A Sobering Visit to Andersonville

 
 
Above:  From northern Georgia, I drove to Andersonville, the site of a Civil War prison where I spent several hours.  Then it was on to Plains to pay my respects to Jimmy Carter.  Late in the afternoon, I headed to Florida and pulled into my campsite on the Gulf of Mexico well after dark.

I left the campground at Fort Yargo State Park early in the morning and drove through the backroads of rural Georgia for a few hours as the morning mists slowly dissipated, then I got back on the Interstate:  this time I-75 and heading south.  I had driven through this part of southern Georgia back in 1985 and it hadn’t changed too much:  rolling terrain with lots of pine forests interspersed with peanut and cotton fields and scattered small towns with stately antebellum buildings.  

My destination that morning was a place I’d never visited:  the Andersonville Prison, which is now a National Park historic site.  The prison was built in 1864 to house Union army POWs during the Civil War.  The word “prison” conjures up images of brick buildings and steel bars, but there was none of that here.  Instead, Andersonville was a huge and open field (around 260 acres) surrounded by a tall, wooden palisade that was manned by armed Confederate guards.  I shot a panorama photo of the prison site and posted it here.

The conditions here were deplorable.  Over 45,000 Union prisoners-of-war were held at Andersonville prison for 15 months, until the end of the war, and over 13,000 – more than a quarter of them – died, mostly from malnutrition, exposure, disease and dysentery.  The men were basically thrown in and left to fend for themselves with little food or shelter, and no buildings or shade to protect them.  The only drinking water available was from one small stream that ran through the field, which quickly became polluted, and if the prisoners got too close to the wooden walls, they were shot by the guards.  A rope a few feet inside the walls indicated the line they weren’t allowed to cross, called the "dead line" (the origin of the term we use today).  I haven’t researched it, but Southerners tell me that Union prisons in the north during the Civil War were just as bad, and that could well be true.

I was very humbled by my two-hour visit to quiet Andersonville.  I had virtually the whole park to myself and walked around the entire perimeter, about two miles, while thinking about the prisoners who struggled here to survive.  I also thought about how grateful I am for everything I have compared to the conditions they endured.  My great-great-grandfather, a man named Ransom Myers, from Michigan, fought with the Union army during the Civil War and lost an arm to a Confederate sniper in Kentucky, and another great-great-grandfather, Christian Schneider, from Ohio, lost an eye during the war.  But neither were ever captured nor were they imprisoned here, and for that I’m thankful.  

My trip to Andersonville deeply affected me and the memory of my visit, thinking about how the soldiers here suffered, lingered in my mind for a long while afterwards.

 

Andersonville Prison

 

The Peanut President

After leaving Andersonville in mid-afternoon, I continued my southward trek.  Just a few miles away is Plains, Georgia, where I stopped for a few hours to visit the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site.  Jimmy grew up in Plains, became a peanut farmer, then the governor of Georgia and finally, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, defeated Gerald Ford in 1976 to became America's thirty-ninth president.  He was roundly criticized by conservatives during and after his presidency, however, but I always thought Carter was a decent person and I greatly admired the humanitarian work he did afterwards. 

Carter’s former high school in Plains has been converted by the National Park Service into a homey Visitor Center, so I walked in and said hello to the ranger at the desk, a young black woman wearing glasses.  She told me a little about the site and then, almost apologetically, said, “Many people didn’t agree with Carter’s politics, but he did a lot of good things afterwards.”  I told her that she didn’t have to apologize for anything, since I thought his decency and respect for others is something we need more of in Washington D.C., especially these days.  I spent about an hour at the mostly-empty Visitor Center and was impressed to learn that Carter, who still lives in Plains, attends a nearby church every Sunday and teaches Sunday School there to children.  I know he’s well into his 90s now, but someday I’d like to meet him.

The closest I got, however, was the Visitor Center and then a brief visit to “downtown” Plains, where I walked through his former Campaign Headquarters, which is now a gift shop.  Plains was very quiet and I’d imagine that it hasn’t changed too much since the years before Carter’s venture into politics.  He was a Naval officer during the 1940s, like my Dad, so that’s another reason I admire him.

While visiting Plains and thinking about Carter, my mind drifted back to a road-trip I'd taken in 1984.  I was heading back to Oregon after a year in college in the Midwest and was driving on a two-lane highway across the remote sagebrush plains of central Wyoming one afternoon.  I pulled into what looked like a modern town, called Jeffrey City, but as I drove down the streets, I realized the entire place was abandoned.  The modern houses, schools and stores were all empty, and weeds were poking up through the asphalt.  It was like something out of a science fiction movie.

I spotted a middle-aged couple working in a gas station, so I parked and walked in, and I asked the fellow there, "What happened to this place?"  The guy, wearing dirty overalls, looked at me and sputtered, "It was that peanut farmer!"  Apparently Jeffrey City had been a prosperous uranium boom town in the 1970s, but because of Carter's energy policy plus several other factors, the town went bust in the early 1980s.  The fellow continued to sputter about Carter, then he glared at me and said, "You didn't vote for him, did you?"  I was taken aback, and frankly a bit offended, having a total stranger confront me like that so angrily, so I didn't say anything and just backed out of the building, then I got back in my car.  I don't suggest visiting Jeffrey City today because high levels of radiation have been detected there and it's unsafe.  I had driven by Jeffrey City a couple months earlier and kept my distance – thinking about both the radiation and that angry fellow, if he was still there.

It was getting late and I still had a long way to drive that day, so I got back in my truck and left Plains, and I continued southward, crossing into Florida a few hours later on a rural backroad.  I continued driving through the endless pine forests as the sun set and a few hours later, around 8 p.m., I pulled into St. George Island State Park on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.  As I expected, the campground here was packed full but fortunately I’d made a reservation weeks before, so I drove around in the dark until I found my campsite.  I backed in, turned off the engine, unpacked some gear, and sat at the picnic table in the quiet darkness by my candle lantern and enjoyed the warm breezes while eating a simple dinner, still thinking about those men at Andersonville. 

  

Cotton, Carter, and the Coast

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

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