American Portraits

Respecting the Fallen at Andersonville Prison

In this lesson, students will learn about the actions of Dorence Atwater as a P.O.W. at Andersonville prison during the Civil War. They will understand how Atwater worked to ensure those interned in the prison were respected. Through this example, students will learn how they can be more respectful in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

The cold winter day chilled the prisoners to the bone as they disembarked from the steam locomotive. These few hundred men were the first to reach the newly built Camp Sumter; they came mostly from the prison at Richmond. “Nothing can be worse than Richmond,” they thought. Unfortunately, they were wrong. At first, Camp Sumter provided adequate space, but as the prison population grew, the situation became desperate. Every day, 400 more men arrived at the gates of the still-growing camp. Few actual buildings existed, and the Confederate guards used most of these for themselves. The prisoners inside the camp used scraps of wood and cloth to create shanties which they called “shebangs.” Furthermore, the Confederates lacked adequate supplies to feed the prisoners properly. The Southern states viewed POW’s as “incidental” concerns: the faltering Confederacy funneled food, clothing, and other resources to the army rather than the Northern prisoners….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

What can the actions of Dorence Atwater teach you about how you can be more respectful toward others in your own life?

Virtue Defined

Respect is civility flowing from personal humility.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the actions of Dorence Atwater as a P.O.W. at Andersonville prison during the Civil War. They will understand how Atwater worked to ensure those interned in the prison were respected. Through this example, students will learn how they can be more respectful in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze the actions of Dorence Atwater at Andersonville prison
  • Students will understand why respect is important to the maintenance of society
  • Students will apply their knowledge of respect to their own lives

Background

The Civil War, America’s bloodiest conflict, resulted in over 600,000 Union and Confederate casualties. For five years, fellow Americans fought one another in a miserable war that threatened to bring an end to the entire American regime. As President Lincoln said, “If destruction be our lot, we must be its author and finisher.” The immensity of the Civil War caused such a huge death toll that it often becomes easy to lose sight of humanity in the aggregation and quantification of casualties. In this manner, onlookers can miss the individual human sacrifice, and commemoration can devolve into a simple recitation of numbers and facts. Nevertheless, each life and death deserves retelling, and one man in particular strove to uphold reverence for the dead: Dorence Atwater.

Captured in 1863, Atwater was one of the first prisoners of war (POW) to be interned in Camp Sumter (also known as Andersonville Prison) outside of Andersonville, Georgia. The Confederacy had recently constructed the camp to house the quickly growing number of POW’s. President Lincoln had halted the prisoner exchange agreement between the Union and Confederacy in July 1863, and as such, the Confederacy had to deal with astounding numbers of POWs.

Built to house approximately 10,000 prisoners, Andersonville remained consistently overpopulated; the overcrowding reached its climax in 1864 with a population of almost 32,000. If Camp Sumter were a city, it would have been the fifth most populous urban center in the Confederate States. Prisoners arrived at the camp at an average of 400 per day. These are the circumstances in which Dorence Atwater demonstrated a deep respect for both the lives and deaths of his fellow prisoners at Andersonville.

Vocabulary

  • Regime
  • Aggregation
  • Quantification
  • Disembark
  • Malnutrition
  • Putrid
  • Recitation
  • Squalor
  • Alleviate
  • Interned
  • Endowment
  • Macabre

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Dorence Atwater? What was Camp Sumter?
  • What job was Dorence Atwater given at Camp Sumter?
  • How did Dorence Atwater’s identity affect his purpose?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Futch, Ovid. “Prison Life at Andersonville,” Civil War History (1962) 8#2 pp. 121–35 in Project MUSE
  • Ransom, John. Andersonville Diary. Auburn, NY: Author, 1881.

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