By Camille Bielby
CNHI News Service
ANDERSONVILLE, Ga. — Guards jeer from watch towers. Prisoners huddle around flickering fires and gnash hard tack. Sailors complain about thirst and long for home.
Eye-stinging smoke hangs low over a rebuilt corner of Confederate Camp Sumter, as guests shuffle through a living history created by volunteers portraying imprisoned Union soldiers. Visitors from the modern day try not to trip over tent lines and shelters as they make their way through the early evening darkness.
The visitors - nearly 100 of them - see up-close what it must have been like to endure thirst, hunger, cold and overcrowding in Camp Sumter, which became a symbol of the atrocities of the Civil War.
More than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned here during the camp's 14-month existence from February 1864 until the end of the war in April 1865. Nearly 13,000 of those prisoners died, mostly from illness, exposure and starvation.
The volunteers, dressed in period attire, assume characters of actual prisoners who suffered through one of the darkest periods of the nation’s history. Many have come from outside the area for the event.
William Summe, originally from Pittsburgh, traveled from his home in Griffin, Ga., to portray a German immigrant. One of his ancestors was a Camp Sumter survivor.
Samuel Leonard, a 9-year-old visitor, asks Summe how many Confederates he fought before he was captured.
Summe keeps a convincing accent in character and replies: “A goodly chunk.”
Ryan Freeman, of Columbus, Ga., regales youngsters with tales of how hard it is to stay warm through the cold winter months - even in South Georgia. When not imprisoned in Camp Sumter, Freeman is a high school history teacher working on his master's degree.
The night museum program is designed to give modern-day visitors a unique view of what it means to be a prisoner of war, said Eric Leonard, education and interpretation ranger for Andersonville National Historic Site. Additional programs are scheduled in January and November of next year.