Wednesday, May 18, 2011

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

Some of the first pictures of war were from the Civil War, fought in the U.S. between 1861-1865. There were the famous men, from Lee to Grant; famous battlefields from Antietam to Gettysburg; and famous cities, from Richmond to Charleston to Washington D.C. But there’s the dark side of war too – the prison camps that hardly anyone talk about, that paints another part of the picture that was the Civil War. And Andersonville was one of the most squalid prison camps to come out of the Civil War’s history.

Andersonville didn’t start out as a prison camp. Set in the countryside of Georgia, 27 acres in swampy land would be cleared to hold Union soldiers. Built to house 10,000 prisoners, Andersonville maxed out in 14 months with over 32,000 soldiers, all living in squalid conditions with little food, no fresh water, lice, mud, open sewers….through cold winter nights and steamy hot summer, prisoners were left to try to live not through the war, but through this hell on earth.

The story of Andersonville is disturbing and intriguing at the same time. From orders issued from commandants to build the place, to the person (Wirz) who led camp, hindsight proved to be too late. There were no trade-offs between the Confederate and Union armies to free prisoners, afraid that once out, the soldiers would swell the ranks of that particular army. There was no discipline within the walls of Andersonville except those that belonged in gangs and those that opposed them. Everyone was fair game to be used, cheated, and killed – not only for their clothing and items, but for their living space as well. There was no food, especially not for prisoners. Men who came out Andersonville looked like walking skeletons, malnourished and suffering from anything from rickets to gangrene.

This non-fiction book is comprised of letters, diaries, first-hand accounts and court documents as well as photos and images of Andersonville for newspapers printed during the time. From the present perspective of the author looking back into history a new picture and story emerges from all of these primary source documents to weave a tale of hope, survival, death, and dedication. The author also uses inserts to other pertinent information involved with prison camps, including army orders, problems throughout prison camps in general (ie lice, gangrene) to personal letters, which creates a sore spot in once was called a gentleman’s war.

Catherine Gourley writes a great book to add to any collection of Civil War books, but what makes this one stand out is fact that this subject hasn’t really been written about or noted in most Civil War histories. Gourley writes for the reader, making it easy to process the facts, all the while keeping interest high through the many images and documents used within the book, which makes it highly appealing for teen readers. Gourley takes the reader on the journey instead of the reader digesting the facts, which is the beauty of the book. Highly recommended.

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