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Honoring Ancestral History

The large map (an impressive 57 x 37.5 inches) offers a hand-colored view of the infamous Andersonville Prison, drawn by Thomas O’Dea, a Union soldier held captive there during the Civil War.

Map purchase lauds forebears of Civil War descendants

In 1885, two decades after being imprisoned in Andersonville, a former Union soldier completed a map of the Confederacy’s notorious prisoner-of-war camp. He dedicated the meticulous illustration “respectfully and fraternally” to the survivors and to the family and friends of the fallen.

Nearly a century and a half later, in a continuing spirit of honoring those who suffered, descendants of Andersonville captives have ensured that drawing lies in the University of Illinois Map Library.

The magnificent piece offers a hand-colored depiction of the camp, taking the viewer from a train at top bringing in new prisoners, down through the Confederate quarters to a stockade fence punctuated by manned rifle towers. Within the fence confines are thousands of Union soldiers, in a highly detailed Where’s Waldo? mass of wretched humanity, barely surviving in tented misery. Bordering the map are 18 scenes of everyday life, including death, torture, rations, prayer, and dreams of home and family. A key identifies 41 sites within the prison complex.

“I just think it’s a part of history that . . . needs to be told,” said James Dixon, who provided the funds to purchase the map after reading about it in Friendscript. Dixon, who spent a year at the Urbana-Champaign campus before receiving a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from UI-Chicago in 1982, said, “I think the map is a great way of keeping that story alive.”

Dixon’s great-great-grandfather, a musically inclined private named Thornton Virden, served in Company F, 14th Regiment, West Virginia Infantry during the Civil War; upon being captured in 1864, he was sent to Andersonville. While there, the 20-something Virden was forced to provide musical accompaniment during Confederate recruitment efforts and managed to escape twice. He died in West Virginia in 1917.

James Dixon’s great-great-grandfather, Thornton Virden, with his wife, Anna (they married in 1857)

Through tracing their genealogical history, Dixon’s family learned that Virden “talked about how . . . horrible the conditions” in the camp were (indeed, after the conflict its commander was the only Confederate officer to be tried and executed for war crimes). At one point, according to Dixon, his great-great-grandfather ended up trading his blanket for what he thought was a bag of rice—discovering too late it was but a sack of stones.

Stephen Fritz’s great-grandfather, Jacob Mayer

Stephen Fritz ’71 LAS, MA ’73 LAS, PHD ’80 LAS, was also interested in purchasing the map, but Dixon had already fully answered the call. Fritz’s great-grandfather, Jacob Mayer, a member of Company F, 7th Regiment, Illinois Cavalry, was a prisoner at Andersonville for virtually all of its existence. A German immigrant who farmed in Illinois, Mayer was captured in December 1863 near Collierville, Tennessee, sent to a camp outside of Montgomery, Alabama, and was eventually transferred to Andersonville in Georgia.

Tapped by his aunt to preserve the family’s history, Fritz became the keeper of family papers and photographs. As a young boy growing up in St. Elmo, Illinois, he became enchanted with history, a subject he has taught at East Tennessee State University for nearly four decades.

“I’ve always had a fascination with maps,” Fritz said. “It strikes me that you can’t really be a serious historian if you don’t like maps.”

According to Fritz’s research, Mayer, who died in 1897, “felt drawn to volunteer for the Union cause because that . . . was the proper thing to do.” Virden also was inspired to assist the Union, along with two brothers (although a third fought for the Confederacy). And Thomas O’Dea, who drew the Andersonville map from memory, was so fervently pro-Union that the young Irish immigrant lad first tried to volunteer at age 14.

“To me, [my great-great-grandfather is] . . . somebody I would have loved to have met,” Dixon said.

“We talk about the greatest generation, you know, the World War II generation, but I don’t know,” he mused. “Look at the generation of Americans that fought in that Civil War,” referencing the brutal carnage that took place. “It’s just horrific.”

And thus, the sacred purpose of the Andersonville prison map, as well as of history itself: to truthfully remember, respect, and record the many sacrifices made throughout time. O’Dea, Dixon, and Fritz want to ensure that mission continues.

Editor’s Note: The Andersonville Map is viewable online at A digital collection of U.S. Civil War maps, and maps from the era, will be available through the Digital Library in 2023.


Andersonville Map Author Thomas O’Dea

Details on O’Dea

Thomas O’Dea, creator of the Andersonville map, was an Irish immigrant who, at age 16, was sent to the infamous Confederate prison. He was a drummer boy from the 16th Regiment, Maine Infantry.

At the time of O’Dea’s imprisonment, 35,000 Union soldiers inhabited the camp, which had been constructed to house 10,000. Death, disease, and deprivation were so rampant that more than 40 percent of all Union POWs who died in captivity did so at Andersonville, despite the camp having operated for just 15 months.

Following the war, O’Dea became an itinerant mason. Encountering inaccurate descriptions of Andersonville’s conditions, he began drawing his own recollections; six years later, he had completed a
9-foot-long piece. With the drawing transformed into a lithograph, O’Dea made 10,000 copies, which he sold at $5 each (with a discount for posts of the Grand Army of the Republic).

On the 50th anniversary of his capture, O’Dea revisited the Andersonville site, which was under the auspices of the War Department. He was surprised to learn that, upon Southerners’ objections, his bestselling print had been removed. Today, the location is a Natural Historic Site run by the National Park Service.