“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all those around me seemed insufficient to the day.” Abraham Lincoln
January 1864 – Andersonville Prison, Sumter County, Georgia: Construction of the confederate prison in southwest Georgia was completed in early 1864 to alleviate overcrowding at a rebel prison in Richmond, Virginia. The stockade was an open 26-acre field that was surrounded by 15-foot-high wooden walls built by slaves. The camp consisted of a couple of cook sheds but included no housing for prisoners.
In late May, after being captured at the Battle of the Wilderness, John Maile, a 19-year-old lieutenant with the Michigan Company F, 8th Regiment, arrived at Andersonville in a cattle car. By the time he arrived, the prison, which was designed for 10,000 POWs, contained more than 20,000 Union soldiers. Maile was shocked by the filth and stench. Hundreds of soldiers lay dying from starvation, thirst, dysentery, scurvy and exposure to the elements. They were buried in mass graves.
While the prison food supply was awful, the water was worse. A small 10-foot wide, six-inch-deep creek, which meandered through the prison, not only provided the only source of drinking water but it was used for bathing, as well as the prison latrine. The odor from the putrid creek could be smelled for miles.
By mid-August, the prison population had swelled to more than 30,000 soldiers, making the food and water situation even more critical. On a Monday evening, John Maile heard a group of prisoners singing the doxology. He wandered over and joined about 25 dirty, thirsty soldiers.
When the music stopped, an emaciated Union cavalry sergeant who was also a preacher, spoke, “Men, today I read in the book of Numbers about Moses striking the rock and water gushing out. I tell you God must strike a rock in Andersonville or we shall all die of thirst. And if there is no rock here, He can smite the ground and bring forth water to supply our desperate needs.”
The sergeant prayed and asked God for a similar miracle inside the walls of Andersonville. Then one soldier after another prayed for God to provide water. The impromptu prayer meeting lasted about an hour and concluded with another singing of the doxology. As they dismissed, the sergeant encouraged them, “Boys, when you wake up during the night offer to God a little prayer for water. Do the same many times tomorrow, and let us meet here tomorrow night to pray again for water.”
Prayers went up from the prisoners for several days. On Friday morning, black clouds began rolling in, and the camp was deluged by a heavy thunderstorm. The lightning crashed all around them. When the storm finally ended, a prisoner near the north gate began shouting, “A spring. A spring.” He stood by a spring of pure water shooting up from the ground. A bolt of lightning had struck the ground and released an underground spring.
The soldiers referred to the gushing water as Providence Spring. It provided desperately needed water for the prisoners for nine months until the civil war finally ended in May 1865. Although Andersonville Prison was open for only 14 months, more than 13,000 soldiers died there. Many more would have died had God not answered the cries of desperate men begging for water.
In 1902, the Providence Spring House Memorial was built on the site of the Andersonville Prison to commemorate the divine water miracle that occurred 35 years earlier. The inscription on the monument reads: God smote the hillside and gave them drink – August 16, 1864. Today the spring still flows as a testament to God’s Providence.