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Literature / Andersonville

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Andersonville is a 1955 novel by MacKinlay Kantor.

It is set at Andersonville prison. Andersonville, aka "Camp Sumter", was used as a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp between February 1864 and the end of The American Civil War in May 1865. Andersonville became notorious for its brutal savagery. Over the course of the fifteen months the camp was in operation nearly a third of the 45,000 Union soldiers interned at Andersonville died of starvation and scurvy, with a death rate topping 3,000 soldiers per month. The horrors of Andersonville so incensed the public of the North that the commandant of Andersonville, Captain Henry Wirz, became the only person executed for war crimes committed in the Civil War.

The novel includes both characters based on real persons and fictional characters, including Wirz, various Union prisoners inside the camp, and Confederate civilians living outside the camp. It has no direct connection to other fictional works inspired by Andersonville, such as stage play The Andersonville Trial or the John Frankenheimer TV movie Andersonville.


  • Above Good and Evil: Willie Collins, a former mob goon from New York, has adapted this philosophy while a prisoner at Andersonville. POV character Edward Blamey turns down an invitation to join Collins's gang, only to later break down and join out of desperation. Collins ruthlessly steals anything he wants from weaker prisoners.
    "Willie Collins's philosophy was plain, abrupt: a weak man has no business in this place nor in any place where physical force may rule."
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: When facing execution, several of the Raider leaders plead for their lives. Willie Collins begs for mercy after the rope hanging him breaks.
  • Artistic License – History: John Winder hated the U.S. government for, among other things, not giving him a medal for his heroism in the Mexican War, only honorary "brevet" promotions. The problem with this is that the U.S. armed forces didn't give any medals to anyone and never had, except for Purple Hearts handed out by George Washington during the Revolution. Brevets were the only honor there was. The Congressional Medal of Honor was invented during the Civil War itself.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Eben Dolliver's memories of his father Joth. Joth Dolliver was a gentle fellow who'd cry like a child when he was stung by a bee. But when some local bullying thugs disrupted a religious service, Joth kicked the crap out of them single-handed.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: Ira Claffey remembers plying his uptight wife with brandy to get her to put out.
  • Combat Pragmatist: All of Nathan Dreyfoos's "Regulators", when launching the attack that destroys Willie Collins and his criminal Raiders.
    "The bite would be here, the kick in the crotch, the pressing out of the eyeball, the tearing of the nostrils, the champ of your teeth to rip the muscle from an arm before the enemy's fangs went into your own. Win this first battle, in truth it would be the last."
  • Commonality Connection: Coral Tebbs ends up befriending Nat Stricker, an escaped Union prisoner largely because they are both war amputees.
  • Dangerous Deserter: Ira Claffey encounters three "bummers" from the fringes of Sherman's march while he is trying to travel to Richmond. It turns out that fall 1864 is a bad time to be on the roads in Georgia. Ira thinks he's going to get shot but the bummers are content with stealing his wallet.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Some of the Switching P.O.V. chapters feature as characters prisoners who are introduced, only to die in that chapter. One chapter features Eric Torrosian, a prisoner who successfully escapes the stockade by pretending to be dead, and then walks away from the corpse storage shed outside, only to blunder right into a guard and get shot through the heart.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The novel makes a point of mentioning that Ira Claffey, who generally comes off as decent and honorable, once had a slave whipped.
  • Evil Feels Good: Willie Collins was "thunderstruck and delighted" after first killing a man at the ripe old age of nine.
  • Face Death with Dignity: While approaching the gallows, Raider leader Paddy Delaney calmly discusses who he wishes his property to be given too.
  • Family Theme Naming: The Widow Tebbs, the town whore, named her children Coral, Laurel, Floral, and Zoral. Lucy speculates that the widow was trying to inject some beauty into her otherwise grim life.
  • Flashback: Many, chiefly from Union prisoners remembering their lives before Andersonville.
  • Gentlemen Rankers:
    • Nathan Dreyfoos is from a wealthy and well-connected Jewish family, but he joins the Union army as a private soldier "because he feared the responsibility of command." His family is appalled.
    • Judah Hansom is also the owner of six hundred acres of prime farmland (a lot of it mortgaged out) and joined the army after others questions whether he had the courage to do so.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Laurel Tebbs nearly dies after her mother attempts to give her a forced abortion with a knitting needle, but Harrell Elkins and Mrs. Dillard save her.
  • Happiness in Slavery: "The slaves felt a great pride" in being owned by Ira Claffey, giving him "dumb affection and faith" for not being particularly brutal in his treatment of them.
  • Heroic BSoD: Happens to some Union soldiers, shocked into apathy by the nightmarish horrors of the camp. Willie Mann's old Army buddy Titus shuts down after entering Andersonville, refusing to eat, eventually starving to death. When Willie urges Titus to eat all Titus can talk about is how he watched a cripple prisoner rooting through other prisoners' feces and eating the bits of food he found within.
  • Historical Domain Character: Several, including Capt. Wirz, Boston Corbett, and Union prisoners who wrote memoirs such as John McElroy and John Ransom.
  • Killed Offscreen: It is only when Ira Claffey wanders over to her grave that the reader learns Veronica Claffey died "several weeks" ago. Of course, since she had gone completely insane and was refusing to eat, it isn't that surprising.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Actually Veronica Claffey was not like this, she actually gets off during sex. But she feels ashamed afterwards, because she thinks women are supposed to lie back and think of England.
  • Lover and Beloved: One chapter deals with a big burly hairy soldier who is lovers with a slender teenaged boy. The Lover struggles desperately to keep his Beloved alive despite the horrors of Andersonville, but fails, the boy getting a cut which gets infected and kills him.
  • Lowered Recruiting Standards: Andersonville is hastily constructed to hold Union prisoners at a time when the Confederacy is running out of men. Wirz is not happy that his command consists of halfwits and rejects, the elderly and teenaged boys. For that matter Wirz himself got the command because he is unfit for combat after suffering his wound at Seven Pines.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: It's implied that Lucy Claffey, left without a husband after her boyfriend was killed in the war, masturbates in her bed at night.
    "Lucy did not know exactly how the act of love was performed—she had only wicked whispered girlish gossip to go by—but in lonely nights she lay charmed by the contemplation of her own body, excited nearly into fever. Somewhere there might still be a man's body constructed for the express purpose of gratifying her own...when she cooled she was crushed by the enormity of her sin..."
  • Morality Pet: Wirz regards his prisoners as subhuman animals and is indifferent to their welfare, and sometimes actively cruel, but he's kind to little Red Cap, his orderly.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: 14-year-old Union drummer boy Ransom Powell is known to all as "Red Cap" for the titular hat.
  • Parlor Games: Ira, Lucy, and guest Harry Elkins play a parlor game in which each has to think of a quote and the next has to identify the quote, and come up with a new quote that begins with the word that ended the last quote.
  • POW Camp: A particularly hellish and savage example.
  • Really Gets Around: The Widow Tebbs, who was whoring herself out while she was still married, and now works as a prostitute out of her own home.
  • Sanity Slippage: Veronica Claffey gets crazier and crazier over the course of the novel. Driven mad by grief after her third and last son is killed in the war, and having lost several other children young, Veronica starts imagining that they're all up in their room, and tells everyone to be quiet so as to not disturb them.
  • Sexless Marriage: What Ira and Veronica's marriage has turned into. After the deaths of all three of her sons in war, and after several other children died young, Veronica now associates sex with grief and death.
  • The So-Called Coward: Judah Hansom's decision to enlist in the army was inspired specifically because he was rankled by someone insinuating that he wasn't brave enough to do so. While this decision alone might indicate more pride than bravery, he does remain steady and dependable while a prisoner after having had time to cool off, personally taking on the lion's share of the tunnel digging despite not liking closed spaces.
  • Suicide by Cop: A burly soldier does this after his young homosexual lover dies of an infection; he puts the boy's body down and walks across the deadline until he is shot.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Many POV characters—civilians Ira Claffey and his daughter Lucy, some of the Claffey slaves, Confederate officials such as Henry Wirz, desperate Union prisoners inside the camp.
  • Vigilante Militia: Dreyfoos and his Regulators, who form to take on The Raiders.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The formerly terrifying Willie Collins breaks down crying and blubbering as he's led to the gallows.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Henry Wirz suffers from an excruciatingly painful arm wound inflicted by artillery at Seven Pines in 1862. The wound periodically opens up and oozes pus and extrudes slivers of bone. This motivates him to be brutal to his inmates.
  • Young Future Famous People: Boston Corbett was released from Andersonville in November 1864, rejoined the army, and gained infamy five months later as the man who shot and killed John Wilkes Booth.