The theme of our last couple days of travel, as we went through Georgia into South Carolina, seems to be about ghosts: local legends of ghosts and ghosts as a metaphor for things that haunt us.
We passed through the small town of Abbeville, Alabama on our way to Andersonville NHS. Abbeville boasts a sign at the city limits, “Welcome to Abbeville Home of Hugging Molly.” Naturally we had to find out who Hugging Molly is. Local Abbeville legend tells the story of a ghost named Hugging Molly, a seven foot tall woman as big around as a cotton bale, who would chase children who were out too late and hug them tight with her huge arms, screaming in their ears. Parents would use the tale of Hugging Molly to make their children come home on time: “If you’re not home before dark, Hugging Molly will get you.” Abbeville’s version of the boogie man.
Later that day, we reached the site of the infamous Confederate prison called Camp Sumter, but more commonly known as Andersonville. During the Civil War, upwards of 30,000 Union soldiers were held as prisoners of war there with minimal food, clothing or shelter. 13,000 of them died of starvation, dehydration, and disease while at the prison. Wounds they bore when captured often went untreated; infections were rampant; some literally had limbs rotting off from gangrene as they slept in the mud for days and weeks on end. After the war, when the remaining prisoners were released, their stories of the horrible conditions they had endured led to the first war crimes trial held in this country. The confederate soldier who ran the prison, Captain Wirz, was tried, convicted and hung, though he maintained until the end that he had done his best in impossible conditions. Even the confederate soldiers who worked at the prison were living on starvation level rations. The fault lay, according to Wirz, with the war itself.
The modern site of Andersonville is the location of various memorials to the men who died there and a National Cemetary where not only those 13,000 soldiers, but modern soldiers are buried as well. There was a funeral being held the day we were there. Andersonville NHS is also the site of the National Prisoner of War Museum.
The POW Museum is stark, and brutal, and incredibly sad. Architecturally, it is designed to bring to mind guard towers and barbed wire and cell blocks. It is dedicated not just to those who were imprisoned during the Civil War at Andersonville and other camps in both the north and the south, but to all American soldiers, men and women, who were held prisoner in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf war, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Museum emphasizes their commonalities and the shared emotions, though more than a century exists between the earliest and latest captives. The fear, friendship, deprivation and torture, despair, and relief when freedom is finally regained. Freedom is held dear when it was once lost. As one former POW from World War II explained, “I haven’t taken anything in my life for granted ever since.”
History and emotion seem to carry a physical weight at Andersonville. The ghosts there cling.
While Andersonville is in a way appropriate as the location of the National POW Museum — because it was the site of the largest POW camp ever built on our soil — the country might be better served and POWs better honored were it it a place where more people could visit. Andersonville is not easy to get to; it is not on the way to anywhere else, and it is a good 2-4 hours drive off of the interstates (depending on from where you are traveling). But I encourage you to go there. You will be moved and educated.
The next day, we paid a brief visit to a Fort Pulaski off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. At Fort Pulaski, confederate soldiers were held prisoner by the Union. A group known as “the Immortal 600” were held there, a number of them died from Yellow Fever.
The Civil War dead, about 620,000 soldiers, should haunt us.