The back roads were dark and sinuous. It was well before sunup and the day promised to be hot and humid: even though it was it was past mid-September, the heat of summer showed no signs of releasing its grip. The destination was Andersonville National Cemetery to see what help could be lent to the annual tribute of the Tree Care Industry to the American military: Saluting Branches. Read more to find out how Tree Care companies in Georgia and around the nation show their gratitude to those who defend our freedom, and learn more about this tranquil place that at one time was a place of unspeakable horror.
“Arborists United for Veteran Remembrance” is the motto of Saluting Branches, a non-profit organization in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Their web site says it best: “…dedicated to recognizing and honoring our veterans. We are deeply appreciative of the brave men and women who serve and have served in our military making it possible for us to have the freedoms we enjoy every day.”
Andersonville National Cemetery was the site of Saluting Branches in Georgia for 2018. This is also the site of Fort Sumter, also known as Andersonville prison, a repository for Union Prisoners of War from February of 1864 to April of 1865. As the tide of the Civil War began to turn in favor of the Union, the Confederacy decided to move the POWs far away from the battle lines near Richmond, Virginia, to a more remote location. A stockade was constructed near the town of Andersonville, Georgia, composed of 15-foot logs set into the ground. The enclosure was originally 16.5 acres but later expanded to 26.5 acres. While surrounded by forests, there were no trees within the stockade itself. A small stream with bordering marshy ground ran through the enclosure. Andersonville Prison was originally designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, but by August of 1864, the population had swelled to over 32,000. The tiny stream was the source for drinking water and bathing – also the sewer. The Confederacy was losing the war, and the bulk of the resources – food, clothing, and medical supplies – were headed to the battle fronts to fortify the troops. Andersonville quickly became a place of starvation, disease, and death.
Robert H. Kellogg, sergeant major in the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, described his entry as a prisoner into the prison camp, May 2, 1864: “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.”
The cemetery today is a tree-shaded place of tranquility and peace. Many of the trees are more than a century old: some on the beautiful grounds were planted immediately following the liberation of the prison. The trees there are always in need of care, yet tight maintenance budgets for our National Parks, Monuments, and Cemeteries often preclude proper care of the trees. Enter Saluting Branches. Thirty people representing over a dozen Tree Care Companies in 2 states showed up on that balmy morning, with accompanying climbing gear, chainsaws, chip trucks, work gloves, safety gear, and a proper mind-set in order to help make Andersonville Military Cemetery a beautiful and safe place for its visitors. Since a volunteer day is never enough to get all of the work completed that needs to be done, National Park Service staff was on hand to help the volunteers establish priorities and focus on the areas that needed attention the most. One of the goals was to prune dead wood and thin some of the larger trees to make them safer to enjoy their shade. At least one tree had to be removed, and lightning protection that had been placed in one tree during Saluting Branches of a previous year was reviewed and repaired. Teams were formed based on the tasks to be accomplished and the individual talents of the Volunteers present. The comradery and fellowship gleaned as competing companies came together to accomplish a common goal made one wonder who was getting the most benefit from the day: the institution or the volunteer? One couple working with our group were the parents of a soldier who had lost his life in the service of our country. They were there to keep his memory alive.
Andersonville prison was liberated in May of 1865. During its 15-month reign of horror, 45,000 POWs were received, of which 13,000 died of starvation and disease. One of the Union prisoners that survived, a soldier by the name of Dorance Atwater, had been charged during his time in the prison with keeping a list of names and numbers of the dead in Andersonville. The man who put him to this task was Captain Henry Wirz, the commander of the prison. As such, he was in charge of the prison pen, though Atwater managed to write a second copy of the list, which he kept hidden, believing that Wirz would never submit the list to the Federal government. He also believed that Wirz was deliberately starving the prisoners under his care so that they would be unfit to fight if they were to return to the Union forces. Atwater was able to smuggle the list out of Andersonville. It eventually was published in the New York Times after his attempts to turn the list over to the government were thwarted.
Following the liberation of the prison, Atwater worked at Andersonville as a clerk, and was visited there in July and August of 1865 by Clara Barton, the “Angel of the Battlefield” who distinguished herself as a nurse during the Civil War and would later institute the Red Cross. She had received numerous letters from families searching for their missing loved ones, and worked with Atwater to compare her letters with his list, as well as to properly mark the graves of the dead. Later that year, Atwater was court martialed and put in jail for writing and hiding the duplicate list of dead soldiers. Captain Wirz, the commandant of the prison, was tried for war crimes and was hanged in Washington, D.C., on November 10, 1865. Clara Barton was instrumental in obtaining Dorance Atwater’s release from jail when she publicly supported the publication of the Death List. It is also believed that Clara Barton planted some of the huge Magnolia trees that grace the cemetery today and can be seen in one of the photographs here.
Nationwide, the Saluting Branches work day held on September 19, 2018, drew 3000 volunteers to 53 Veterans Cemeteries in the US and 1 in Mexico. The estimated value of services donated was
$3 million. At this time of year, when we remember our Veterans and celebrate Thanksgiving for all of our many blessings, it is fitting also to remember places like Andersonville and to give thanks for organizations like Saluting Branches that recognize the sacrifices made for the freedom we enjoy and work to preserve the memory of those that made those sacrifices. Perhaps it is also important that we preserve such places that define the good and the bad of our history, lest we forget our history – and repeat it.