August 7, 2008
Andersonville -- A geological wonder that's close to home, a nineteenth century town that didn't exist until a few decades ago and the site of one of the great tragedies of American history. And they're all linked. Jay Polk explains how in the latest installment of his series One Tank Trips.
Looking at it now, it's hard to believe that this was once Hell on Earth. There were, at one point, 33,000 people crowded onto this 26-acre space in rural Macon County. By comparison, that's more people per acre than in any modern city, anywhere in the world.
With only a small creek to provide water for all of those prisoners, and with the food running short for both the prisoners and the civilian population around them, many people died here. Fred Boyles, the Superintendent of Andersonville National Historic Site said: "Total death rate here at Andersonville was 12,920 Union prisoners."
While there were other prison camps used by both the Union and Confederate armies, this is one of the few sites that has been preserved. And the former prison is not the only thing on this site. What else is here?
Said Boyles, "The National Prisoner of War Museum, the only place in our country that tells the story of all POWs in American history."
The park's visitor center doubles as the home of the museum. Dedicated 10 years ago, it has displays from many of the American conflicts. Especially moving is the Vietnam display and the collection of POW stories that show on a visitor controlled video screen, including one from someone that you might have heard of. Behind the building is an impressive sculpture and a man-made stream which emanates from a fountain. Why is the water here?
Boyles said, "The water feature denotes several things. One is the importance of water to human survival, and for POWs water is often the difference between survival and death."
And then there is the cemetery. When you visit here it seems to ask for- no it seems to demand- quiet contemplation. Row upon row of headstones, placed only inches apart because the death rate at the prison required mass burials, bring to life the horrors that once took place here.
So how did it come to this point, where the Union split in two and made war with itself. To get some clues, we travel westward to two other locations. The first is Providence Canyon. It is a sight that you might expect to see in some other part of the country, maybe even in North Georgia. But this canyon was formed in a way that you might not have expected."
Joy Joyner, the Park Manager of Providence Canyon State Conservation Site said, "These canyons were formed due to bad farming practices. When the pioneers moved in this area in the 1820s, the topography was rolling hills. They stripped all of the natural vegetation and farmed cotton, plowing downhill. Well, year after year as they farmed the land the soils washed out. This area was covered under the ocean waters 60 million years ago so the soils here are very sandy, that's why they eroded so quickly."
Most canyons are formed by running water. But here the soils, once exposed, were being washed away by rainfall. While that was bad for the early settlers, it has left us with these spectacular views. There are 43 different colors on these canyon walls. And if you last saw the canyons a few years ago, the view has probably changed.
"We lose between three and five feet a year off of the canyon walls," said Joyner.
The canyons lend themselves nicely to hiking, and there are several trails to choose from. Look out for the plum leaf azaleas, there are more here than anywhere else in the world. And they're in bloom right now. There is also a picnic area with playground equipment and primitive camp grounds to enjoy.
By the 1850's the cotton that was being grown at what is now Providence Canyon was truly king. Towns where cotton would be processed and sent to northern factories were springing up all over the state. Just south of Lumpkin, our next stop takes us to a re-creation of just such a town. This town is called Westville. And even though it's only been open since 1970, when you visit here you might think that you took a ride in a time machine and travelled back more than 150 years.
Debbie Pope, the Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Historic Westville said, "The staff is all dressed in period clothing, and all of the staff and the interpreters do what they would have been doing in 1850. We use the same tools and do everything in the same manner as they would have done in 1850."
From the dirt streets to the authentic buildings which were carefully disassembled and moved here from their original locations, everything is as it would have been at that time. Don't expect to see any radios, TVs or computers here. And of course, no electricity either, after all "they didn't have it in 1850", Pope said.
Westville is built in a way that a town of that period would have been built, with the courthouse in the center and businesses surrounding it. And if you'd like to see it all but don't want to walk around the entire 25 acre site, Westville has the answer. There is a mule ride. A sort of public transportation system, 1850 style.
In the towns and fields of that time, increasing numbers of slaves were becoming necessary to keep the Southern economy running. Meanwhile, in the north, a growing anti-slavery movement found it's voice in the person of Abraham Lincoln. After his election in 1860, a total of eleven states split off to form the Confederate States of America. By 1861, the two sides were at war. The darkest chapter in American history had begun.
Neither side expected a long struggle and when they got one, the question of what to do with all of the prisoners of war was raised. Eventually, camps such as Andersonville were opened. And the rest, as they say, is history.
All of the sites we visited are easily accessible on one tank of gas, but are a little ways apart.
Check back next week to see where Jay's latest round of travels takes him.