Above: Andersonville Prison, commonly called “Hell on earth.”
ON THIS DATE in 1864, fifteen-year-old Billy Bates and seventeen-year-old Dick King escaped from the infamous Civl War prison in Andersonville, Georgia.
Confederate officer Henry Wirz commanded this pit of inhumanity, where an estimated 13,700 Union prisoners died in just 13 months. Considered a monster by some and a post-war scapegoat by others, Wirz reportedly tried to punish Bates after a failed escape by having the half-starved prisoner strung up by his thumbs. Wirz shot and killed a captive who tried to give Bates water, and then fired two two bullets into the dangling boy’s leg.
Bates spends the next eight months recovering — and digging. He and King carved a narrow tunnel, just 18-by-24 inches wide, that extended beyond the prison walls. They needed little wiggle room because the camp’s starvation diet has reduced Bates to just 60 pounds and King to 64 pounds.
After tunnelling out of Andersonville, the two spent three weeks foraging for food and heading for Union lines. In April of 1864, Bates and King receive an audience with President Lincoln and describe the ghastly conditions at Andersonville. Lincoln’s response: “My God, when will this accursed thing end?”
Wirz was tried and executed as a war criminal at the close of the Civil War.