As General Sherman led Union troops through Georgia in September of 1864, Confederate authorities in the small central Georgia town of Andersonville became nervous that Federal troops would launch a raid to free the Union prisoners held there. Thus began movement of prisoners, many ill and near death, on a crisscross of South Georgia that included a 12-day stay in Thomasville.
The prisoners leaving Andersonville were first sent to Charleston and Savannah before being reunited in October of 1864 in Millen, Georgia. Their stay in Millen was short-lived, as the prisoners were quickly routed back to Savannah and shortly thereafter to Blackshear. The camp in Blackshear was badly overcrowded, and with no option of returning to Savannah, Thomasville was designated as the prisoners' next destination. The logistics of shipping 5,000 POW's and their guards to Thomasville was complex since the Atlantic-Gulf Railroad that connected Thomasville to Savannah was severed in a number of places. The prisoners were put to work to repair the damaged railway, but not without protest.
One prisoner, Pvt. John McElroy of the 16th Illinois Cavalry, recalled that when he and his fellow soldiers were asked to help repair the railroad to Thomasville, "we respectfully but firmly declined." McElroy recalled cynically telling his captors that they 'were gentlemen of leisure, and decidedly adverse to manual labor; we had been invited on this excursion by Mr. Jeff Davis and his friends, who set themselves up as our entertainers, and it would be a gross breach of hospitality to reflect upon our host by working our passage. If they insist, we certainly should not visit them again."
Despite the sarcastic protestations, the forced labor of slaves and prisoners would eventually get the prisoners to Thomasville, although several died along the way. On December 5, 1864, the approximate 5,000 Union prisoners of war arrived by train to Thomasville, placing the POWs safely out of the path of the approaching Union soldiers.
The 5,000 Union prisoners as well as several dozen slaves were put to work digging trenches and chopping down trees about a half-mile outside of Thomasville's city limits. All 5,000 were in an approximate six acre square enclosure that was enriched by an eight-foot trench. Several soldiers died from working within the camp, including one who was killed by a downed tree. The weather during the prisoners' stay was agreeable, but the conditions were not. An outbreak of smallpox claimed, by some estimates, as many as 500 prisoners. A makeshift hospital was set up at the Methodist Church on Broad Street, and those who perished were buried in the small cemetery next to the church. At least one prisoner managed to escape.
By mid-December, Sherman's army was on the move toward South Carolina, and Andersonville was once again deemed safe from Union raids. On December 17th, two Confederate units were dispatched to Thomasville to march the remaining prisoners back to Andersonville, which they reached by Christmas Eve of 1864. Although the war ended a few months later, the legends and myths of those twelve days that Thomasville became Andersonville still remain.
A Soldier's Thoughts
"A heavy guard was placed around us, a battery of light artillery trained on us, and a pack of bloodhounds kept conveniently near. On one side of our camp was a ditch four feet wide, filled with water, and the guards' beat along this ditch was very long. I determined to escape that night, and in order to do so, must jump the ditch; so I measured off four feet with my hands and tried to jump that distance. I couldn't jump one foot. My muscles had been so affected by scurvy that they had lost their elasticity. I sat down and cried like a baby; it was no use to try."
Private Thaddeus L. Water, Company G, 2nd Michigan Cavalry. 1868
"Our train thumped and pounded along at a slow rate for a day or two. At last we came to Thomasville and were told to get off the cars. This was a much better part of the country than we had left. The soil was pretty good. The town seemed to have some life. We were told that before the war, many rich planters made this place their home. There were some very handsome residences in the place."
Private Lessel Long, Company F, 13th Indiana Infantry, 1886
"In Thomasville they had made some preparation for us outside the town limits by digging a deep wide ditch around a square enclosure of four or five acres, covered with heavy pine timber. The ditch was five or six feet deep and too wide for us to jump across, the dirt from it being thrown up on the opposite side of our camping ground. Along this embankment guards were posted. At one place on the side next to town a space wide enough for the ration wagon to drive over was not ditched. This was securely guarded by cannons. Thomasville was not a large town but a quite good looking one for South Georgia."
Private William B. Smith, Company K, 14th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, 1892
"My mother, Mrs. Thomas Spalding Hopkins, had sent me, a boy of 14, with a tray of coffee and hot biscuits to the soldiers on their way to the stockade. When I met one of those prisoners at a Masonic Grand Lodge meeting years later, he told me that was the best food he ever tasted in his whole life."
Judge H.W. Hopkins, Thomasville, 1929
Plaque courtesy Lat34North.com.
Original page, with additional info, here.
Photo credit: Markerman.