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Marines visit historic Andersonville

By Cpl. Nicholas Tremblay | | July 3, 2002

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Thirty-three Marines from MCLB Albany took a road trip to Andersonville, Ga., June 27, where they visited the National Prisoner of War Museum and the Andersonville National Historic Site.

Accompanying the Marines was retired Maj. Gen. Donald R. Gardener, Chief Executive Officer of the Marine Corps University Foundation. The Marine Corps University Foundation provides money every year for Marines to receive professional military training. This year Gardener, who taught officers June 26 about the Confederate Marine Corps, visited Albany Marines.

While Gardener, who has studied many aspects of the American Civil War walked with Marines at Andersonville, he answered questions about the Civil War. Like any good leader, he also answered Marines questions about his 40 years in the Marine Corps and offered friendly advice.

"We encourage units all over the Marine Corps to do professional military training," said Gardener. "In order to get Marines young and old interested and keep them interested in the Corps" and Country's history."

The trip was organized to get Marines away from their desks for a day to learn about history of the country they defend, said 1st Lt. Jayson Durden, battalion operations officer, who planned the logistics of the trip. Andersonville was selected for the Marines to visit due to its history.

During the Civil War, Andersonville was home to Camp Sumter, which was built in 1864. The camp housed more than 45,000 Union soldiers under unsanitary and poor conditions. In the 14 months the prison existed, approximately 13,000 soldiers died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding and exposure to harsh weather conditions.

A stockade of 15-foot-high pine logs surrounded the prisoners with one entrance on the North end and one on the South end of the camp. The prison was originally intended to hold 10,000 POWs but as the war progressed about 400 prisoners were sent to the camp each day. The most troops the prison housed at one time was more than 32,000, which is close to the current population of Sumter County.

Many Marines attending the trip had no idea of the historical importance of Camp Sumter, said Durden. To create a better understanding of the POW camp and what took place during its months of operation, the Marines watched a movie about Camp Foster during the hour bus ride to Andersonville.

"The movie kind of helped to put the image in my head a little better, of what life was like in the prison," said Pfc. Joseph S. West, financial resource branch fiscal budget technician.

Once the bus arrived at the National POW museum, Marines watched a 20-minute movie about American prisoners of war. During the movie, POWs gave first hand accounts of what life was like and how the opposing soldiers treated them. Throughout the movie, sniffling could be heard and some Marines even had watery eyes.

When the short movie was finished the Marines toured the eerie prison site. The Marines were lead by James Culpepper, volunteer tour guide. During the tour Culpepper painted mental pictures for Marines of the hellish days Union POWs spent at the 26-acre prison. He told Marines if the prisoners were lucky they were able to eat a couple times a week. The conditions were so unsanitary where the prisoners got water from the Stockade stream there was human waste four feet deep.

Listening to the stories Culpepper told about the prison, West was shocked to hear the horrendous conditions prisoners lived in. He just couldn't understand how men from the same country could treat each other so badly and hold so much hatred for one another.

"I kept picturing how I would have dealt with the situation myself," said West. "When you go to a place like that you start to question yourself and wonder what it would've been like. Just finding out the different things they went through, was real interesting. It was amazing how people can deal with that much stuff and keep on living and survive."

The final destination before leaving Andersonville was a walk through a solemn scene - the Andersonville National Cemetery. Marines walked through a sea of endless rows of small white headstones. Each one marking the final resting places for unfortunate Union soldiers who died inside the stockade walls of Camp Sumter. Along with Union POWs are soldiers who died on nearby battlefields in South West Georgia. Today there are more than 18,000 soldiers who call this cemetery home.

"I've known for a long time that Andersonville had horrendous conditions and 13,000 Union prisoners had died there," said Gardener. "But until you stand in the cemetery and see the graves of 13,000 Union soldiers you start to see the full picture."

One of the trip attendees, West, who has only been stationed here for two weeks, thought the trip would be a great opportunity to learn about the surrounding community.

Gardener also feels that Marines need to leave the base in order to learn about America's history.

"Looking at different aspects of that war is useful and you can't learn it all in the classroom or read it," said Gardener. "You get a better feel for it walking the grounds and seeing it first hand."

This trip was not only a chance for Marine to escape the confines of office walls but also a chance to learn about America's grave past. On the way back to base many Marines sat on the bus with blank expressions on their faces. Some were just tired from the day's events, while others were trying to process everything they saw and learned earlier that day.

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