Living in the South, our Inquisitive TravelingMom has a lot of Civil War history surrounding her. Just a few hours from Atlanta is one of the most infamous Civil War prisons, Andersonville. Andersonville National Historic Site just outside of Columbus, Georgia houses not only the Confederate prison site but a POW museum. Why would she take her kids there? When it’s the site where her children’s 3rd great grandfather was held and almost died, history hits a lot closer to home.
Andersonville National Historic Site and POW Museum
I was raised in the South but I’ve got a secret, y’all – I’m Yankee born. I was born in Buffalo, NY and it took me moving to Atlanta to meet my husband, who was born in Syracuse, NY.
When it comes to Civil War history, we don’t have a Confederate between us. My husband’s great-great grandfather fought for the Union, was captured in the Battle of the Wilderness and shipped to Andersonville Prison. He was wounded, sick and in danger of death when the war came to an end. That timing was good for me, since he didn’t marry and have children until after the war. My children needed the experience of the place where their grandfather was held to understand how close we came to not being a family at all.
The Prisoner of War Museum
Maintained by the National Parks Service, this museum covers not only Civil War soldiers but soldiers of all wars. The walk-through exhibits grab your attention. In one room, a prison break is simulated. Lights flashed and sirens went off; announcements issuing prison orders came over a loudspeaker. It wasn’t loud enough to be scary for kids, but it was startling and immersive.
A video shown in another room features loved ones who know the agony of having no idea where their soldier is or what’s happening to them. Reconstructions of tiny bamboo huts that held POWs of later wars are on display. My kids couldn’t help but pay attention. They learned that some people consider being a POW a worse option than dying on the battlefield.
Andersonville Prison Site
After you are done in the museum, head out back to the Andersonville prison site. Only a few reconstructed walls stand. The wide open space distracts you from knowing what the conditions there were really like. Be sure to show your kids the photos and illustrations on the signs dotted about the property, but especially in the park brochure. You can see the cramped conditions, armed guards every few feet and lack of sanitary conditions.
Close to 13,000 soldiers died in a little over a year; most of the deaths from disease and starvation. In the last year of war, the Confederate troops were cut off from supplies and couldn’t sustain the amount of people held in the camp. A halt in prisoner exchanges exacerbated the conditions. Andersonville was built to hold 10,000 men, but by August of 1864 held over 32,000 prisoners.
Visitors can witness up close the spring that offered prisoners fresh hope in the summer of 1864. The stream that ran through the camp became swampy with prisoner waste as well as the cast offs of buildings upstream. Prisoners were dying of thirst. One summer day, a spring erupted from the ground within the stockade. Some prisoner accounts attribute it to a lightning strike. After the war, Union veteran groups built the stone house surrounding the spring and for several years returned to the spring as a Memorial Day tradition.
I’m the Inquisitive TravelingMom for a reason. I’m curious and I have a vivid imagination. I will admit that while walking the grounds of Andersonville, my mind kept coming back to the fact that I was bringing John Kratzenberg’s Atlanta-born grandsons to walk the ground he walked and to tell his story. When I saw my boys looking for crawfish and frogs in the spring, I had to catch this photo. After John went through so much misery at this place, his grandsons could come back carefree, never knowing the deprivations of war. It returned a certain innocence to the site.
Andersonville National Cemetery
The cemetery is a short drive from the historic site and I urge you not to skip it. The rows and rows of gravestones make clear to our kids the number of people who fought and sacrificed for our freedom. There is beauty there, too. Various states raised money to design and erect large and sometimes elaborate monuments to their fallen Civil War dead.
A 19 year old prisoner named Dorence Atwater identified 95% of the graves. He worked in the hospital and recorded deaths and grave locations. When the war ended, he smuggled this list out. With the help of nurse Clara Barton, he was instrumental in allowing families to locate their loved ones. It’s a great lesson to kids how small acts of courage can mean so much to others.
The Junior Ranger Program at Andersonville National Historic Site
All National Park sites offer a Junior Ranger program. The kids receive an activity book to work through as they tour the site. The activities require exploration and engagement with the site, making learning fun! The Andersonville Junior Ranger book has an interesting twist – kids imagine that they are an Andersonville prisoner along with a brother named Andrew. The children makes choices about what they need in prison and decisions they would make in daily prison life.
My son looked through his book with a park ranger, discussed his choices and reached into a bag to grab a small piece of cardstock that listed “his” fate. Lucky for him, my little prisoner was paroled!
I will tell you that when I announced to my children that we were going to visit a Civil War prison site, I got the groans from the teenagers. During touring, though, I saw them engaging. My oldest asked several times, “So, this was where our grandfather was? He was actually HERE?” Andersonville National Historic Site brings home to kids the realities of war off the battlefield and highlights the plight of all POW’s throughout the years. It’s worth a trip for anyone, but it’s a must visit for families of those in the military.
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