When the first prisoners arrived Feb. 27, 1864, they had to create their own housing by making tents using blankets or burrowing in to a hillside. The only water source was polluted and food rations wouldn’t have kept a dog alive.
Some who left Andersonville died within weeks or months of the war’s end. Photographs of near skeletal men arriving at Camp Parole in Annapolis became the public memory of Andersonville. They are still shocking images today. But there were also journals and diaries, some published at the time, which received much less attention.
“Resilience determined who lived,” said Eric Leonard, Andersonville National Historic Site’s chief of education and interpretation. “Thousands did go home. It’s a story of the human spirit and of hope. It’s a remarkable part of the Andersonville story.”
Sgt. Maj. Robert H. Kellog of the 16th Regular Connecticut Volunteers wrote a lengthy journal that was published in 1865. After several months at the prison, he resolved to survive. He would not give in to the excruciating longing for home and good food that had made some men crazy. He would “maintain that energy of character” that he saw as the basis of hope.
“It was those who bore up with brave heart and strong will that came out the best, or perhaps one might say came out at all,” he wrote.
These soldiers were also a defiant lot who saw escaping as the proper role of a POW. Days and weeks were spent secretly tunneling out of the compound but an actual escape was rare. The men were either betrayed by one of their own in exchange for extra rations or the tunnel caved in. The few who got away were chased down by dogs used to track escaping slaves.
The survivors were a mixture of new immigrants, farmers, mechanics, tradesmen and merchants. With death a daily occurrence, sometimes taking hundreds of men at a time, some of the prisoners reverted to what they knew best. The barbers and tailors opened businesses. Some made a crude beer and others set up gambling games. A little bit of skilled work or luck at the cards could make the difference for survival. Cash would buy fresh vegetables and citrus fruit or just substantial food from a Confederate soldier detailed as a vendor who had a stand in the compound.
That supplemented the daily rations of “a teacup full” of coarse cornmeal and a bit of rancid bacon.
One barber set up shop in front of his blanket-draped hovel. He made a barber pole of a long stick with bark cut out to form the traditional serpentine design, according to the richly illustrated diary of Pvt. Robert K. Sneden, owned by the Virginia Historical Society and published in 2000. With scissors and a straight-edge razor he got from another soldier, he was in business.