*The Ultimate American Survival Manual:*
Preppers are prone to dredging up survival information from foreign crises. Argentina, Bosnia and Nazi Germany are among the favorites.
One hundred fifty years ago, the ultimate survival drama took place a lot closer to home in the Confederate prisons of Andersonville, Libby, Florence and elsewhere. The North had its share of Hades-like camps, too, such as the one at Elmira, New York.
Other than the air they breathed, new arrivals at Andersonville had little or nothing in the way of survival preps. The death tolls approached 30 percent, similar to the mortality in Northern camps. How the other 70 percent survived gives us food for thought.
This one quality seemed to have been the deciding survival factor for many men. Having nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few square feet of bare ground to lie on was the extent of their personal property.
Soldiers' diaries bear stories of men sitting on the ground, staring vacantly in front of them, too depressed and overwhelmed to do anything toward surviving. Unless they somehow snapped out of it, they didn't live long.
The tougher ones, and there were lots and lots of them, took matters in hand. They regrouped with the surviving members of their companies and created a sense of community and family. Lone survivors of units were often adopted by existing groups.
In the middle of absolutely appalling conditions, the men managed to find various means of entertainment. A scavenged tin plate, a small fire and body lice were the raw materials for louse races. The plate was heated, lice were placed in its middle, and the first one to scamper out was the winner. Betting on the side was heavy.
Church services were held regularly, and seem to have been well-attended. Military chaplains would have been eligible for parole after their capture, but many stayed with their men or returned after a prisoner exchange.
Music soothed the men, at least as long as the musicians had enough strength to play and sing. Flutes made from hollow bones and twigs were common.
Living in a tent for an extended period of time would be considered "roughing it" for many of us. To men captured on a battlefield and marched away by their captors, a canvas half-tent was a valuable treasure for the next year or so.
The camp was erected on short notice and began filling with prisoners before the planned barracks could be built. Andersonville was basically a big rectangular stockade with a stream running through it. Trees and other building materials did not exist inside it for very long.
The luckier prisoners managed to grab half-tents and blankets in the last moments before they were marched away. Sketches and rare photos from the time show some pretty ingenious shelters erected by the Union men. Even though these shelters were pitifully inadequate, perhaps a single blanket and five wooden poles housing nine men, they often made the difference between life and death. Deaths came in many forms there, and exposure contributed to many of them.
Water and Sanitation
Because Andersonville was thrown together in a very short time, poor planning contributed to the high mortality rate. The water supply, a single stream called Stockade Branch, became polluted within the first month or two of the camp's opening. It is still polluted 150 years later.
The camp's central bake house and kitchen were built upstream of the areas occupied by the men. The Confederate encampment for the guards also lay upstream. Add in seepage from the latrines lining Stockade Branch.
Think about the bacterial load in the drinking water. "Dysentery," most likely typhoid fever, was one of the major killers in the camp and its chronic forms plagued survivors for years after the war.
Six months after the camp went into operation, a heavy thunderstorm in August 1864 caused heavy flooding along Stockade Branch. The torrent washed away part of the fence, taking the accumulated filth with it. An aftereffect was the creation of a new spring on the banks of the stream, dubbed Providence Spring. The men now had a clean drinking water supply.
The starvation at Andersonville is well-known because of photos of emaciated prisoners published as propaganda in Northern newspapers. The photos were actually taken at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, but they made great media fodder at the time.
When there was flour to be had, the camp bake house churned out large quantities of one-pound loaves of bread, a major source of calories and nutrients for the men. The camp commandant, Henry Wirz, regularly complained to Confederate central suppliers that the flour contained large amounts of hulls and bran, high in fiber but low in nutrients. On the other hand, weevils probably contributed much-needed protein.
Daily rations were perhaps a cup of cornmeal, a little salt, and a half pound of pork. Bad-quality beef was sometimes available, smelly stuff that made new prisoners gag and veteran inmates grin wolfishly. When you're consuming about 600 calories on a good day, anything looks good. 800 calories is the threshold for starvation.
Fresh fruit and vegetables were nonexistent most of the time, and scurvy was an ongoing condition for most men. For those with money, fresh produce could be bought from vendors along Market Street, the main mud road near the prison's gate. Everything was scarce in the Confederacy at this time, and the civilian population had little to spare. Prices were ridiculously high.
A few soldiers' diaries from the time told the story of a group of lucky men killing and eating a dog. Where the unlucky canine came from, no one said.
Barter and bribery were the primary economic activities within the camp, but for the men with Yankee greenbacks and coins, life was a little easier.
If they had time before they were captured, soldiers hid greenbacks in their shoes or inside the buttons of their uniforms. They were given a hasty pat-down by their captors, but many items escaped notice.
Contrary to conventional discussion, gold watches and coins have their uses in survival situations. Men with desirable watches were often able to bribe a guard to look the other way for a few minutes, just enough time to walk away from a work detail outside the fence.
Greenbacks were popular currency among Yankees and Rebels alike. A Union man who had been paid shortly before his capture had a better chance of survival, and so did the men in his company.
Contrary to current beliefs, men shared what they had or died. One lucky company flourished, in a relative sense, because one of its men had $365 hidden. When it was lost, perhaps through theft, the entire unit suffered.
Conversely, one man found or was given a quarter inside the camp and refused to share. During the evacuation of Andersonville to the prison at Milan, Georgia, he bought an apple pie from a woman in a rail yard during a layover. Starving himself, he was deaf to the cries of his companions, ate the whole pie, and died in front of his friends.
The National Park Service estimates that fewer than 30 men made successful escapes from Andersonville. That doesn't mean that a lot of other men didn't try.
Tunnels were being dug constantly, which enraged the camp commandant. Wirz was not the monster he was made out to be after the war, but he was Swiss-born and just didn't understand that escape attempts were the duty of American soldiers of both sides.
Bribery played a big part in some men making it outside the stockade and eluding capture. Good behavior, or being in the right place, offered other avenues of escape.
Trusted prisoners were sometimes allowed outside the fence to gather firewood. They established a routine over the course of a few weeks, lulling their guards into trusting them. After making a couple of ordinary trips in a day, one prisoners simply walked away the third time.
Another got himself assigned to removing some of the daily 100 dead prisoners, perhaps the worst means of escape at the camp. Bodies decomposed quickly under the Georgia sun, and flies were a constant problem. This man substituted himself for a corpse and was carted outside the camp, making a short-lived escape.
Many of the diaries tell of men escaping, knowing that they would likely be caught, but enjoying even a few days of freedom outside the horrible Andersonville environment improved their psychological health.
Take-Aways from These Stories
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