Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 905 words.)
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