- Captives of MemoryThe Contested Legacy of Race at Andersonville National Historic Site
Turner Hall’s faith was surely tested on July 29, 1868, when a mob of his white neighbors destroyed his home in Sumter County, Georgia. He could do nothing as the crowd of armed men struck his neighborhood. The inhabitants—all recently freed from slavery—must have feared for their lives. Members of the mob entered each dwelling in turn, tossing belongings into the yards. Then they nailed the doors shut from the inside before climbing out of the holes they broke in the ceilings. The mob included the county sheriff as well as most of the white men who lived within a ten-mile radius. Benjamin Dykes, the local planter who led the mob, had owned much of the land on which these freedpeople resided before the war. Now three years after the war, he intended to reclaim what had been his. Aided by armed whites, Dykes turned “out thirty odd families,” or around two hundred people, from their homes. Stunned and outgunned, the unarmed freedpeople could do nothing for the moment. As they stood homeless with their possessions scattered about, it began to rain. That weekend, the mob returned to burn at least nine dwellings and destroy the freedpeople’s crops.1 [End Page 253]
The land Dykes claimed already had a controversial past. The burgeoning community of freedpeople that the mob came to expel had built its houses and cast its future on the former site of Andersonville Prison, where approximately thirteen thousand Union troops had died of disease, starvation, and exposure. After the war, the land came into the possession of the United States Army, which oversaw the creation of one of America’s first national cemeteries. But the officer in charge of Andersonville, who had granted the freedpeople permission to reside on the old stockade grounds and hired them for labor within the cemetery, had been called to Marietta and so was out of town the night Dykes and his white allies drove the freedpeople away. With federal authorities absent, Dykes saw a chance to reclaim his land. He had warned the freedpeople to vacate it. Some had offered to pay rent, but Dykes had ordered the freedpeople to leave—perhaps out of spite, or perhaps because he knew when the Freedmen’s Bureau or other federal authorities heard about the incident, they might overturn any contract. With nowhere else to go, most of the freedpeople had decided to stay and then had watched as the mob scattered their worldly possessions.
Upon notification of these outrages, the military belatedly reasserted the freed-people’s rights to reside on the former prison grounds. By that point, however, many of the families had already left the area. Having been blacklisted by local whites, who refused to rent to or hire the now dispossessed freedmen, many had moved away, among them Turner Hall and his family. Before he left, Hall walked over ten miles each day looking for a home and work, but he could find no white citizen in the area willing to hire him.2
Still, though only two families—both employed by the federal government at the cemetery—returned, Dykes was unable to immediately reclaim the land. When he attempted to sue in the local courts, the War Department declared that only a federal court could determine ownership of the property because “in this case the United States claim title by right of conquest and whether that title is a valid one or not depends upon the laws of war and certain acts of Congress but is a title not questionable by the Georgia Court.”3 In 1875, Dykes and other white [End Page 254] claimants reached a settlement with the government, which left the cemetery in federal hands but returned the stockade site to its prewar owners.4
These early battles over who owned the physical site of Andersonville Prison represented just the beginning of an ongoing conflict over both the physical ownership and cultural memory of the site. Indeed, the fight over the property paralleled a second, symbolic struggle to determine the meaning of Andersonville. This...