Deep in the quiet Georgia countryside lies twenty-six and a half acres of land that once were home to 45,000 men. The very silence of the spot stands in sobering contrast to the constant din that resounded here one hundred and fifty years ago. What was once a landscape of squalor, disease, and suffering is now a well-manicured area that invites reflection and remembrance. This bucolic place was the site of Andersonville Prison, the most notorious of all POW camps during the American Civil War, now a National Park dedicated to preserving the memory of not only Andersonville but the American POW experience in all wars.
Andersonville, officially called Camp Sumter, opened in February of 1864 in southwestern Georgia and existed until the end of the war in 1865. Andersonville was originally sixteen acres designed to hold 10,000 men, but the site expanded to twenty-six and a half acres. By August of 1864 it was home to 33,000 men, a number that swelled to 45,000. Thirteen thousand men perished at the prison, most of them from scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, and exposure to the elements. There were no wooden structures for housing prisoners. Men constructed what shelter they could out of tent halves, pieces of clothing, and stray pieces of wood. A stream that ran through the prison served as both latrine and drinking water source. It quickly became fouled, contributing to much of the sickness that reigned at Andersonville.
Its commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was the only Confederate brought before a military tribunal to stand trial for war crimes during the American Civil War. He was convicted and hanged in November of 1865. General Lew Wallace, an Indiana native who later wrote Ben-Hur, presided over his trial. Historians have criticized this trial and Wirz’s treatment, arguing in large part that the suffering of Andersonville’s prisoners was due to conditions beyond Wirz’s control, such as a consistent and widespread lack of fresh vegetables that could have prevented scurvy.
Andersonville was the subject of a novel published sixty years ago that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville (1955) was the fruit of years of research and a longstanding interest Kantor had in the prison. It wasn’t his first Civil War novel. He published Long Remember about Gettysburg in 1934 and followed this two years later with Arouse and Beware, a novel about two Union soldiers escaping a southern prison.
Kantor grew up with the legacy of the Civil War. Born in Webster City, Iowa in 1904, Kantor was fascinated by the old Civil War veterans he saw around town and during events held on Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day), and the Fourth of July. “I can remember parading through cemeteries on the Fourth of July, the old men of the town, and me, a skinny kid in his teens with a fife. Sometimes the Civil War seemed closer than the time I was living in,” recalled Kantor.
He worked for newspapers in Iowa and elsewhere while publishing stories, eventually publishing his first novel, Diversey, in 1928. A flood of books followed this first novel, a number of which were made into films. His books sold well. During WWII he served as a correspondent with the U.S. Army Air Corps in England. His verse novel about returning veterans, Glory For Me, was adapted for the screen as The Best Years of Our Lives, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1946. Kantor continued to publish books until his death in 1977 in Sarasota, Florida.
Andersonville may be Kantor’s best-known novel. It is episodic and a kind of ensemble piece. The closest thing to a central character is Ira Claffey, a southern planter whose land is used for the prison grounds. Claffey is a humane and reflective man appalled at what comes to be at Andersonville. The novel features a variety of characters from both north and south, military and civilian. The reader follows Kantor’s imprisoned characters as they endure life in the camp, and he provides a history for each man so we can see the stark contrast between their previous lives and the privation of Andersonville. Historical figures appear, ranging from Henry Wirz to Father Peter Whelen, a Catholic priest who spent a month at the camp ministering to its inmates, to Wirz’s supervisor General John H. Winder.
Kantor’s imprisoned characters reflect the diversity of the men trapped behind its walls. One character is a fifty-eight year old soldier named Tom Gusset. Another is a young Jewish soldier named Nathan Dreyfoos, an immigrant who traveled widely in Europe before the war and is well-educated. Union sailors are also held at Andersonville. Among the prison characters portrayed in the book are some who actually existed, such as the brutal “raider” Willie Collins. The “raiders” were a group of criminals within the stockade who preyed on their fellow captives. Other prisoners eventually formed a police force and hanged them with the permission of their Confederate overseers.
Kantor’s novel met with high praise upon publication. The distinguished mid-twentieth century American historian Henry Steele Commager called it “the greatest of our Civil War novels” in an article in the New York Times. In a review in the Chicago Tribune, the noted Civil War historian Bruce Catton called it “The best Civil War novel I have ever read, without any question.”
Kantor’s novel is long—my smaller sized Signet edition comes in at a whopping 725 pages—and while readable is still not an easy book to take on given the detail of squalor and suffering Kantor describes. I first read it as a high school junior in the spring of 1983, and I can still recall how I felt stifled by the descriptions of the oppression and misery of Andersonville. It was a fascinating but sobering read. Kantor did his job well.
There are many fine novels of the Civil War out there, and Kantor wrote three of them. I can’t say which novel among the dozens of truly high quality works is “the greatest.” But I would say that Andersonville is an excellent novel of the Civil War that deserves to be more widely known.
Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. World Publishing Company, New York, 1955.
Andersonville: The Last Depot by William Marvel. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1994. One of the best Civil War history books I have ever read. Fair, authoritative, well-written. If you’re looking for a good overall history of Andersonville, this will serve you well.
The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. 1988. A monumental one volume history of the war by one of its most distinguished historians.
National Park Service site for Andersonville National Historic Site.