Andersonville vs. Belsen

Camp Sumter was the official name of the Confederate military prison at Andersonville, Georgia. It opened for business in late February of 1864 and remained in operation until the end of the Civil War, 14 months later.

Andersonville was needed to hold prisoners of war after the prisoner-exchange agreements between North and South were abandoned for lack of consensus on how to handle black soldiers.

Andersonville quickly became known for its inhumane conditions and high death rate – 13,000 Union soldiers died there in the short time it operated.

It was originally designed for 10,000 prisoners, but the population quickly exceeded 30,000. Plans called for wooden barracks, but none were built as the cost of lumber was too great, so the Union soldiers imprisoned there lived out in the open, using only bits of cloth and whatever sticks of wood they could scrounge for makeshift shelters.

camp sumter

A small stream ran through the 16-acre site that was supposed to provide drinking water, but it quickly became a cesspool and source of disease, and in the summer it dried up. Rations were barely starvation-level and often over half the inmates reported ill.

Andersonvillesurvivor

Andersonville Prisoner

The commander of Andersonville, Captain Henry Wirz, was convicted of war crimes and hanged  shortly after the war. In his closing statement, the Judge Advocate General, Joseph Holt, said of Wirz,

“his work of death seems to have been a saturnalia of enjoyment for the prisoner [Wirz], who amid these savage orgies evidenced such exultation and mingled with them such nameless blasphemy and ribald jest, as at times to exhibit him rather as a demon than a man.”

wirz_001

Henry Wirz

Wirz was executed in Washington, D.C. on November 10, 1865 at the age of 41. His last words, spoken to the officer in charge, were,  “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.”

Wirz execution

Execution of Wirz

Here’s a sketch, made by a prisoner, showing some forms of punishment at Andersonville:

andersonville punishment

The “Andersonville Raiders” were inmates who preyed on others by stealing their possessions, terrorizing, and sometimes murdering them. They were a loosely organized group whose numbers have been estimated by various sources to be between 50 and 500, and who were led by a handful of “chieftans”. As a result of their activities, the Raiders were better fed and situated than other prisoners, and had weapons as well, assuring that they could continue their activities with ease.

The activities of the Raiders were ultimately halted by an internal police force organized by Wirz, called the Regulators, and the six Chieftans were executed.

andersonville execution

Execution of Raiders

There are a lot of similarities, I think, between Andersonville, and some of the Nazi-era concentration camps. In particular, Andersonville and Bergen-Belsen seem to me to share many characteristics.

About 50,000 people died at Belsen, perhaps most memorably Anne Frank and her sister Margot, just days before liberation. Like Andersonville, it was originally set up as a prisoner of war camp, and was expected to hold prisoners to be exchanged.

When the British walked into the camp in 1945, they discovered some 60,000 still barely alive, many lying on the ground among the thousands of unburied dead, and hardly distinguishable from them.  Over 13,000 people alive at liberation were too ill to recover.

After liberation, the camp was burned to prevent the spread of Typhus. Belsen had been  a much larger operation than Andersonville, of course, and persisted for years longer. It was the last year or so of operation that, for me, echoes Andersonville the most.

From July 1944 onward the population of the camp swelled from 7300 to the 60,000 at liberation, as Jews still alive in some of the big eastern camps were forced to march into Germany’s interior. These people were already weakened by years of persecution, and arrived in Belsen to find meager rations, no sanitation, little shelter and rampant disease.

They had already been robbed of all their possessions, but the equivalent of the Andersonville Raiders were certainly well-represented among them.

As with Andersonville, there were trials after the war and eleven of the Belsen staff were sentenced to death, including the Commandant, Josef Kramer, who was executed on December 12, 1945. Kramer’s previous post had been Lagerführer at Auschwitz, in charge of managing the gassing of newly arrived transports from May-November, 1944.

kramer under guard

Kramer under guard

Kramer, like Wirz, had a clear conscience, and thought of himself as a scapegoat. He explained to the British interrogating him,

“The camp was not really inefficient before you [British and American forces] crossed the Rhine. There was running water, regular meals of a kind – I had to accept what food I was given for the camp and distribute it the best way I could. But then they suddenly began to send me trainloads of new evacuees from all over Germany. It was impossible to cope with them. I appealed for more staff, more food. I was told that this was impossible. I had to carry on with what I had.

Then as a last straw, the Allies bombed the electric plant that pumped our water. Loads of food were unable to reach the camp because of the Allied fighters. Then things really got out of hand. During the last six weeks I have been helpless. I did not even have sufficient staff to bury the dead, let alone segregate the sick… I tried to get medicines and food for the inmates and I failed. I was swamped. I may have been hated, but I was doing my duty.”

There are similarities between Andersonville and Belsen, but also many differences – too many to address in this post.  Are they morally equivalent? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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5 thoughts on “Andersonville vs. Belsen”

  1. What jumps out at me as a common theme is “duty” and “following orders”. But clearly the big difference is that one was genocidal and the other wasn’t.

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  2. Just a few first thoughts-

    The camps existed for the extermination of peoples as their primary purpose.

    The civil war was a battle between opposing armies and the POWs were captured soldiers, not civilians.

    POWs did not see their families tortured and killed.

    Children and women were not POWs.

    Confederates did not think of Union soldiers as subhumans but as opponents.

    The POWs were captured in battle, not ripped from their homes.

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