Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Andersonvill Election (Mature Subject Matter)

Most people know that Lincoln won reelection with 55% of the vote, carrying all but two states and lived long enough to get the news of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Few people know that, in an attempt to show a softening of Union resolve, the Confederate authorities allowed a mock election at Andersonville prison camp. It, of course, had no legal impact, but they hoped that Northerners would see a weakening of morale. The results? I would very much have liked to have seen the look on the Confederates’ faces when they learned that 91% of the Union prisoners voted for Lincoln. Southern newspapers immediately killed the story. 146 years later, I am in awe. Everyman in Andersonville knew they were staring death in the face. They couldn’t be certain that the Confederates wouldn’t simply massacre them before the end of the war. 146 years later, the fact that they had the moral courage to show such determination and defiance simply staggers the imagination.
You see, during the American Civil War, the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia was perhaps its lowest circle. After General Grant's termination of the prisoner exchange system in early 1864, the Confederate government forced 45,000 Federal POWs onto a 26.5 acre enclosure designed to hold 10,000 men. 13,000 of them died over the course of 14 months. Confederate sentries shot a few men for attempting to escape, or for crossing the "dead line" trying to get to fresh water.

They were the lucky ones. Food and fresh water were always inadequate, and medical supplies and shelter were practically nonexistent. Most of the men now buried at Andersonville died slow horrible deaths from starvation, exposure and dysentery (like this anonymous Union POW). After the war, Federal government tried and convicted the camp's commander, Captain Henry Wirz, for murder—he was hanged in late 1865 (shown below). It is still a hotly debated question whether Wirz intentionally killed POWs or was simply doing the best he could in an impossible situation.

By the late Summer of 1864, the Confederates had suffered so many defeats that their only hope for victory lay in the Presidential election set for November. If President Lincoln had lost to the Democratic candidate, George McClellan (who, two years previously, Lincoln had relieved as the General commanding the Army of the Potomac), the Confederacy might still be independent after Lincoln's term expired at noon on March 4, 1865.

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