In mid-autumn, 1863, Confederate army surveyors arrive near the southern Georgia plantation of Ira Claffey to begin construction of a military prison camp. Claffey is told that the facility, planned to encompass about twenty-seven acres, will house ten thousand prisoners of war. There will be no barracks, only an open enclosure bound by a series of fences.
Amid the chaos of the closing months of the American Civil War, the camp swells to close to fifty thousand prisoners. Quickly, as cattle cars of captured Union army soldiers keep arriving, conditions in the camp degenerate: Disease, starvation, insect infestations, impure water from a stream that flowed through the camp, and a lack of adequate medical care contribute to an appalling death rate. The camp is run by Confederate captain Henry Wirz, a cold-blooded bureaucrat plagued by his own demons (most notably a painful wounded hand) who feels hopelessly alone (he is Swiss-born, and his heavy accent underscores his isolation). Overwhelmed by the responsibilities of running the sprawling camp, Wirz fears most the possibility of a camp uprising, as its population steadily grows. Indeed, his fears are justified as a contingent of desperate prisoners valiantly attempts to tunnel out of the camp.
New prisoners arrive every week, including Eben Dolliver, an Iowa farmboy and bird lover who is driven to killing a swallow by twisting its neck and then eating it raw, and Father Peter Whalen, who ministers to the scores of dying and tries to maintain a sense of God’s presence. Other prisoners include Tom Gusset, an Ohio harness maker who, at the age of fifty-eight, is among the oldest prisoners and who manages to stay physically sound until he gradually loses his mind, overwhelmed by the misery in the camp. He hallucinates that he is back home with his family, holding animated conversations with his children and his neighbors; he is carted off to die in the camp hospital. Another prisoner is Nazareth Stricker, a Pennsylvania soldier who lost a hand at the Battle of Gettysburg. He escapes from the camp one day only to confront Coral Tebbs, a Confederate veteran who had lost a leg at the same battle.
Plantation owner Claffey observes from a...
(The entire section is 905 words.)