Andersonville Prison, August 16, 1864
In 1860 Andersonville, Georgia was a little town of less than 20 people. It would have long ago disappeared and been forgotten, had it not been for one thing. In 1863 the Confederate States of America built near Andersonville their main prisoner of war camp for captured Union soldiers in the American Civil War. The 26 acre camp was built to hold 10,000 prisoners, and even at that the prison would have been crowded. But as the war dragged on, the prison’s population more than tripled to over 33,000. Unable to adequately feed even their own troops, the South had little to spare for the prisoners. Thus, starvation, along with widespread disease caused by overcrowding, led to an astounding number of deaths at the Andersonville camp. The prisoners were often treated with cruelty by the guards. The summer heat was extreme, and then, without adequate clothing or blankets the men suffered from the winter cold. There was a constant stench of excrement and death. Twenty-five percent of all soldiers sent to Andersonville died there. The Camp commander, Captain Henry Wirz, was the only Civil War soldier to be executed after the war for war crimes.
Soldiers who survived Andersonville called it a living hell. It has been called the ‘American Auschwitz.’ It is not the sort of place one would expect to find anything for a meditation on gratitude. But a spirit of gratitude does not depend so much on what one has or does not have, but on what one chooses to focus on. John Ransom was a prisoner at Andersonville for two years, and very nearly died there. Through it all he was able to remain positive, hopeful, and even thankful. Ransom kept a diary of his day to day life in the prison camp, and after the war published it with the title Andersonville Diary. It is considered a Civil War classic. His entry for October 15, 1864 is an example of his cheerful gratitude (paraphrased):
It doesn’t take much to satisfy me as to improvements in health or condition. Some would think to look at me, almost helpless as a POW, as one who did not have much to be thankful about. Well, let them look at what I all have, and then they will see. One might look at me with pity when I should be congratulated. I am probably the happiest mortal hereabouts, and if I ever get out of here, I will most surely appreciate whatever life, health, and food I get from then on. I am anxious for only one thing– and that is to get news home to Michigan that I am all right, because I have heard that it was reported that I was dead.
That sounds very much like some words of St. Paul, also written from a prison, one probably no less filthy and unpleasant as Andersonville; and, with the threat of execution hanging over his head. Yet Paul was able to write:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, Rejoice! The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God… For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:4-6…11b-13)
Thou hast given so much to me,
give one thing more, a grateful heart.
–George Herbert (1593-1633)