by MacKinlay Kantor
1956 Pulitzer Prize
5 stars - wow, just, WOW
Ha! Did you think I had stopped reading? Well, friends, this 760 page volume took a while to get through, but I never once had the urge to stop. No, instead, I savored every word. This is a masterpiece!
Andersonville is a fictionalized account of the Andersonville civil war prison. Mr. Kantor spent years researching his subject and combines real historical characters and events with fictional persons to weave a devastating tale of a horrific period in the history of our nation.
Andersonville Prison was established near the end of the civil war and was located in Georgia. With all able men fighting on the front, the prison was staffed by the dregs and misfits. Children, seniors, and wounded soldiers. None of whom were prepared for the task at hand.
The prison opened in 1864 and originally covered about 16 acres. While it was expanded at one point, it in no way could accommodate the over 33,000 Union soldiers sent there. At one point, the estimate was that there were 1500 soldiers / acre.
The prisoners were provided with, well, nothing. No clean water, no shelter, and what food there was had little meat and no vegetables. Scurvy ran rampant. A minor cut festered and killed. Starving, hopeless men formed bands of raiders in order to survive, the healthy stealing from the sick. The sick stealing from the dying.
The book follows a few main characters. Mainly Ira Claffey and his family. They are modest estate owners who have the misfortune of living adjacent to the prison. Their sons all met their deaths in the civil war and Ira Claffey and daughter struggle with the realization of what is going on in the prison and what it means about their Confederate army and the human condition itself.
For me, even more compelling than the story of Ira and his family were the chapters about individuals. Mr. Kantor takes us through the lives of several prisoners and prison staff. Here we see painfully ordinary people with pedestrian issues, dreams modest or spectacular, who are ultimately rendered into unrecognizable beings for whom none of them could ever have been prepared. Many of them die. In fact it is estimated that 13,000 prisoners died in the 15 months of operation.
I cannot begin to describe the depth and poetry of the book. Reading it is exhausting. There are no fabricated bright spots. It's real and ugly.
Now then, in 1996 Hollywood apparently made a movie version of Andersonville. Don't watch it, please. I watched the trailer and what I saw were clean, well fed, well clothed, robust young men. Nothing like the almost inhumane creatures who actually populated the prison. Nothing even coming close to the horror of the few black and white photos you can find on the Internet that were taken at the camp.
Read the book. Just do it. Or at least learn about Andersonville. It's an important part of our history (although I suspect that most folks reading this blog already know about it). I found this link a useful starting place.