Not long before Memorial Day, Ben Torbett visited Andersonville National Cemetery and the adjacent historic military prison and National Prisoner of War Museum.
Though he’s visited before, Torbett said Andersonville always hits home.
An Air Force veteran who served in Iraq, Torbett said walking through the cemetery brings to mind friends who gave their lives in service to family, friends and country as well as the many unknown who sacrificed over the years.
“I guess I feel very compassionate and grateful toward those in the cemetery and those who were imprisoned here during the Civil War,” he said. “I grew up near the Chickamauga Battlefield in Catoosa County in northwest Georgia, so I gained a lot of respect learning about that, but visiting Andersonville is its own unique experience. I believe a lot of Americans really do appreciate the sacrifice regular citizens made throughout our history. It’s humbling.”
Torbett teaches sixth grade in Catoosa County and was visiting Andersonville with other teachers and students. He said he hoped his students would gain an understanding of history and the personal cost others paid for their freedom.
One word summed up what he hoped they would take away from the trip: appreciation.
Torbett’s daughter, eighth-grader Caitelyn Torbett, used that very word to summarize her visit. She hadn’t heard her father’s remarks.
“I’m just so very thankful for what all these people did for us — for me,” she said. “If not for them we wouldn’t be able to do what we do today. It’s hard to express — it’s hard to explain. I guess I just have an appreciation I didn’t have.”
Jody Mays is chief of interpretation and resource management for the National Park Service at Andersonville National Historic Site.
She said Memorial Day weekend is by far the site’s busiest time, bringing 4,000 or more visitors.
“There are a number of things we do each year for Memorial Day, beginning with placing 200 flags along the Avenue of Flags,” she said. “The Robins Riders, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts from Robins Air Force Base, come every year to put those up. On Saturday we have scouts and other groups help place small flags on all the graves. The main ceremony is always on Sunday at 2 p.m. while Memorial Day itself allows visitors time just to visit graves and the site with family and friends.”
Mays said ceremonies include representatives of the military, veterans and historical groups, guest speakers, a military band and honor guard. A 21-gun salute and the playing of Taps accompany the laying of a wreath.
Although she was busy with preparations for others coming to the park this Memorial Day, Mays said she was particularly looking forward to the event.
It will be her first at Andersonville.
“I’ve been here only six months,” she said. “I worked previously at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, and other places. When people heard I was coming to Andersonville they talked about how depressing it would be working at a prisoner of war site and cemetery where there are funerals almost every day.”
But Mays said that’s not the case at all.
“I’ve found Andersonville to be an incredibly inspirational place,” she said. “It touches my heart so deeply to hear the stories of bravery that are all around us here. We’re not just surrounded by tragedy; we’re surrounded by heroes and their stories from throughout our nation’s history. There are stories of the prisoners buried here but there are also stories from visitors to the cemetery about loved ones and their lives who are buried here. I hear how they lived and served and how they sacrificed and died. Plus, a lot of times the ones telling me the stories are living heroes themselves who’ve been through a lot during their own service. It’s a remarkable place.”
Anticipating this Memorial Day weekend, Mays said she was sure it would be an emotional one for her.
“I’ve heard about it all, about the flags and the people who come — but I know it will be very emotional for me to see all the flags for myself and the crowds for myself,” she said. “I’m just expecting that.”
Charles Barr is cemetery administrator at Andersonville. He said the burial ground is for active duty deceased, veterans and family. He said among the approximately 21,000 people buried at Andersonville, about 14,000 are veterans who were either killed in action, missing in action or died while on active duty. That includes 12,920 who died during the Civil War while imprisoned at Andersonville and 1,000 prisoners who died after the war. There’s one Revolutionary War veteran buried at Andersonville: Jeremiah H. Dupree, whose family had him moved there because his original burial site was unkept.
Barr said he is also a veteran, having served two tours in Iraq as an Army infantryman.
“It means something for me to work here,” he said. “I’m not in the military now, but it’s an honor for me to serve veterans and their families through my work at the cemetery. Between suicide and being killed in action, I lost 11 friends while I was in the military. This place means something.”
Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.
About the Andersonville Historical Site
The Andersonville Historical Site, including the national cemetery, historic Civil War prison site and National Prisoner of War Museum, is located approximately one hour southwest of Macon at 496 Cemetery Road, Andersonville. Information is available at www.nps.gov/ande and by calling 229-924-0343. The Andersonville National Cemetery is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the National Prisoner of War Museum, which also serves as the park's visitor center, is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is free.