Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
The novel is almost 800 pages long and covers a period of about four years. The Andersonville prison camp of the title, which was grossly over capacity for much of that time, held as many as 50,000 prisoners. MacKinlay Kantor effectively combines the select stories of a few individuals with...
(The entire section contains 474 words.)
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The novel is almost 800 pages long and covers a period of about four years. The Andersonville prison camp of the title, which was grossly over capacity for much of that time, held as many as 50,000 prisoners. MacKinlay Kantor effectively combines the select stories of a few individuals with portraits, or mere snapshots, of dozens of others. He opted to emphasize a Georgia landowner, who ceded some of his plantation acreage to the Confederacy to build the prison, and the camp’s director, who was ultimately tried, convicted, and executed for his actions in that capacity. For the reader, one of the challenges is knowing that the camp had an extremely high mortality rate—almost one-fourth of the prisoners died—so it is risky to invest in an emotional connection with any character.
The Confederate plantation owner, Ira Claffey, is one of the main characters. He is drawn in very relatable, humane terms as a deeply conflicted man whose allegiance to Southern causes includes endorsement of slavery but also doubts about the excesses of its application. Claffey and his family, especially his wife, Veronica, suffer emotionally, having lost sons in the war. It disturbs them to know that their land has been allocated to such terrible ends, and they must endure the physical proximity to the prison, from which emanates the stench of death and disease.
The characters of Claffey’s daughter, Lucy, and the camp’s idealistic physician, Harry Elkins, provide a love story as counterpoint to the grimness of the main story. Elkins plays a role in influencing Claffey’s behavior in trying, however futilely, to attract the Confederate upper echelon’s attention to the unacceptable conditions.
Henry Wirz, the prison director, hails originally from Switzerland. His unenviable position is trying to maintain control in a facility with unspeakable conditions. While Kantor suggests he experiences a moral quandary, he highlights Wirz’s responsibility for his own poor decisions and inhumane behavior.
The imprisoned Union soldiers, who come from all parts of the North, often enforce stereotypes of particular locations.
From New York, for example, a man of Irish heritage, Willie Collins, was a former urban gang member who enlisted out of pragmatic rather than patriotic motivations; in the prison, he forms a gang as well. In contrast, Nathan Dreyfoss, the Boston character, is an elite with a continental education; as an officer, he participates in the internal “regulating,” or internal policing, which attempts to control Willie’s gang.
Many prisoners hail from rural areas, such as Tom Gusset of Ohio. In his fifties, he is old for a soldier, and he presents the paradox that even those who had relatively good physical health suffered in other ways—he has a mental breakdown. Judah Hansom, a farmer who is also an accomplished woodsman, uses his skills as one of the tunnelers who attempt escape.