By Camille Bielby
CNHI News Service
ANDERSONVILLE, Ga. — Guards jeer from watch towers. Prisoners huddle around flickering fires and gnash hard tack. Sailors complain about thirst and long for home.
Eye-stinging smoke hangs low over a rebuilt corner of Confederate Camp Sumter, as guests shuffle through a living history created by volunteers portraying imprisoned Union soldiers. Visitors from the modern day try not to trip over tent lines and shelters as they make their way through the early evening darkness.
The visitors - nearly 100 of them - see up-close what it must have been like to endure thirst, hunger, cold and overcrowding in Camp Sumter, which became a symbol of the atrocities of the Civil War.
More than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned here during the camp's 14-month existence from February 1864 until the end of the war in April 1865. Nearly 13,000 of those prisoners died, mostly from illness, exposure and starvation.
The volunteers, dressed in period attire, assume characters of actual prisoners who suffered through one of the darkest periods of the nation’s history. Many have come from outside the area for the event.
William Summe, originally from Pittsburgh, traveled from his home in Griffin, Ga., to portray a German immigrant. One of his ancestors was a Camp Sumter survivor.
Samuel Leonard, a 9-year-old visitor, asks Summe how many Confederates he fought before he was captured.
Summe keeps a convincing accent in character and replies: “A goodly chunk.”
Ryan Freeman, of Columbus, Ga., regales youngsters with tales of how hard it is to stay warm through the cold winter months - even in South Georgia. When not imprisoned in Camp Sumter, Freeman is a high school history teacher working on his master's degree.
The night museum program is designed to give modern-day visitors a unique view of what it means to be a prisoner of war, said Eric Leonard, education and interpretation ranger for Andersonville National Historic Site. Additional programs are scheduled in January and November of next year.
In addition to the living history outside, Civil War historian and author Michael J. Bennett lectured inside a warm museum theater about Confederate prisons in Richmond, Va.
He described the violence of war and how soldiers are affected by learning to kill and destroy. He explained in graphic detail how captured soldiers are "processed" - or robbed and humiliated - setting a cruel precedent for prison guards who were rewarded with paid furloughs for killing prisoners.
The miserable conditions are palpable around the small campfires outside. At one, a group of sailors huddled to cook salt pork and ground corn on a melted-down canteen.
The guards give them little food, the sailors complain, and nothing to cook it with. One pledges to drink the entire pond when he returns to his farm after the war.
“We were captured down around Savannah,” a sailor explains. “A cavalry of Confederates came riding up in the middle of the night and took us.”
Camille Bielby writes for the Americus, Ga., Times-Recorder.