Kantor's Andersonville is a fictionalized account of life in the Confederate States of America prison camp in Georgia for Union soldiers captured during the Civil War. Kantor based the book on extensive documentary research from letters, journals, and other first-hand accounts recorded by prisoners, guards, and locals, including a nearby plantation owner named Ira Claffey.
The Confederates plan for the camp to hold 10,000 prisoners, but the numbers swell to five times that. There is no housing or shelter other than rude cloth tents, no sanitary facilities, and no water apart from a polluted stream. Prisoners that drink from the stream typically die. Inmates drink from the rainwater that soaks their clothes.
A harsh Swiss Confederate named Henry Wirtz runs the camp and ignores calls for more humane conditions. Desperate prisoners turn their attention to escape. They try to escape when delivering the bodies of the dead outside the prison's twenty-foot high palisade fence or by tunneling under it. Most fail, and disease and insanity take their toll. Nazareth Stricker does escape but finds that with only one arm he is not able to survive. He encounters an unlikely savior in a one-legged Confederate who decides to help him.
A gang of thugs calling themselves the Raiders make these dreadful conditions even worse. Their leadership is made up of New York street convicts like William Collins, who enlisted in the Union Army to escape imprisonment and had planned on desertion, but the Confederates captured him instead. They raid the other prisoners, beat them with clubs and steal any food, clothes, and possessions. The idealistic New England men finally have enough and make a stand against the gang. They capture them and put them on trial. After their convictions, they are hung.
Toward the end of the war, food and water run out completely. When the Union Army of the United States liberates the camp, the surviving prisoners look like emaciated walking skeletons. The Union Army is shocked by the horrible conditions, as is local landowner Ira Claffey, whose attempts to improve camp conditions had been rejected. After the end of the war, a vengeful Confederate assassinates the victorious President Lincoln. Ira Caffey mourns the dead while walking through the camp back to his war-torn plantation. He reflects on the evils of slavery and on the poor conditions of working-class factory hands in the north, whose condition he likens to a kind of economic slavery. He resolves that the story of Andersonville must not be forgotten.
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...
(The entire section is 1,600 words.)