I read Mackinlay Kantor's novel Andersonville some months ago, and it has really stayed with me, so when we were planning this trip, I made sure the Andersonville National Historic Park was a stop. We arrived in early afternoon, with plenty of time to see an introductory video to the prison that was a little rough around the edges but whose overall impression was eerie and heartbreaking. The room was completely silent and no one moved from their seats for at lest a minute after it ended.
We then walked through the National Prisoner of War Museum, which had some really extraordinary strengths – some deeply thoughtful exhibit text and installations, and amazing artifacts, but also had some really terrible weaknesses, such as obvious typos and poor overall organization. The long central hallway, for example, told the story of the Civil War and of Andersonville simultaneously (not really chronologically) but had exhibit cases in its center with objects from the Bataan Death March...with no cohesive text that I could see.
Other installations in the museum did a remarkable job of explaining the psychological toll of being a prisoner of war, as well as the fraught international status of many prisoners, emphasizing that not all POWs were the same. There were a few disturbing exhibits, such as reproductions of cells and “tiger cages” from Vietnam, and some interviews with former POWs that brought tears to my eyes.
|Nicely done interpretive section explaining the complexities of international law as it applies to prisoners of war by using examples from American history.|
Once we finished with the museum, we checked out an audio tour at the desk for free (score one over Gettysburg!) and drove around the site of the prison itself. The park itself was masterfully done: informative without being overwhelming, with occasional tasteful reproductions that did not take away from the overall scope and impact of the land. The audio tour had good wayfinding (telling us that it was timed for 10mph, for example, and suggesting spots where we would benefit from getting out and exploring).
I was blown away by several things. First, how small the overall space was. I couldn't quite picture the limits of the stockade, but the walls were shown by white poles every twenty feet or so that clearly outlined the space without being too obtrusive. There was an outer line of poles for the stockade wall, and an inner line for the deadline, and it was eerie to stand between them.
The two reproduced sections of stockade wall and gate were good to get a taste of just what the walls looked like. I would never have expected, for example, for the footing of the logs to be so splashed with red Georgia clay, making them seem almost bloody. I also hadn't expected so much terrain – I must have missed references to that until now. Standing on a bit of a rise, we could look down and see clearly how much land must have been unusable because of the marshy area around the Stockade Branch - and how quickly that must have become a cesspool.
|View from the North Gate reproduction, with the marshy area of the Stockade Branch visible in the center.|
|Reproduced prisoners' shebangs and stockade wall in one corner.|
|Prisoners' graves at Andersonville National Cemetery.|