“Nineteen months ago, he mourned, partridges were here. Nineteen months ago the open pine forest was compassionate. What rare concentrated tragedies will have occurred within another nineteen months—not here, for this place has bred a tragedy greater than any recorded in the Nation’s past—but elsewhere, all over the South, through back roads and on wharves and in legislative rooms, in foundries which rust because the fires have gone out?”
Open for only 18 months from 1864-1865, 52,000 Union soldiers were housed at this infamous and notorious prisoner of war camp called Andersonville. The 27-acre camp was surrounded by a stockade made of pine logs with a small creek that ran through the center. The prisoners had no shelter, except for makeshift tents made for those who had the resources; this meant the prisoners were forced to suffer through intense heat in the Georgia summer, rain, and the cold of Georgia winter’s with no defense. The creek became a combination of bathing, toileting, drinking, and a cesspool disease. The men were given little or no fresh meat or vegetables and scant food in general. They suffered scurvy, gangrene, diarrhea, dysentery and various other diseases. By the time the Civil War ended, 13,000 Union soldiers died within the prison’s four walls, and many more died from health complications with a year or two of being released.
Decades later, author MacKinlay Kantor put together about 25 years of research in order to write the most complete novel he could about the prison. Simply titled Andersonville, this controversial book—which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956—was immediately declared one of the most important books ever written about the American Civil War.
I haven’t read many novels about the Civil War, so I can’t really speak to that; I can say, though, Andersonville was certainly the most disturbing I’ve ever read. It was beyond grotesque, intimately detailing the plights of prisoners who were suffering from conditions not so far removed from Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust (perhaps the Confederates weren’t sending Union soldiers to poison gas chambers by the millions, but they were certainly starving them to death, murdering them for sport, and refusing to care for the sick and wounded). What makes the novel even more grotesque is when the reader stops to consider that Kantor made very few embellishments—many of the characters are fictional, many of the individual specifics are fictional, but the overall scope of the horrors and atrocities committed at Andersonville are very much factual.
Furthermore, this is the most cleverly written Civil War novel I have read. War novels tend to be pretty straightforward; they’re usually either very factual or very dramatic (I’m thinking of The Killer Angels and All Quiet on the Western Front). Andersonville, on the other hand manages to be both. It is as heavily factual as it is heavily stylized (that style being a very dark, foggy, mysterious mix of Southern Gothic and Joycean stream of consciousness—very a la William Faulkner).
And therein lies what doesn’t work for me.
As much as I was enamored by Kantor’s writing, he is very guilty of droning on and on and on about nothing in particular. One thing he does throughout the book is put in these very lengthy and detailed backstories of fictional characters and, in so doing, gives more identity to the prisoners in the camp. Instead of just a very huge number of nameless, faceless soldiers, Kantor puts a little bit of humanity into the prison camp, making it all the more real. And I respect that.
However, he really abuses that method of storytelling throughout the book. I don’t mind the length of the book, but it does bother me that only maybe a third of the pages are about the prison camp itself; the other two thirds are just backstories about fictional characters. Which, again, wouldn’t be too bad in and of itself, if those stories provided more humanity to the book. Instead, it made the book even more difficult to trudge through. I found myself caring less and less about the characters and just reading for the sake of reading.
That is definitely not the impact you want to have on your readers with a book containing this subject matter.
If you can force yourself to get through it and read every single word, it’s well worth the effort; it’s an incredible book. An incredible, horrible, awful, wonderful, ugly, beautiful book.