National Prisoner of War Museum
One of the few civil things about the Civil War were its gentlemanly prisoner exchanges; POWs of each side would be swapped for the other. That ended when the North realized that it was restocking the South's dwindling supply of soldiers, and led to the creation of giant POW camps in the North and South.
The worst was at Andersonville, Georgia. It was little more than an open field, surrounded by 15-foot-high walls made of tree trunks. Nearly 30 percent of its 45,000 Union prisoners died in only 14 months.
The Andersonville prison eventually became a National Historic Site, and its infamy made it a natural spot for the National POW Museum, which opened in 1998.
Visitors enter through a dark room, and suddenly hear the wail of sirens. Crazy-swirling spotlights appear, revealing dozens of rifle muzzles poking out of the walls, directly at you. You've been captured!
Sad music plays softly throughout the galleries. Plate steel display cases convey an institutional starkness, and POWs don't have many possessions to exhibit anyway. We saw sandals made of straw, socks knitted from string, a suit made of tent canvas. Some prisoners from the War of 1812 had the time to make a fully-rigged sailing ship model out of beef, mutton, and pork bones -- but the general impression is that most American POWs have had little time for hobbies or access to meat.
The museum's most elaborate presentation is about Americans captured in the Vietnam War. Peering through a slot in a wall reveals a dark chamber containing the dummy of a grim, barefoot POW sitting on a thin straw mat, manacled to a concrete slab. The sound of sickly coughing fills the cell, along with harsh commands barked over a loudspeaker ("On your feet! No talking!"), and the droning monotone of a prisoner reading antiwar statements at a staged North Vietnamese press conference. Next to the cell stands a life-size bamboo "tiger cage" (built for the museum by the U.S. military).
More recent artifacts in the museum include the flight suit worn by a woman Army surgeon who was shot down during the Gulf War, and a display titled "The First 21st Century American POWs," whose six members included a single mom, a Filipino- and a Mexican-American, and two soldiers over 30. Diversity, yay!
Behind the museum is a courtyard with sculptures of gaunt POWs around a man-made stream cutting through the pavement. Warnings signs and the museum's brochure caution people not to wade in the memorial water -- an apparently common moral transgression that we've encountered before.
Beyond the courtyard is the old Andersonville prison site. Small sections of its wooden stockade -- including the main gate -- have been rebuilt on what is now a pleasant grassy meadow. You can drive the circumference on a loop road, and stop to visit the prison cemetery (almost 14,000 graves) and the legendary Providence Spring. Helpful signs are everywhere. One next to a rebuilt guard tower notes that "local townspeople sometimes came to gawk at the prisoners." Others warn visitors to stay on the walking paths and off of the grass with pictures of rattlesnakes (Maybe snakes should be included on the wading signs as well).
There isn't much sympathy for jailers at the National POW Museum, unlike at some other prison attractions. The officer in charge of Andersonville prison was hanged after the war, although the townspeople thought he got a bum deal.