The week before Memorial Day weekend, I found myself at Andersonville, the infamous Confederate prison in Georgia where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died during the final 14 months of the Civil War.
From February 1864, when prisoners began to arrive, to the war’s end in April 1865, and until Andersonville closed in early May 1865, some 12,919 POWs succumbed to disease, starvation, exposure and the “dead line” ringing the interior of the camp, where sentries immediately shot anyone crossing over it. As the horrific conditions at the prison became known after the war, public outrage in the North led to the hanging of Henry Wirz, who had taken charge at Fort Sumter, the prison’s official name, in March 1864.
The Saturday afternoon of my stop at Andersonville was beautiful — blue Georgia sky, a hot sun and humid air. The parking lot was busy with visitors from around the Southeast, as well as a rather gaudy Jaguar with New Jersey tags, prompting me to think about how strange it is that most of us in the South never stop to think about anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line taking an interest in what we tend to think of as our war even 139 years after its end.
But they do, and Andersonville is one of the most poignant reminders of the great sacrifice and ultimate tragedy which touched Americans everywhere — North and South.
The Andersonville National Cemetery is the final resting place for the soldiers who died at the prison camp, as well as for eligible members of the armed services. Today, it contains more than 18,000 interments. Seeing the perfect rows of crosses and American flags reminded me of the time my family visited Arlington National Cemetery. While Arlington is sweeping in its size and emotional impact, both it and Andersonville are blanketed by a reverential silence.
I am not alone in this sentiment, but I have always felt that places like Arlington and Andersonville are hallowed ground. It is at these sacred sites where we go as a people to bury the heroes of the nation. As individuals, most of us follow a spiritual path leading often to a larger faith community. However, it seems that the rituals that we find at places like the Tomb of the Unknowns or the soldiers that we remember on Memorial Day are what allow us to transcend our religious and cultural differences. We might disagree with the underlying politics of a war or take issue with the notion of a just war, but we can’t deny the great sacrifices made by those fulfilling their sense of duty.
So, it’s too bad, I think, that we don’t spend much time considering these aspects of national life. We revel in partisanship and ignore everything that brings us together, balkanizing ourselves right out of a shared American experience.
A simple moment
Driving home from Georgia, I began to think about the mythological functions of places like the historic site, the prisoner of war museum and the National Cemetery at Andersonville. The cemetery, especially, shows us the terrible cost of the great battles, both the actual and the mythic, that we engage in: democracy vs. fascism, capitalism vs. communism and good vs. evil, freedom vs. subjugation.
The big, existential questions of life are easy to ignore these days. Obligations and distractions abound. It’s good to go off the beaten path and away from the everyday and find the sacred space of a place like Andersonville — where I gained a better understanding of what it means to be a Southerner, an American and a human. It’s not anything that I was expecting, but perhaps that’s the key to those simple revelatory moments.
Tomorrow, we can go back to the winner-takes-all world of politics that we find ourselves mired in this election year. But on this Memorial Day, I encourage you to take a little time to think about the beauty — and tragedy, which is part of it, too — of the American experience. You won’t regret it.
The Andersonville National Historic Site is online at www.nps.gov/ande/.
Jim Laird is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.