Andersonville is Black History and Reconstruction History (even when the National Park Service Forgets)

Andersonville is Black History and Reconstruction History (even when the National Park Service Forgets)

Junior Ranger programs are popular educational activities at our national parks. Children complete a short exercise connected to the park’s theme and receive a badge. The best junior ranger programs provoke age-appropriate revelation about the big picture without merely simplifying the material presented to adults. Andersonville National Historic Site’s standing junior ranger program, “Captured! A Prisoner of War Story,” puts children in the shoes of U.S. prisoners of war. Kids make tough choices throughout the program about what to bring into prison and how to react to prison realities. At the end of the program, children draw cards and learn whether they survived Andersonville. About two out of three make it out alive.[1]

Booklet, hat and patches on a table top.
Junior Ranger booklet, badge, and patches, undated, National Park Service.

Andersonville NHS also hosts periodic Junior Ranger Days on select weekends. On Saturday, April 27, 2024, the park organized an event around the theme of “Life as a Civil War Soldier.” Their Facebook page indicated that children would “learn to drill as a Civil War soldier.” A photograph depicted a smiling boy dressed in a Confederate uniform and holding an Enfield rifle. Another advertisement showed Confederate reenactors relaxing around a campfire.[2]

The advertisement raised eyebrows. In addition to the image and the text, the event fell on a weekend loaded with Confederate symbolism. It took place one day after the anniversary of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to Major General William T. Sherman in 1865. A year later, that surrender day marked one of the first Confederate Memorial Days. In what was almost certainly a coincidence, the park’s event coincided with the local SCV observance of Confederate Memorial Day. “I can’t say whether children will actually be wearing Confederate uniforms, but that’s not really the point here,” Kevin Levin wrote. “Union soldiers didn’t drill at Andersonville. They starved. They fell victim to disease. They died.” Levin added that he suspected the park staff did not deliberately seek to disrespect the 13,000 U.S. soldiers who perish at the prison.[3]

Andersonville National Historic Site responded to public criticism ahead of the event. “The purpose of a living history event at Andersonville is never to glorify or make light of the events that took place here or in any way disrespect the men who suffered as prisoners,” an NPS representative added to the original Facebook post. “Our purpose is that by showing a small part of what Civil War soldiers experienced we will make a connection and spark an interest in learning that will last a lifetime.”[4] More than one critic asked whether the living history experience would include shooting prisoners for crossing the small wooden fence, or “deadline,” inside the prison.

Social media post with dates, time, events, and digital flyer included.
Andersonville National Historic Site, Facebook post, April 18, 2024, edited to include last paragraph, April 19, 2024.

At least one notable neo-Confederate personality praised the National Park Service for the event ahead of time. “Wonderful event being held at Andersonville Prison,” Monuments Across Dixie posted on X. “Children will learn how northern blockades and destruction of the South caused the Southern people to not be able to property feed northern prisoners. Oh the irony of northern war crimes effecting their own people.” Viewed more than 2,000 times, the poster connected the event to Confederate History/Heritage Month. It underscored fears by Levin and others that, despite the park staff’s stated intentions, the advertisement catered to the people in the past—and their sympathizers in the present—responsible for 13,000 dead U.S. soldiers.[5]

Monuments across Dixie, X post, April 19, 2024

The announcement and the social media skirmish that followed came and went as a flash. After a few hours’ reflection, it became clear that this Junior Ranger Day’s emphasis on Civil War drilling missed another important anniversary: the 1869 Decoration Day. While African Americans celebrated an Emancipation Day at Andersonville on January 1, 1869, they held a Decoration Day that April. Many of the same people—national cemetery workers, northern teachers, and African American students—were involved in both events. Future Decoration (and, later, Memorial) Days encompassed elements of freedom celebrations and remembrance days.

While the National Park Service observes Memorial Day each year, it has not commemorated its 1869 predecessor. This unfortunate omission continues despite the park’s concern for increasing African American visitation in a predominantly Black region of the country and its active national cemetery that increasingly reflects the diversity of the U.S. military. Decoration Day at Andersonville has been documented by historians, most recently by a team of researchers from the University of Alabama, the University of West Georgia, and Georgia Southwestern State University between 2017 and 2020. The resulting publication, In Plain Sight, centered African American history from the settlement of southwest Georgia through the Civil War sesquicentennial. From building the stockade and being imprisoned as U.S. soldiers to transforming the prison graveyard into a national cemetery, African American experiences were central to the place’s history. Yet it would be difficult for anyone visiting the park since its enabling legislation in 1970 to learn this history. Andersonville is Black history as well as the erasure and minimization of Black history.[6]

Hand drawn map showing a school and other places.
Detail of “Sketch of Andersonville, Ga. and Vicinity,” showing school at the old Confederate hospital and African American houses. “Cemetery File,” Entry 576, Box 3, RG 92, National Archives and Records Administration.

Andersonville’s Decoration Day in 1869 came amid waves of violence that characterized Reconstruction. At the beginning of 1868, at least two hundred freedpeople lived on the land leased by the Confederacy and seized by the U.S government at the end of the war. Adult men had registered to vote and participated in elections in November 1867 and April 1868. Adults and children learned to read and write at the “Sumter School,” a school established by the American Missionary Association in an old Confederate Hospital. Many families had loved ones employed by the U.S. government landscaping a larger national cemetery to replace the shoulder-to-shoulder burials of the prison graveyard. These monthly government jobs paid lower than local contracts negotiated by the Freedmen’s Bureau, but working at Andersonville had its benefits: it was not plantation work; there was a school; and since summer 1865, it had proven to be a safe refuge from planters and overseers. However, the new cemetery plan went against government instructions to minimize costs. When the Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs realized the scale and cost of the project, he directed local officials to change course. In a flash, most of the workers lost their jobs.[7]

Hand drawn map showing an old cemetery.
Detail of “Sketch of Andersonville, Ga. and Vicinity,” showing the layout of the never-finished new cemetery in relation to the old cemetery. “Cemetery File,” Entry 576, Box 3, RG 92, National Archives and Records Administration.

When most of the unemployed chose to stay at Andersonville, local whites sent an ultimatum to the Freedman’s Bureau. In July 1868, local authorities sanctioned—and participated in—a raid that evicted scores of unemployed men, women, and children from their homes at gunpoint. Those who remained or returned took caution, armed themselves, and posted sentries to ward off night raids by disguised men on horseback. Despite threats of being fired, Floyd Snelson and other cemetery workers organized a “Grant Club” and marched through the streets near the Andersonville depot in September. Making good on his threat, the cemetery superintendent, a Democrat, fired Snelson but reversed his decision later that afternoon. Elections that November were marked by violence and intimidation that suppressed Black participation. At the beginning of 1869, the Ku Klux Klan drove off a northern minister collecting depositions about the violence. In one small victory, cemetery workers took revenge on the superintendent by reporting that he was illegally renting out government mules.[8]

Ku Klux Klan threat, February 12, 1869, in Pierson, Letter to Hon. Charles Sumner, 18.

As bad as it was, Andersonville in 1868 could have been worse. In Camilla, only 75 miles away, African American marchers protested the ousting of twenty-eight Black representatives from the Georgia State assembly. White men shot down marchers in what became known as the Camilla Massacre. The Georgia Historical Society erected a marker acknowledging the murders in 2023.[9]

It was within this experience of violence that African American students at Sumter School, preparing for a spring examination, learned that white Georgians were planning to decorate the graves of Confederate guards on Tuesday, April 27, 1869. These rebel graves were adjacent to U.S. graves and on the outside of a small wooden fence. Students reached the cemetery at 7:30 a.m., shortly before sunrise. Preempting the Confederate mourners, students spread oak leaves and flowers on the 13,000 Union graves and the graves of Confederate guards. “The ladies and gentlemen who came during the day from Macon and Americus covered their soldiers’ graves with beautiful bouquets,” a northern teacher wrote, “but had none for the martyred sons of the Union.”[10]

Portrait of Black man in a dress suit.
Floyd Snelson, undated, Historic Dorchester Academy, Liberty County, Georgia.

Decoration Days were much bigger in the following years and involved thousands of people making their way to Andersonville. The 1869 Decoration stands out because it was performed after a year of firings, protests, threats, and violence. It was an act that could be interpreted in many ways. Was the placing of oak leaves and flowers on Confederate graves an act of forgiveness? Did it assert moral superiority? Was it a continuation of subtle subversion perfected under slavery but still applicable in the violence and recent backsliding of Reconstruction? Perhaps it meant different things to the scores of students who participated.[11]

Marching like soldiers is not the only way to implement experiential learning at Andersonville. The park hosts events at other times of the year, such as Memorial Day and Wreaths across America, focusing on the graves. Rather than duplicate these events, an experiential learning Junior Ranger Day in April could focus on the experience of African Americans at Andersonville in the Reconstruction Era. What was it like to go to school in an old Confederate hospital a year or two after the end of slavery and before statewide public education? Or it might encourage students to put themselves in the shoes of postwar workers at Andersonville. Who built the massive brick wall that surrounds the national cemetery or hauled in earth to raise and flatten the landscape? Who replaced wooden headstones, selected saplings, and planted grass? Why were the Confederate guards reinterred in Americus?

Developing engaging historical programming is more difficult than doing the research or writing the report. It will take more work to decide how to best present the findings of In Plain Sight, but that is a decision for the career professionals in the National Park Service. Perhaps living history is the best way to present this information. Or, perhaps, there are other interactive ways to learn about the past without trying to conjure it in dress and dialogue. At the very least, though, Andersonville NHS should not try to be just a Civil War site with drilling and cannon demonstrations, especially ones that seem to honor the Confederacy.

The Civil War history at Andersonville is as complex and tragic as anywhere else on this continent. Serious and honest reflection about its wartime history will wring out any nostalgia for the Civil War. If one looks for it, the site’s postwar history offers a crash course in Black experiences during Reconstruction in the Deep South. Andersonville is Black history and Reconstruction history even when the National Park Service forgets. It will be Black history and Reconstruction history when the National Park Service remembers. Let that day be soon.

[1]. Freeman Tilden, Interpreting our Heritage, 4th edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 34-35.

[2]. Andersonville National Historic Site, Facebook Post, April 22, April 24, 2024.

[3]. David Silkenat, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 231-35; A. H. Stephens Camp 78, “Annual Confederate Memorial Service at Oakgrove [sic] Cemetery,” Sumter Secessionist (April 2024), pg. 1; Kevin M. Levin, “Playing Civil War at Andersonville Prison Camp,” Substack, published April 19, 2024.

[4]. Andersonville National Historic Site, Facebook Reply, April 19, 2024, to Facebook Post, April 18, 2024.

[5]. Monuments Across Dixie (@Across_Dixie), “Wonderful event being held at Andersonville Prison…,” X, April 19, 2024.

[6]. Evan Kutzler, Julia Brock, Ann McCleary, Keri Adams, Ronald Bastien, and Larry O. Rivers, In Plain Sight: African Americans at Andersonville National Historic Site, A Special history Study (National Park Service, 2020),

[7]. Return of Qualified Voters, Sumter County, Election District 13, July 8, 1867; digital image, ( : accessed May 22, 2017); citing Georgia, Office of the Governor, Returns of Qualified Voters under the Reconstruction Act, 1867, Georgia State Archives, Morrow, Ga.; American Missionary Association Archives, Boxes 26-32, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans; D. H. Rucker to Edwin M. Stanton, April 23, 1868, in “Cemetery File,” Entry 576, Box 3, RG 92, Records of the Quartermaster General, National Archives and Records Administration; [Montgomery C. Meigs] to J. M. Schofield, August 21, 1868, in “Cemetery File,” Entry 576, Box 3, RG 92, NARA; M. C. Meigs to R. Saxton, August 29, 1868, in “Cemetery File,” Entry 576, Box 3, RG 92, NARA; “Andersonville,” Boston Daily Advertiser, April 18, 1868, clipping in “Cemetery File,” Entry 576, Box 3, RG 92, NARA; See also Kutzler, et al., In Plain Sight, ch. 3.

[8]. Affidavit of Floyd Snelson, May 20, 1869, Letters and their enclosures received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1863–70, M1064, roll 0444, RG 94, Record of the Adjutant General’s Office, NARA; H. W. Pierson, A Letter to Hon. Charles Sumner, with “Statements” of Outrages Upon Freedmen in Georgia, and an Account of My Expulsion from Andersonville, Ga., by the Ku Klux Klan (Washington, D.C.: Chronicle Print, 1870); Kutzler, et al., In Plain Sight, ch. 3.

[9]. Georgia Historical Society, “Camilla Massacre,” accessed April 23, 2024,

[10]. “Georgia. The Work in Andersonville,” American Missionary 13, no. 7 (July 1869), 147-48; Kutzler, et al., In Plain Sight, ch. 3. Given the variability of Confederate Decoration Day and possibility of individual error in recording the event, it is possible this took place on April 26 instead of 27, 1869.

[11]. On Memorial Day at Andersonville, see Adam H. Domby, “Captives of Memory: The Contested Legacy of Race at Andersonville National Historic Site,” Civil War History 63, no. 3 (September 2017): 262–263; Kutzler, et al., In Plain Sight, chs. 3-4; American Missionary Association, Teacher’s Monthly Report, “Sumter School,” Sumter County, Georgia, March 1869, American Missionary Association Archives, Box 28, No. 22307, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans.


Evan Kutzler

Evan Kutzler is an Associate Professor of U.S. and Public History at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019) and co-author of In Plain Sight: African Americans at Andersonville National Historic Site, A Special History Study (National Park Service, 2020). He worked as a seasonal park ranger at Andersonville in 2015.

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