Last May, I had the privilege to re-visit a memorial that I had not seen in a long time. In my twenties, while living in Georgia, I yearned to visit anything and everything having to do with the Civil War. Being born a Yankee, I wanted to learn more about Southern history firsthand. Visiting old battlegrounds and cemeteries made my history books come alive.
In the 1970s, I had heard about the little town of Andersonville just a few hours south of Atlanta. People had told me about this city with more people buried in the cemetery than actually lived there. The same held true this year with only a few hundred people counted in the population of Andersonville within a few miles of the 13,721 soldiers buried there.
The fields of grass looked the same as the year I first step foot on this Historic site. The twenty-six acres which held the 45,000 Yankee prisoners still looked like an open field left to the imagination of the horror that once took place there. But things had changed since the 70s and there was more to see than crosses and open fields.
When we first drove up, we entered a museum. After purchasing our tickets, the man at the counter asked in his southern drawl, “Y’alls first time here?”
“No, sir,” I said. “First time for my husband, yes, but not for me. I’m embarrassed to say, I was here forty years ago.”
“Well, young lady,” he said, with a smile. “Lots have changed since then. The movie to your right starts in just a few minutes. I suggest you start there and then make your way over to the national cemetery. You can visit the new National Prisoner of War museum afterward on your left before you leave.”
I cannot describe the movie. The documentary encompassed not only Andersonville’s (Fort Sumter’s) history, but other prison of war camps, too. Famous, former prisoners, like Senator John McCain and Vice Admiral James Stockdale, talked about their experiences. As expected, the picture they painted did not sugarcoat the brutality nor severe conditions of different camps they inhabited.
Andersonville, like most camps, quickly became undersupplied with food, water, and wood for warmth and heating of food. With time, poor sanitation also became a problem. Because of these intense conditions, most of the prisoners died of hunger, exposure, or diseases. Some were even killed by a group of prisoners called the “Raiders” who attacked other inmates for jewelry, money, and clothing. After months of victimizing the camp, the “Raiders” were finally caught, brought to justice and hung.
Andersonville remains the most infamous of all Civil War camps in that it not only held the most prisoners but had the highest percentage rate of death (28%.) Months after the camp was liberated on May, 1865, the Commandant of Camp Sumter, Henry Wirz, was tried for acts of cruelty and war crimes due to the inhuman conditions at Andersonville. He was also found guilty, imprisoned, and hung six months later.
We drove to the Andersonville National Historic Site, just a few minutes away from the museum. The crosses have now been replaced with actual reproductions of the original tombstones. Historians found old photographs with the soldiers’ names and their state of origin. Out of the 13,000 plus soldiers, 921 have “Unknown” written on their headstones. Seven Yankee states have memorials placed around the cemetery to commemorate and honor their death. Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Tennessee along with other organizations have erected large granite monuments
As we walked among the tombstones, I cried as a tune went through my head which I hummed to myself over and over again. I didn’t know the name of the song nor the words at the time, but I remembered where I had heard it. It was from an old Clint Eastwood movie called The Good, Bad, and the Ugly. The scene I remembered showed Clint Eastwood coming across a dying Yankee soldier from the Civil War. Clint puts his coat around him and offers him one last puff off his cigarette. It’s a tender scene, and the music always haunted me because of its combined tenderness and sadness.
I looked up this song on YouTube when I came home. It’s called Morte di un Soldato, written by Ennio Morricone. The literal translation is Death of a Soldier, but it has also been referred to as A Soldier’s Story. The lyrics were written by Tommie Connor. Once I heard the words put the music, I was even more moved by the lyrics, and I cried again.