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"You will be in the trenches'

What was once a field rank with pools of fetid water and the smell of gangrene and death now gently rolls with hillocks of broom sage and gold and purple asters.

One hundred and thirty years ago, the field was Andersonville, the infamous Confederate camp where 45,000 Union troops were imprisoned, and where 13,000 died.

It is a haunting place whose name over time became synonymous with the horror, privations, disease and thwarted escapes common to all prisoners of wars. Now, with President Clinton's signing of an appropriations bill last month, Andersonville will become the site of the nation's only museum dedicated to American POWs from the Revolution to Somalia.

"It won't be just some showplace on a hill," declared James B. Stockdale, the retired Navy admiral who was the highest ranking American prisoner of war in the Vietnam War. He is serving as honorary chairmen of Friends of Andersonville, the private group supporting the museum.

"You will be in the trenches, trodding the ground that men agonized over then, just as you yourself did in your time," Stockdale said. "There is a lot of drama that went on in that prison."

The planned museum, which is expected to be completed by 1996, will be part of the Andersonville National Historic Site in southwestern Georgia. Andersonville, a village of 260 people, is about 25 miles northeast of former President Jimmy Carter's home in Plains, Ga.

In addition to the grassy expanse that once was the prison stockade, the 475-acre site includes two small brick buildings and a national cemetery holding the remains of the 13,000 Union troops who died in the prison, as well as the remains of 2,000 other veterans from the Spanish-American War to the Vietnam War. The cemetery, with its close-ranked, white stone markers, draws about 150,000 visitors a year.

Clinton's signature approving federal financing for the $9-million museum comes 24 years after the grounds of Andersonville were first taken over by the National Park Service and designated by Congress as the Andersonville National Historic Site. But only in the last 10 years did private groups and the Park Service begin to push for a museum as a memorial to POWs throughout the nation's history.

The Andersonville military prison operated for only 14 months in the Civil War, but it came to symbolize much about that conflict. In earlier wars there was little need for large, permanent prisons because prisoners of war usually were exchanged quickly after signing a pledge not to fight again.

That ended in the Civil War, when Union commanders, tired of capturing and recapturing the same Confederates, refused to make the exchanges. And Confederate commanders refused to exchange black prisoners of war, saying they were fugitive slaves.

After the war, Union forces hanged the camp's commandant, Capt. Henry Wirtz, making him the only person executed for war crimes in the Civil War. Later, private societies from the North maintained the camp and its cemetery.

Fred Boyles, Andersonville's superintendent, said the museum's design will recall that of a prison. Its outer face will be a series of windowless, low-rise wall sections. An inner courtyard will be ringed with iron gates and barbed wire, and three "guard towers" will rise above the roof.

Inside will be diaries, oral histories and a concrete cross erected by prisoners at Camp O'Donnell, the terminus of the 1942 Bataan death march, which World War II POWs called "the Andersonville of the Pacific."