Renowned Civil War author Bruce Catton called it “The best Civil War novel I have ever read, without any question,” and the Chicago Sun Times echoed: “A great book, perhaps the greatest of all Civil War novels.”
They were talking about MacKinlay Kantor’s riveting story titled “Andersonville” about a prison for Union soldiers carved out of a pine forest 140 miles south of Atlanta.
Late in the war, after the North-South P.O.W. exchange cartel broke down for political reasons, overcrowding led to additional prisons opening — often in remote areas, for security reasons. The Confederate government established Camp Sumter and employed slave labor to clear 27 acres enclosed by a 15-foot-high stockade fence that assumed the name of the nearby town of Andersonville.
This story describes how the Confederate provost guards crammed 45,000 prisoners into this open space, without adequate shelter, over a 14-month period, during which 13,000 succumbed to disease, malnutrition, abuse and the elements. The 29 percent death rate far exceeded that of any other major Union or Confederate P.O.W. facility.
“Andersonville” is populated by real-life, as well as fictional, characters. Kantor describes life on a hardscrabble farm in remote southwest Georgia through the eyes of the Claffey family and their slaves, who perform much of the manual labor. Their lifestyle is transformed when Confederate government representatives decide to establish a Union P.O.W. facility on their property.
The main theme of this historical novel is the inmates’ imaginative struggle for survival by creating “shebangs,” or make-shift shelters, for eating and sleeping under these cramped conditions.
When Edward Blamey of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry arrived at this prison camp, he observed men who were “rigging shelters out of the forest’s wreckage left by axe men, but some were sitting in apathy, too tired or ill or depressed to join in this general pioneering.”
The Rebels established “deadlines” around the perimeter of the prison interior, beyond which inmates dared not encroach, knowing from experience the guards would shoot them. Cannons placed in prison wall breaches discouraged mass breakouts.
As in any small, overcrowded community, Andersonville was plagued by criminal elements among the inmates who terrorized and confiscated belongings of fellow prisoners. A climatic outcome occurred when the oppressed Union P.O.W.s rose up; and, with prison authorities’ permission, arrested the gang leaders, put them on trial and sentenced six to death by hanging.
To ensure perpetual disgrace, they separated the gang leaders’ graves in Andersonville Cemetery from those of other Union captives who died while imprisoned. That isolation is a stark reminder today that their crimes reaped retribution.
In writing this historical novel, Kantor had the benefit of eye-witness accounts from Andersonville survivors’ diaries and memoirs. In particular, John Ransom, a member of the 9th Michigan Cavalry, maintained a diary “as a means of occupying a mind which had to contemplate … the horrors of a situation from which death would have been, and was to thousands, a happy relief.”
When asked whether he had any love for the Yankees, Kantor writes, Andersonville’s commandant (and villain of the piece), Capt. Henry Wirz, responded, “I hate them very much,” and added, “They invade … with sword and fire, our rights they would trample.”
In real life, Wirz had the distinction, as well as the misfortune, of being the only Rebel to be tried and executed for war crimes during the Civil War.
It required considerable time and effort for the author to compile this classic rendition of man’s cruelty to man, and the result is more history than fiction, as exemplified by the extensive notes and bibliography.
One online reviewer summed up the value of “Andersonville” as literature: “I am amazed at MacKinlay Kantor’s vast amount of research and how he creates gritty and wonderful characters to make a despicable event in history enriching and meaningful.
To fully appreciate what occurred at this notorious prison camp requires a visit to Andersonville National Historic Site, operated year-round by the National Park Service. For more information about the prison, cemetery and museum, call (229) 924-0343.
Next, we will travel north to New York City, where horrific events took place during 1863, as described in Kevin Baker’s popular novel “Paradise Alley.” One critic labeled it, “A gripping saga of New York at war.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point