By the end of 1863 it had became obvious to the leadership of the Confederacy that they could no longer house Union prisoners of war in their Richmond, Virginia, prisons. These prisons were being run by skeleton crews, and the Confederacy feared that if Union cavalry penetrated the city, the prisoners would be spurred on to riot and break out of their confines, aiding their fellows and depriving the South of prisoners that they could exchange for their own men who were being held in the North.
Furthermore, these 13,000 Yankee prisoners were milking Richmond dry, consuming large quantities of food in a city that had little for its own population. General Robert E. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon agreed that it was time to relocate these prisoners deeper in the South where they would be farther from the reach of Union forces and where food would be more available.
By January 1864 slaves from local farms were put to work on the prison. Pine trees were felled and squared, and ditches were dug in which to set the timbers. The stockade walls were 8 to 12 inches thick, and the timbers fit so tightly that light could not be seen coming from the other side.
Within days of the prisons opening, 15 prisoners managed to scale the walls with a rope woven from pieces of cloth. Guards with dogsthe prison maintained a pack of 40 part-bloodhounds and two monstrous Cuban bloodhoundsrecaptured the escapees the next day. This breakout prompted the construction of the dead line. Slaves were sent into the stockade to put up the dead-line fence. The prison population was informed in no uncertain terms that anyone crossing the dead line for whatever reason would be shot on sight.
The day after the dead line was completed a German-born Union solder nicknamed Sigel from the 2nd Division of the 11th Corps was caught reaching under the dead line to retrieve a discarded rag. A guard took aim and shot him, killing him instantly. Sigel died with the dirty rag in his hand.
Andersonville was guarded by two Confederate regiments, the 26th Alabama and the 55th Georgia. It is not known who fired the shot that killed Sigel, but the prisoners would have guessed it was a Georgian. As former prisoner of war Sam S. Boggs wrote in his memoir, Eighteen Months a Prisoner Under the Rebel Flag, A Condensed Pen-Picture of Belle Isle, Danville, Andersonville, Charleston, Florence, and Libby Prisons, The Alabamans were intelligent and kind hearted... the Georgians were ignorant and brutal. The Alabamans would talk to us from their posts, while the Georgians were liable to shoot if we spoke to them.
As the war dragged on, the flow of prisoners to Andersonville became an unceasing flood. The camp became so overcrowded, an extension was ordered to enlarge the space by ten acres. One hundred and thirty prisoners were put to work constructing new stockade walls, which were completed on June 30, 1864. The next morning a 10-foot section of the old wall was torn down, and 13,000 prisoners were ordered to relocate within two hours. The penalty for refusal was the confiscation of the prisoners belongings. The order set off a stampede as prisoners ran to find a new spot, many of them scavenging timbers from the downed section of wall until there was nothing left.
But new prisoners kept coming, and by August Andersonville held nearly 33,000. Unofficially it was the Confederacys fifth largest city. It was so overcrowded, there were only 27 square feet per prisoner, a patch roughly 3 feet by 9 feet.
Rations were steadily reduced as the population grew. Salt, meat and sweet potatoes were eventually eliminated from the prisoners diets. The cornmeal allotment was decreased, and food wasnt distributed every day. Desperate for nourishment, prisoners mobbed a bread wagon one day and tore it apart, picking it clean. Some prisoners developed methods for catching the swallows that swooped low over the camp and would eat their quarry raw before anyone could take it away from them.
Mean-spirited guards would toss hunks of cornbread into the pen just to watch the prisoners scramble. Occasionally they would drop food into the forbidden zone beyond the dead line so theyd have someone to shoot at. Visitors from the surrounding area were invited to observe the starving Yankees from the parapets as if the prisoners were zoo animals, and local Georgia ladies were often seen ogling at the emaciated, apparently finding the sight gruesomely entertaining.