A Voice From the Grave- Excerpt to be Released 2010
As Sidney Winder surveyed his surroundings he smiled. He had high aspirations and he would make them real. He visualized the finished camp in his mind. It would be a stockade with sides of seven hundred fifty feet to a side, and an enclosure which would occupy both slopes and encompass the stream which would give plenty of water to prisoners and guards alike. He wanted this camp to be the one that would be the envy of the confederacy. It was in a perfect place where there was plenty of water, it was on the rail line which was accessible and it was in the Deep South far away from the hub of t he fighting. He smiled as he envisioned the accolades he would receive for being the brains behind this site. Yes, sir he would be recognized.
But Sidney’s plan would not come to pass. His father General Winder had other ideas. He sent his second cousin Richard B. Winder to Anderson to head up the building of the prison.
Richard Winder and General John Henry Winder shared a great –grandfather. Richard Winder hailed from Accomack County Virginia and at one time had been a very wealthy land owner with a large plantation and many slaves. However, his allegiance to the South cost him everything. He was broke when he became a quartermaster in his cousin’s staff.
He had just returned from a furlough when he saw the orders to go to Andersonville on his desk.
Taking the papers in his hand he walked into Brigadier General Winder’s office and asked. “What is this?”
The General sat back in his chair and eyed his young cousin. “This is your chance to make a name for yourself in the Confederacy. Sidney is already down at Andersonville and he needs your help getting this prison up and running post haste. You know Richmond is overflowing and winter will soon be on us. There is nowhere to put the thousands of prisoners coming in every day. We need that prison up and running yesterday. I need you to go down and make it happen. Sidney is good but he has no backbone. He is having trouble getting the work done. The locals refuse to cooperate with him and it is stalling the building. I need someone who can go down there and strong arm them and make this thing happen. I will send you the supplies you need. Be ready to leave in two days time.”
Richard looked at The General and said nothing. There was no point in it,
He had made up his mind.
Upon arriving at Andersonville, Richard immediately took charge even though his younger cousin Sidney was in command. The first thing he did was enlarge the boundaries of the prison.
“We must expect more than the six thousand prisoners you were told would be arriving.” He told Sidney as they stood in the clearing watching as the linesmen moved the stakes another eighty yards onto Ben Dykes property.
“We have to expect at least ten thousand. We will be getting labor, teams and materials from General Winder. He has assured me they would be here.”
But once again the wheels of government not only turned slowly they were non- existent. As the two men continued to wait on the help from General Winder, they began to meet even more resistance from the residents of Anderson.
Every one said, “Not in my back door.”
The invasion of Sherman’s army in the south had created shortages and hostility. No one wanted the Yankee prisoners anywhere near their town or families. They knew they had to preserve what few resources they had left for their own consumption. The harvest was almost ready for gathering and there were no men to speak of to work the fields. The only labor was a few slaves, the very old, the very young and the women.
The strife became so bad that Governor Brown’s Political Opponent Howell Cobb decided that he needed to intervene as well as push his political career, so he traveled to Americus to sooth the fear and apprehension of the fine folks of Anderson.
Howell Cobb was a rotund man with a jolly fat face, a weak chin which was covered with a full beard and piercing eyes. He had a reputation as a talented jester addicted for talking. Now he stood on the courthouse steps cutting an imposing figure as he blasted the citizens of Americus for the lack of patriotism in a time when all needed to sacrifice. His military stance spoke volumes as he opened his mouth.
“My fellow citizens, I stand before you this day to ask you to understand we are in trying times. We all have to make sacrifices as we push forward for our cause. Many of you have already given your sons and husbands, I now ask you to give one more thing. I ask you to give up this notion that we don’t need the prison here. We do, it is our duty as confederates. We can’t have those Yankees running loose and going back North to just come back to rape our women and kill our livestock. We must keep them locked up until we win this war.”
But even this impassioned speech didn’t move the mood of the people. They didn’t want a prison in their neighborhood. Slave owners refused to allow their slaves to work on the stockade using the excuse that their crops were beginning to ripen and their slaves were needed in the fields; those crops were food which would be stored to feed them through the winter months. Draymen refused to rent their horses, mules or services. They said the livestock was also needed in the fields. To add insult to injury Richard Winder couldn’t obtain lumber because he was locked into a price set by the State Impressments Commissioners and the navy and hospital contractors could afford to pay more than he could.
Things went from bad to worse and as 1863 came to a close and the winter of 1864 descended as the wind blew through the still standing longleaf pines. The roughhewn stakes continued to lay on the thick forest floor waiting to be placed upright in the earth for the perimeter of the prison.
Secretary of War James Seddon had enough. He was a tall thin man with a hollowed out long sharp featured face. He had risen to the top of the heap because he was a lawyer and a politician serving two terms in congress. But because of his poor health he had gone into retirement before the War of Northern Aggression. It was only because of President Jefferson Davis’s request and his outstanding diplomatic skills that he was pressed into service as the Secretary of War. What he couldn’t know was that when the war started going south for the confederacy he would be blamed by Congress for his part in it. He would resign on February 6,1865 and he would be arrested by the Yankee Army on May 23,1865.
But at the moment he was in charge and he wanted his prison and he wanted it now. He made a decision which went against the grain of all involved in the project. Richard Winder needed supplies and men to get the stockade built. The Yankee prisoners had to be removed from Richmond and soon because more were filtering in every day. The war had escalated with Sherman busy with his march to the sea.
Secretary of War James Sheddon wielded his authority making the decision to anger the people of Anderson. He gave Richard Winder the authority to take what he needed from the citizens of Anderson in both labor and supplies alienating the citizens of Anderson even more. Tempers ran hot and hostility grew. Not only did the people of Anderson feel like they were fighting the Yankees they were fighting their own side as well.
Richard Winder enlisted an amateur engineer by the name of Mr. Heys to direct the project. He in turn brought in an overseer by the name of J.M. McNealy to supervise the slave gangs. The die was cast. In January 1864 the first pines were felled by slaves and the hell of Andersonville prison was born.
Jonas thought about all of this as he looked at the map he had acquired before he started the dig. It showed exactly where the trench had been dug, where the gates had been placed on the west wall along with their own stockades in front of them with another gate leading to the outside. He had read in his research that the outside gate was for security. There would always be one gate shut when the other was open to keep prisoners from trying to escape.
“Makes perfect sense.” Jonas said out loud as he surveyed the area. The rolling hills had turned green with grass, the tall pines swayed high in the blue sky and Mother Nature had once again claimed that which was hers. The only visible signs that evil had occurred here were the digs and the pieces of walls which had been rebuilt to show how the prison was built to preserve the history that had been Andersonville prison.
He could see the pigeon roosts which were six by four foot pole platforms on the outside of the walls at the top so the guards could stand or lean their elbows on the long ends while they kept watch over those below.
Jonas squatted back down to slowly pull away the earth with his brush and trowel. He knew he must dig carefully in order not to destroy any artifacts which might be hidden in the red Georgia clay. As he slowly brushed away the dirt he felt the history of this place. He sensed the ghosts which walked the grounds and he felt the pain each one had suffered.
“Whoever said War is Hell made an understatement.” Jonas said out loud as his trowel hit something hard. Slowly he brushed away the dirt. His trowel had tapped a tin cup and it was outside the deadline.
He carefully pulled the cup from the clay and looked at it. He wondered who had died trying to get water. He knew the cup had a story to tell but he wondered if he would ever know it. Again he felt that chill.
Jonas started to put the tin cup in his bag and leave when something in the dirt caught his eye. At first it looked like one of the many animal bones he had discovered as he dug for artifacts and uncovered the post of the walls. He knew those bones were from cow and pig meals the slaves had eaten as they chopped the trees and hewed them into poles for the walls. But this was different, it looked smaller. The cup had been lying right next to it.
He squatted back down staring into the hole not daring to touch anything just yet. He needed pictures.
“What did I do with my camera?” He said as he rummaged through his backpack.
After going through all of the compartments he finally found it at the bottom of the largest one under a notebook. Not daring to take his eyes off what he thought he saw he positioned the Nikon Digital over the red clay. After he had taken the shot he looked in the viewing box and still didn’t believe his eyes. He took two more shots then returned the camera to his backpack.
Slowly he dusted away the dirt with his brush taking his time so as not to disturb the bones. The more he dusted the more confused he became. It was a human hand clasped like it had at one time been holding something, maybe the cup. The hand was tiny like a woman’s and attached to it was an arm. Jonas was confused.
He knew of one woman buried in the graveyard who had come into the camp as a man. She remained unknown until the day she died of malnutrition and was taken to the death house. When her few clothes were removed to be redistributed to other prisoners, her gender was discovered. Jonas also knew there was a stone with the title unknown female who was discovered after she died but no one ever knew her real name. There had also been women who had followed their military husbands to the prison when they had been captured in the field of battle and refused to leave them. They had either died in the camp or had been released along with their husbands at the end of the war. Jonas wondered if this could have been another unknown woman. He remembered reading the diary of a young Michigan Calvary Solider by the name of John L. Ransom. In one of his entries he had written on December 23, 1863 while a prisoner at Andersonville. The entry said, “ A woman found among us— a prisoner of war… She tells of another female being among us, but as yet she has not been found out.”
This dig was becoming more of a mystery than he thought.
The ground was no longer easy to dust away, he had hit clay again.
“Damn Georgia Clay.” Jonas swore under his breath as he took his trowel and gently dug into the red dirt.
He knew all about this Georgia red clay which dried like brick mortar. He had played in it enough as a child. When the rains came it was like slick oil which was fun to slide and slosh in, but when it dried it became hard as stone. It usually took dynamite to blow a hole in it. But not today, Jonas wanted to keep whatever it was in the red grave intact. He was breathing heavy as sweat popped out under his arms and down his back. His eyes stung with the salty droplets. But yet there was that chill. What had he uncovered?
He couldn’t stop, he had to continue and he had become driven by the need to find out more. It took over an hour before he had uncovered an arm and a partial face. Jonas felt his chest tighten, next to the arm it looked like another skull.
“What the hell?” He stammered as he sat back on his haunches. He thought of calling Savannah over but he wasn’t sure she would even hear him. He could only scratch his head in surprise and wonder.
“How did this get here?” He said to the wind as he looked to the sky and the bright sun. “What have I uncovered?”