Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Horrors of Andersonville

The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death Inside a Civil War Prison
by Catherine Gourley

192 pages
published by Lerner Publishing Group

Publisher's Description:

Conditions at Andersonville were indeed deplorable. The soldiers drank from polluted water and ate meager rations—mainly bug-infested cornmeal and bacon, which was often consumed raw, as there was little firewood for cooking. While some prisoners managed to make tents or shanties, many had to survive in the open without blankets or adequate clothing. Disease was rampant.

The camp had other dangers as well. Guards could shoot prisoners for just reaching across the deadline—an internal border 15 feet from the stockade walls. Some prisoners turned against each other in hopes of earning extra rations. And for a time, a gang called the Raiders preyed on fellow prisoners.

Of the nearly 45,000 prisoners that came to Andersonville, more than 13,000 died. When the Civil War ended, many people felt outrage. Was the camp commander Captain Henry Wirz ultimately responsible for these horrors? Or was he unfairly executed as a scapegoat for the atrocities of the camp?

Using diaries, letters, official U.S. government war records, media of the time, and other primary source documents from both Confederate and Union soldiers, author Catherine Gourley pieces together the life and death stories of Andersonville, revealing that the horrors of war include far more than what happens on the battlefield.

My Comments:

Andersonville prison is one element of Civil War history that slipped through the cracks of my formal education. I hadn't heard of it until a high school student needed help finding books about it for a history project. At first I was confused, thinking that it was somehow connected to the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. Actually, it was a prison in Georgia where Union captives were held by the Confederacy from February 1864 to the end of the Civil War. By all accounts, Andersonville was truly horrible. Originally intended to hold 10,000 prisoners at a time, the population swelled to more than 30,000 in August 1864. There simply wasn't enough food, water, space, medicine, shelter or clothing for anybody.

Not being familiar with the prison other than from reading this book, I can't speak to its veracity. I can say that it's derived from a variety of well-documented sources including the diaries and memoirs of inmates, eyewitness accounts that were published in local and national newspapers and magazines of the time, and records of the U.S. War Department. Gourley also presents a balanced view of what went on within the prison - for instance, the infamous killing of a crippled inmate is presented from several conflicting points of view. She also highlights harsh conditions in Union prisons for confederate soldiers like Elmira (also known as "Hellmira") through effective use of text boxes.

The writing is very engaging and the layout and design make it very easy to follow. Page and chapter breaks and even the placement of the shaded text boxes preserve the narrative flow. I even like the old-school font and subtle color scheme (deep blue, black, white and shades of gray).

The many illustrations and photographs are both relevant to the story and well-captioned. Captions for illustrations that appeared in newspapers, for instance, include source and contextual information. A couple of amazing drawings of the prison were actually drawn by inmates in their diaries.

The index at the end is very useful, as are the selected bibliography and further reading. I like the "cast of characters" at the beginning and end, however I felt that some people were left out who maybe should have been included, and the inclusion of others left me wondering why they hadn't been mentioned more in the text.

The source notes are useful, however I found that I needed to reference the bibliography to decipher some of the abbreviations. Another small quibble is that the reader has to assume that the number before each note is the page number. It would have been nice if "page" had been typed at the top of the first number column, just for clarification. It appears that, at one point, each note had been assigned a unique number, because I discovered two inexplicable superscript numbers while reading the text (the first one is "76").

One other complaint is the occasional use of parentheses to explain certain terms that someone (author? editor?) felt young adults would not understand. Some of these parenthetical definitions may be useful, but others are just annoyingly condescending - for instance, I can't imagine any teen not knowing that the eagle is the national bird. Overall, I felt they detracted from the book, but not enough to ruin it.

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