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Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
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Andersonville (1955)

by MacKinlay Kantor

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#60. [Andersonville] by MacKinlay Kantor

   That night they were marched into the Andersonville stockade; and so they woke up staring, and they could not believe, they could not believe.
   Nathan Dreyfoos said, It was too good to last.
   But, Sarge, they can't mean to keep us here.
   Look at the other prisoners, Allen.
   But they must have made a mistake. Maybe they sent us to the wrong place. Maybe this is a punishment camp. Eh, Sarge? Oh, for God's sake, Sarge, please do ask the guards if there hain't been a mis­take! A man can't live in a place like this.
   A great many of them don't, said one of the blackened hairy crea­tures who stood watching and listening.


Andersonville is the common name of Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war stockade built in a sparsely populated region of western Georgia in April 1864. As many as 45,000 northern captives were held there (45,000 at one time, many more were funneled through in the single year of its existence). By the time it was liberated by Federal troops in May 1865, about 13,000 prisoners had died there. Capt. Henry Wirz, commander of the stockade, was the only--the only--Confederate official to be tried and executed for war crimes.

[Andersonville] is MacKinlay Kantor's mammoth novel about this notorious prison. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1956, the book is a detailed and horrifying depiction of the prison, seen through the eyes its neighbors, of the officers running it, the old men and young boys guarding it, and the unfortunates held there. The prison mirrors the trajectory of the Confederacy: Much of the squalor was the result of insufficient resources--food, medicines, building materials, manpower--the same shortages that plagued the entire Confederacy.

The prison itself was a simple rectangular stockade, initially enclosing about 16 1/2 acres, eventually 26 1/2 acres. Slaves were commandeered from surrounding plantations to log the pines covering the site, squaring 20-foot-long logs, and erecting them on end, side-by-side, set five feet into the ground. Outside the stockade wall, guard platforms, each accessed by a ladder, were erected. A small stream, the sole water source, traversed the yard. That was it. No housing, no latrines, no shelter from sun or rain or cold.

At first, as characters were introduced, the book struck me as formulaic. We first meet a thoughtful, sympathetic (but nevertheless pro-slavery) plantation owner and his family, decimated by the war; then an idealistic army surgeon; the villainous General Winder, a West Point deplorable, foul-mouthed, imperious, racist; the first prisoners representing a cross-section of the Federal troops, from cities, farms, small towns, of varying ethnicities, ages, backgrounds. Formulaic it may be, but Kantor did it well. A sampling of prisoners:

Willie Collins is an Irish thug from New York City--he committed his first murder at 14--who cycled in and out of jail for assault, robbery, general antisocial behavior. Released from civil prison after the war's start, none of the established gangsters wanted his services; he was bad luck.

There was nothing for Willie to do but enlist, which he did quickly, and then deserted just as quickly, bounty money sewn in his drawers. In this way, he went from regiment to regiment. It has never occurred to him that he might be sent into combat, but that was what happened after he joined the Eighty-eighth Pennsylvania, before he'd found opportunity to take his usual French Leave.

Captured by the Rebs and imprisoned at Andersonville, Collins reverted to form: intimidation, assault, theft. He recruited a hostile gang that preyed on fellow prisoners, one of several such gangs, known as Raiders.

Nathan Dreyfuss never thought he'd end up in a place like Andersonville. "Born in Boston, he had spent most of his life abroad, travelling from country to country with his father and mother, taught by English tutors the while." In New York City, he encounters two young Union officers, gets into a fight with them and bests both, then enlists to serve in their unit. Sent into battle, the officers are killed, Dreyfoos is captured (along with a majorty of the unit's soldiers). Inside the stockade, he is recruited into the "Regulators," a prisoner police force, organized to bring the Raider gangs to justice.

Chickamauga is called that because that's where he lost both his leg and his freedom. A harelip makes him difficult to understand. Extraordinarily bad breath makes him difficult to stand (near). He's an outcast. When he exposes a tunneling project to the guards in exchange for extra food, he learns what being an outcast is really like.

Judah Hansom from "York State" considers himself a woodsman though he's inherited from his father a 600-acre farm on which he's always worked, along with several mortgages. Goaded by the heckling of a young disabled veteran--"Might get shot!"--Judah enlists. Imprisoned at Andersonville, Judah enlists a handful of fellows to tunnel out to freedom. He hates being underground, but he's driven to take on more and more of the digging.

Willie Mann was brought up in rural Missouri, the son of a doctor who was known to be "foolish on the subject of water." (though none of his eight children died in infancy). Thoroughly indoctrinated, Willie is particular about water that he'll drink. Once imprisoned, he consumes very little and at every opportunity tries to collect rainwater and funnel it directly into his mouth. Then a violent thunderstorm hits.

Eric Torrosian schemes to escape by playing dead. Prisoners tote their fellows who have died to the stockade gate, and every evening slaves load the corpses on a wagon and take them to the dead house outside to await burial. Once in the unguarded dead house, Eric can slip out and disappear into the forest surrounding the prison.

Relatively few characters survive the book. It is a long, grim story.
  weird_O | Sep 25, 2016 |
Andersonville is the 1956 Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the same named Confederate prisoner of war camp located at Anderson Georgia. The novel graphically portrays life in and around the notorious camp. The point of view of the novel is told from multiple perspectives.

Ira Claffey and his daughter Lucy are well off residents of their small community, who have the misfortune of having the prison built close to their plantation. Despite having three sons killed in various battles on behalf of the Confederacy, Ira and Lucy remain remarkably charitable towards the union prisoners and even try unsuccessfully to relieve some of their suffering. Harrell Ellkins is brought to Andersonville as a doctor for the prisoners and becomes increasingly horrified and despondent over the treatment of the prisoners. Several Union prisoners’ perspectives are also conveyed as they try to survive the increasingly squalid conditions of their confinement and starvation. Also given a voice is Henry Wirz, the camp commandant and General John Winder, who was in charge of all the Confederate prisoners of war. By giving voice to some many different perspectives, the author tries to paint a historically accurate picture of what life would have been like in 1864 Georgia.

The novel is well researched and very well written. Modern readers may be surprised that such topics as homosexuality, rape and abortion are touched on in the course of the book. Descriptions of the absolutely disgusting condition of the camp and the many diseases suffered by the emaciated union prisoners are strongly reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. Readers who have studied the Civil War and that time period will surely recognize little historical references. Such as Benny Haven, who was the owner of a popular tavern located in the town of West Point and housewives, little sewing kits that soldiers were issued to help keep their uniforms repaired with while in the field. Newcomers to the topic might feel a little lost at times, but Andersonville is definitely worth the effort. ( )
  queencersei | Nov 12, 2015 |
I read this when I did because I was reading all the novels that had won the Pulitzer prize for fiction which I had not yet read. I found this a searing and poignant account of the Confederate prison, and accepted that it was historically reliable, as I believe it is generally still so consideredd. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jul 29, 2013 |
This book was ridiculously awful.

The worst part was how, for the first 50 pages or so, I thought it was going to be fantastic. It was about a southern town (Anderson) where a prison was built during the civil war. The first chapter was about the family whose land was taken by the rebels in order to build this prison. The characters were rich, engaging and conflicted.

However, it turned out that basically every chapter is full of new people. There was a very small continuing plot line, but for the most part it was disjointed tellings of the atrocities in this prison. Incredibly graphic passages abounded, and while I did care in that "I care that any human was treated this way," kind of way, I did not care in an, "I know and care about this character specifically," kind of way.

Also, Kantor felt the need to not include any quotation marks in the book. Half the time I didn't even realize someone was talking until halfway through their speech. Not cool my friend. Not cool.

The author clearly did his research, and wanted to include every morsel of it, and I can see why Civil War buffs might care about this book. It was not for me though. ( )
  agnesmack | Sep 4, 2011 |
The memory of this read has stuck with me for many years. For those interested in a facet of view other than that normaly depicted in Civil War histories. I strongly suggest this work. ( )
  Tenpa | Jan 19, 2011 |
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"The future historian who shall undertake to write an unbiased story of the War between the States, will be compelled to weigh in the scale of justice all its parts and features; and if the revealing crimes . . . have indeed been committed, the perpetrators must be held accountable.  Be they of the South or of the North, they can not escape history."
R. Randolph Stevenson
Formerly surgeon in the Army of the Confederate States of America
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To Irene
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Sometimes there was a compulsion which drew Ira Claffey from his plantation and sent him to walk the forest.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Captures the glory and shame of America's most tragic conflict, the Civil War, in the crowded world of the infamous prison, Andersonville, and the people who lived outside its barricades.

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