
In 1864 the Civil War was raging through parts of the South, but actual fighting hadnt reached remote Andersonville, Georgia, where the prison camp, Fort Sumter, had been built. On one particularly hot July evening that year, a Confederate guard from the 26th Alabama regiment stood watch on the parapet of the stockade prison, which was more commonly referred to as Andersonville Prison by the locals, and as hell by the Union soldiers and sailors incarcerated there.

The prison was nothing more than acres of open ground surrounded by a stockade fence and earthworks barricades. The destitute prisoners sheltered themselves as best they could, some with makeshift tents, others in shallow holes dug in the dirt, lined with pine needles, and covered with whatever scrap of fabric the men hada tarp, a blanket, maybe a tattered coat. The prison was so crowded that each man had just enough room to lie down.

As dusk gave way to night, the guard looked out on thousands of prone, wretched bodiessome of them nearly skeletons from dysentery and malnourishmentand he thought of Andersonville as a massive graveyard where the corpses were still breathing and graves were yet to be covered.

Inmates inside Andersonville Prison (Library of Congress)
Inmates inside Andersonville Prison
(Library of Congress)
It was a damn pity, the guard thought, but this was war, and from what hed heard, the Yankees had their own prison camps, some no better than Andersonville, or so he told authorities later.

He leaned on his rifle and surveyed the dead line, a simple waist-high fence inside the prison that ran parallel to the stockade walls. The fence, made up of posts set in the ground connected by a single line of horizontal planks, had been constructed to keep prisoners away from the walls. The area between the dead line and the stockade walls was kept vacant to prevent prisoners from trying to tear down the walls or tunnel underneath them. Crossing the dead line without permission was strictly forbidden. Captain Henry Wirz, who was in command of the stockade, ordered his guards to shoot any man caught on the wrong side of it.

Overhead sketch of Andersonville Prison
Overhead sketch of Andersonville
Prison
The guard from Alabama could hear the prisoners below him. They groaned and moaned and chattered among themselves until the mass of them sounded like a single, restless behemoth. But tonight the guard thought he heard something else. He thought he might be going crazy, but hed heard the same sound that morning and the night before as well. It sounded like the cries of a newborn.

He scanned the terrain of bodies and squinted through the gloom. A baby in this hell hole? he thought. The Lord could never be so cruel.

But then he spotted a figure crawling out of a ragtag tent. When the figure stood up, the guard noticed that the person was wearing skirts. The silhouette swayed back and forth in place, like a forlorn dancer without a partner, and she seemed to be holding something in her arms, holding it close. The guard strained to pick out landmarks on the prison grounds, the larger tents of the bullies and raiders, trying to gauge the exact location of the silhouette. It was hard to be certain in this light, but he thought she was standing in the area where the newlyweds had pitched their tent about a year ago, Captain and Mrs. Harry Hunt. And she wasnt the only woman inside the prison walls. There was another somewhere on the field, a faithful wife who would not leave her husbands side.

But a baby? he thought. It just couldnt be. Andersonville was where people died.

He heard a series of high-pitched, plaintive wails that carried over the din, and now there was no doubt in his mind that there was a child down there. The silhouette in skirts swayed faster, bouncing the bundle on her shoulder. The guard didnt like this development at all. He feared for their safety. A horrible thought passed through his mindthe emaciated prisoners falling upon this child for food. His heart was thumping hard. He had to tell someone about this immediately.

 

 

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