At the end of a long drive bound by neatly manicured grounds, behind a trim brick building, lies the remains of the stockade that was Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville Prison. I first learned about Andersonville from Carene Mallard, she of the tight perm and tighter smile, she who bore no foolishness in her attempts to educate the adolescents of Bulloch County in the broad strokes of American History. I did not miss the point that Andersonville was an awful place, a horrible, frightful place, but still I wanted to see it. And I have ever since. Today my friends who live nearby have served as genies and granted my wish.
The exhibits, the films, the displays tell the story of all American POWs — not just those of the Civil War — and as we make our way through the chronological hallways, I begin to see familiar things. Television screens flickering with black and white images of serious-eyed men in jungle fatigues, cigarettes dangling from their lips. MIA bracelets engraved with the names and dates of disappearance of real men, men with parents and wives and children. The flight suit of the first American female pilot ever taken captive, its sleeves fitted with zippers to accommodate the casts of her two broken arms.
Discreet signs along the road direct us to the cemetery where the soldiers are buried. Identified originally only by number, all but a few of the thousands of graves now host simple white headstones bearing names and regiments. In even rows that move up and down the rolling hills of the coastal plain, they look like a strange crop.
A little over 60 miles away, in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery, is a similar harvest. Soldier’s Square, a plot of nearly 600 — as opposed to Andersonville’s thousands — similarly shaped and inscribed monuments mark the final resting places of men, most of them boys really, who bore arms for the other side.
We used to go there, my friends and I, to escape the closeness of campus that even the happiest of college students can stand for only so long. After a visit to Duane and Berry’s hallowed sites and a quick drive-by of the mausoleums nearest the railroad tracks that were said to be frequented by covens of local witches, we would respectfully and slowly wend our way past the graves of those we assumed, in our ignorance, to have died brave and valiant deaths.
Sixty miles is not such a long way. Not now. Not when I can drive it in less than an hour. But 60 miles, when one is tired and hungry and suddenly not sure what it is exactly that one is fighting to preserve, well, 60 miles might as well have been 600. Those wearing gray and those wearing blue had absolutely no idea how very close they were.
It has been said that if women were in charge, there would be no wars. Maybe there is truth in that. I don’t know. Women have never been in charge. But every day we get a little closer and I wonder how we’ll do.
Whether we will be better than anyone else has been in keeping the peace, better than any other gender or generation has been in finding common ground, better than our ownselves have been so far in recognizing that we, all of us, are, as Maya Angelou wrote, “more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
On one of the walls of the Andersonville Museum hangs a quote from a speaker at a reunion of Union and Confederate troops held at Gettysburg in July 1913: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades ... enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten.”
Amen. May it be so.