The U.S. Civil War took the lives of more Americans-- 600,000 more than any other armed conflict. As with many wars, much of the suffering took place off the field of battle as soldiers starved and died of illness. Nowhere was this more true than in prisoner of war camps, the site of 10% of the Civil War’s deaths. The most notorious of the Civil War camps was Camp Sumter near Andersonville, Georgia. Built to hold 9,000 prisoners, the 16.5 acre site was chosen in 1863 because of its remote location and abundant food sources.
As the war was reaching its climax, Camp Sumter packed more than 30,000 men into the space designed for a third as many. The Stockade Branch, which provided the only water for the inmates, was backed up by the stockade’s pilings. It became a putrid cesspool polluted with grease from a cookhouse upstream, the waste water of laundry and human excrement.
Those who drank the water were as likely to kill themselves with dysentery and diarrhea as to quench their thirst.
Then one night downpour caused the Stockade Branch to overflow with such ferocity that it washed away much of the camp’s foul waste. Several bolts of lightning struck near the prison, including one that hit a pine stump inside the stockade. At the base of the lightning-charred stump, a spring of fresh water emerged. The source was most likely a local spring that had been covered over during the construction of the camp, which the storm liberated. It came to be known as Providence Spring.