There is no doubt that I am a history chaser, especially if there is an opportunity to explore personal history. In fact, it was the discovery of my Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s grave at Andersonville Prison that prompted our #HotMamaDoesAmerica road trip across America.
I learned that his name was William and he fought in the Civil War for the Union with the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry (aka The Irish Dragoons). Sadly, he was wounded in battle and taken as one of the many prisoners of war, where he died of Scorbutus (scurvy) in 1864.
We knew that a POW camp would be heavy for the kids, but we also felt it was important for them to experience. So after a fun time in San Antonio and New Orleans, we changed things up and headed to Andersonville Prison with kids.
Watch our video on visiting Andersonville Prison with kids
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What was Andersonville?
Located in Andersonville, Georgia the Camp Sumter military prison is now known as the Andersonville National Historic Site. The prison camp started out as a small stockade prison to hold a maximum of 10,000 Union Army prisoners and ended up becoming the largest Confederate military prison during the Civil War. By the end of its 14 month existence, Andersonville POW camp held over 45,000 men in total! 13,000 of the prisoners at Andersonville prison camp died due to horrendous prison conditions, starvation and disease. Knowing that my relative was one of them makes it even more emotional. Since then the Andersonville Civil War Prison has turned into a POW memorial to all American prisoners of war.
Money Saving Tips:
Visiting Andersonville Prison is super light on your pocket book as this national historic site is free. However, they do take donations and of course there is a gift shop you’ll want to peruse. Other than that it is a very cost effective day trip.
Where to stay near Andersonville, GA
If you are traveling far, like we were during our road trip, you’ll need to know where to stay when you reach Andersonville. The best option is staying in nearby towns, like Americus. I recommend the historic Windsor Hotel. Check rates and availability.
We were invited to stay at the Windsor during our trip and we just fell in love with the place. Not only was it beautiful, but it has tons of history and even some ghost stories. You can read our full review of the hotel HERE.
Things to do in Andersonville, GA:
Andersonville today, consists of three areas to explore. There is the National Prisoner of War Museum, former site of the Camp Sumter military prison, and the Andersonville National Cemetery.
National POW Museum:
After parking, you will start your journey at the museum. It is a really fascinating place and I was surprised at how much my kids enjoyed learning about Civil War camp life. In fact, FireCracker wanted to read all of the Andersonville prisoner names and every single letter written by the POWs held at Sumter Prison.
The National Prisoner of War Museum isn’t just about the Civil War POW. The museum takes you on a course, sharing the stories of many prisoners of war throughout American history. The first gallery explains what a POW is and from there you follow along the prisoners’ journey. In addition to the prison history, you will learn the about how many were captured and what their living conditions were like at a POW camp. Much of this is known thanks to journals and letters written by the Union prisoners of war. You will even learn how they maintained morale and relationships until their escape, release or death.
The exhibits are hands-on, which is great for encouraging children’s comprehension and sustain their interest. There are touchable items and drawers that can be opened to reveal information about the prisoners of war. This is where my daughter loved reading all the letters and my son loved playing with the many touchable gadgets.
Before you explore the war camp and Andersonville cemetery, be sure to watch the two short films that are playing in the museum. The must-see is the Voices from Andersonville, which is a 28 minute film that explains the prison history as well as the Andersonville experience through the personal accounts of Andersonville POWs. If you only have time for one, definitely see this one. The film is very well done and even my little kids got a bit emotional during the viewing. It was the perfect setup for what we were about to see outside.
However, it is hot in Georgia during the summer, so may want to hang inside as long as possible. If you have time, check out the Echoes of Captivity, which is a 27 minute film that shares the experiences of prisoners of war throughout American History.
Also, if you would like to learn more about Camp Sumter Civil War Prison at Andersonville, there are is a popular Andersonville movie and Andersonville book available for purchase. Check Price for Movie. Check Price for Book.
Outside the museum is a circular road that takes you around to the important locations on the Andersonville historic site. You can take the road by foot or by car. It is a big site, like 26.5 acres big. So, I recommend driving especially in the heat. There are plenty of pull-off areas to get out and explore further by foot, which is what we did during our visit. Before you leave the National POW Museum to explore the property, be sure to grab a complimentary audio tour at the information desk.
Camp Sumter Military Prison:
The first thing you will see as you make your way outside are the ominous walls of the reconstructed Northeast corner of the military stockade. It is here that you really get a feel for camp life during the Civil War. You feel just how horrible the Andersonville prison conditions must have been without basic necessities like shelter, food and water. The water they did have was minimal and contaminated, causing disease. It was sad to see the markers where men had dug their own wells in desperate need for fresh water. My son, CuddleBear, stood under the hot Georgia sun staring solemnly out at the makeshift civil war camp. I could tell he was digesting the pain and suffering that happened here all those years ago. For kids who have everything, it was a very humbling experience.
Next are the 11 prison site monuments. There are benches within the monument garden for taking a silent moment.
2. Lizabeth Turner
3. Clara Barton
4. Sun Dial
6. Rhode Island
The North Gate
Keep moving and you will come to the North Gate. Walking through the doors with its towering walls, you can imagine how hopeless many of these Union prisoners of war felt. Many would enter one of the worst prisons in Georgia, but few would leave. North Gate sits high on a hill allowing you to view the white posts that outline where the walls would have been surrounding Andersonville Civil War Prison camp. You can also get a clear view of the “Dead Line,” which was an inner wall designed to keep prisoners from reaching the outer wall. According to the prison records, guards were to shoot anyone who even touched the wall without warning. Happily, you also get a great view of Providence Spring.
The story of Providence Spring is about the only happy story that you’ll hear coming out of Andersonville Prison. The only water source for the war prisoner was a small stream. Not only was it insufficient for the overcrowded prison, it was also more of a sewer. You heard the saying “Shit runs down hill” and that is essentially what was happening at Andersonville. The waste from the guards and animals at the top of the hill would contaminate the water before it could reach the prisoners at the bottom, making many very sick.
The miracle of Providence Spring is thanks to a thunderstorm that appeared out of nowhere on a clear day. Not only did the rain give them fresh water, but a lightning bolt struck the ground revealing a new spring of water. The spring still flows today and has been memorialized at Andersonville Prison. At the gift shop you can purchase a little glass bottle to take some of the spring water home with you. The label ensures that we will never forget the thirst of the prisoners that suffered here at Andersonville. We bought a bottle and my daughter took great pride in filling up at Providence Spring.
The walls have since disappeared, but this was once the headquarters of this Civil War prison. Here, you can still see the Star Fort cannons, which at one time had four facing outward toward Union raids and five facing toward the overcrowded POW camp.
Andersonville National Cemetery:
Established in 1865, the Andersonville cemetery holds the 13,000 Union soldiers that died at Camp Sumter. It continues to serve as a permanent place of honor for those gave their life in military service, holding 150 burials a year. Since the cemetery is related to the historic prison site, in 1970 it was added the National Park System.
This was one of the most special parts of our visit to Andersonville. It was quite a moment when we all got out of the car and saw the tombstone of our Civil War Grandpa. I grew up listening to my dad proudly tell stories of his Great-Great Grandfather that fought and died as a Union Soldier. However, he never knew his name or the exact location of the prison. Thanks to a friend’s ancestry research and my love of travel, a very amazing moment was created for my dad. It was an incredible moment for me too and my kids. I loved that we were all there to experience this together.
Things to do with kids:
I don’t go anywhere without my babies in tow and I know that a prisoner of war memorial may sound too somber of a destination for little ones, but let me spin it. I feel that it is important to expose our kids to the happenings of our world. With fear comes hate, with knowledge comes understanding.
Plus, Andersonville offers plenty of activities for kids to lighten up the day. There is the Junior Ranger program for kids 8 and over, where upon completion of activities, they receive an official Andersonville Junior Ranger badge and a Key to Freedom patch. There is also the Travel Clara Barton activity, scouting activities and trading cards.
That’s A Wrap!
You might think that the history of a heavy site, like a Civil War prison camp, would go over the kids’ heads, but it really captured their attention. The energy of Andersonville could not be denied. As our kids stood on the depressing prison field under the hot sun they were overcome with emotion. They were so full of understanding that it brought out a very calm and respectful side to their personality. All night after the visit they kept talking about the site and how they felt for the men that had to endure being an Andersonville POW. Sure it was heavy, but I think it was good for them and a humbling experience. If you are on the fence about visiting a darker historical site with your kids, I say go for it and it will likely make them appreciate their life a little more.
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