In the late 1970s, I started researching my family tree. My paternal grandmother’s grandfathers were Union soldiers in the Civil War, so I obtained their military records through the National Archives.
Charles G. Dixon married his sweetheart two days before he enlisted in October, 1864, in Company E, 8th Regiment, Illinois Cavalry. Private Dixon served only 9 months before his discharge in July 1865. A year later, he and Emma Gleason became parents of my great-grandfather, William H. Dixon.
Sanford C. H. Smith was a married father of four children when he enlisted in September, 1862, in Company H, 7th Regiment, Ohio Cavalry. Corporal Smith was captured during the Battle of Rogersville (Tennessee) on November 6, 1863. He was imprisoned in Belle Isle, the main Confederate prison near Richmond, Virginia. Belle Isle quickly became overcrowded, so Corporal Smith was among the first POWs to be transported to the newly built Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia in February 1864.
Last April, I jumped at the chance to visit the Andersonville National Historic Site on a family trip. What was it like for my great-great grandfather to be imprisoned at Camp Sumter?
At the Visitors’ Center, we watched a graphic 20-minute video which depicted the atrocious living conditions at this cramped outdoor prison. Camp Sumter was designed as a 16 ½-acre site to hold 10,000 prisoners, but 10 acres were added when the population swelled to 32,000 men in just 5 months. 13,000 prisoners died there from exposure, starvation and disease in only 14 months.
Signs at the Visitors’ Center advised us to keep our voices low and treat the prison site as sacred ground. I felt a mixture of curiosity and dread as I entered the site, complete with two sections of a reconstructed stockade wall and sentry boxes for guards to watch the POWS. Any prisoner who crossed the “deadline,” the boundary line, would be shot.
I lingered at the prison site and tried to imagine how my ancestor survived such appalling living conditions and protected himself against other prisoners who fought over limited resources. It was touching to see a nearby tall granite monument dedicated to the Ohio POWs who were held at Camp Sumter.
I could not leave the area without taking a walking tour of the town of Andersonville, a mile from the prison site and cemetery. POWs were transported in boxcars and exited the prison train at the Andersonville Depot.
They marched together down a small hill to their new prison home. Today white footsteps are painted on that path to depict the footsteps of these doomed prisoners. It was painful to imagine these bedraggled soldiers limping along without sustenance to Camp Sumter.
What happened to Corporal Smith? Thankfully, he was exchanged and paroled in Charleston, SC in December, 1864.
After taking some well-deserved leave, Corporal Smith resumed his military duties until he was discharged in June 1865.
Corporal Smith reunited with his family in Marietta, Ohio and went on to have five more children. My great-grandmother, Annie Laurie Smith, was born in 1868.
My very existence is dependent on Corporal Smith’s survival at Camp Sumter.
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014 has taken over 70 OLLI courses on literature, writing, history, health and wellness, art, music, language, sociology, technology, theater and genealogy. She proofreads for each new OLLI catalog.