The next series of Andersonville Irish Spotlight posts will share some of the results from work we carried out during the Andersonville Irish Project trip to the National Historic Site. It was a visit facilitated by grant funding from the Andersonville POW Research Grant Program made possible thanks to the Friends of Andersonville, as well as project funding received from the Consulate General of Ireland in Atlanta. This post is the first of two focusing on the work and life of one of the most influential Irish emigrants to pass through Andersonville- the soldier turned artist, Clareman Thomas O’Dea. Still just a teenager when he passed through the walls of the prison in 1864, twenty years later Thomas completed a monumental illustration of the camp as he remembered it. When published, it became a national sensation. To this day, it remains the most recognisable (and most used) artistic depiction of Andersonville Prison.

The next post will focus on the details of Thomas’s service and the rather remarkable process by which he created his famed work. Suffice to say here that he intended for the illustration to depict the camp as it was on 1st August 1864, the beginning of the prison’s deadliest month. Below we introduce ourselves to O’Dea’s achievement by taking a detailed look at the image itself. There is a particular focus on sharing detailed views of the small vignettes he surrounded his depiction with, elements that are every bit as striking as the representation of the camp itself.

Thomas O’Dea’s depiction of Andersonville Prison on display at the National Prisoner of War Museum, Andersonville National Historic Site. The primary focus of the image is the camp and immediate environs, with a series of numbered vignettes added around the edges, finishing with a depiction of the artist himself.
The main camp as Thomas O’Dea depicted it. The main focus of the image, it is remarkable in it’s detail, with dozens of clearly discernible scenes taking place both within and without the camp. If you are interested in viewing an exceptionally high resolution version of this image, you can do so at the Library of Congress website here.
O’Dea created a number of detailed vignettes of life and death in the camp to surround his image. In a written work to accompany the image, he often added further detail about what each depicted. This image shows the burial of the dead in the cemetery, carried there stacked on a wagon “the same as cord wood”. Click image to Enlarge.
O’Dea’s second vignette depicts a prisoner being shot at the “Dead Line” the point (marked by the wooden rail) beyond which those incarcerated at Andersonville could not cross. Here a man is shown shot down while trying to reach beyond the Dead Line to get some fresh water. Click image to Enlarge.
The third vignette, to my mind one of the most emotive, depicts a dying prisoner’s final thoughts as he gazes on a photo of his family, and imagines them at home as he breathes his last. Click image to Enlarge.
This vignette is aimed at showing the different diseases that afflicted those in Andersonville, variously Scurvry (1), Diarrhoea and Dysentry (2), Gangrene (3), Dropsy (4) and Fever (5). Click image to Enlarge.
Cooking rations at Andersonville using wood chips to make “mush” or when “baking the cake”. Click image to Enlarge.
The execution of the “Andersonville Raiders” inside the prison compound following their trial and sentencing by fellow prisoners- an event that lived long in the memory of everyone who witnessed it. The Co. Wexford-born priest, Father Peter Whelan, “Angel of Andersonville”, is shown behind the condemned men praying for their immortal souls. Click image to Enlarge.
This vignette represents the efforts of prisoners to salvage logs from the stockade that had been broken away during flooding that followed a violent storm. The Confederate guards afterwards managed to recover most of the logs and place them back in the palisade. Click image to Enlarge.
Various tunnels were dug within Andersonville by the prisoners; some of the holes were likely attempted wells, but others were designed to burrow beneath the stockade to freedom, as with this example. Click image to Enlarge.
Prisoners who have successfully tunnelled under the stockade emerge into the open beyond to attempt to make their escape. Few such efforts were successful. Click image to Enlarge.
Escaped Andersonville prisoners are run to ground by bloodhounds, animals that were also frequently employed to hunt down enslaved people seeking to flee to safety. Click image to Enlarge.
The camp commandant, Swiss-emigrant Henry Wirz, shown with some of the bloodhounds used at Andersonville. Wirz would later be executed in Washington D.C. In the foreground is “Spot”, who was famously photographed just after the war, an image which O’Dea likely drew on for this depiction. Click image to Enlarge.
The forms of punishment meted out at Andersonville. From left to right, the stocks, the buck and gag, the ball and chain, hanging by the thumbs. Click image to Enlarge.
The process of distributing rations at Andersonville. The prisoners were grouped in messes to aid in the distribution of food; here one such is mess is gathered to collect the food they have been allocated. Click image to Enlarge.
“Providence Spring” was a water source that was said to have emerged almost miraculously when the situation in the camp was most dire. It was later a site of pilgrimage by survivors and is today the site of one of the most significant memorials at Andersonville. Here prisoners wait their turn to avail of the water from the spring. Click image to Enlarge.
The desperate men in camp were often kept going by regular rumours that an exchange was in the offing, a transfer of prisoners that would allow them to go home. Invariably the rumours proved to be false. Here O’Dea depicts men excitedly sharing news of yet another mooted exchange. Click image to Enlarge.
Those who perished within the confines of the prison overnight were taken to the gate for the collection the next morning. Here O’Dea depicts such a scene, as the bodies await the cemetery cart. Click image to Enlarge.
The “Angel of Andersonville”, Father Peter Whelan from Foulksmills, Co. Wexford, prays over the dead and dying. Click image to Enlarge.
Justice holds the scales. A list of POW camps (including Andersonville) is outweighed by the scale filled with Bonds. Click image to Enlarge.
The title script from O’Dea’s illustration, outlining what and when is depicted, the particulars of the artist, and the dedication. Click image to Enlarge.
Thomas O’Dea’s self portrait and signature on his Andersonville depiction. The next post will examine the background of this Famine-era emigrant from Clare, and the process by which he produced his remarkable artwork. Click image to Enlarge.


Thomas O’Dea’s Drawing of the Andersonville Prison. Library of Congress. (See a Coloured Version at the Digital Library of Georgia here).

O’Dea, Thomas. 1887. History of O’Dea’s Famous Picture of Andersonville.