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Reviews Andersonville: The Last Depot. By William Marvel. University of North Carolina Press, 1994. 337 pp. Cloth, $29.95. Reviewed by Robert C. Kenzer, Associate Professor ofHistory at the University ofRichmond and author of Kinship and Neighborhood in a Southern Community: Orange County, North Carolina, 1849-1881. William Marvel begins his award-winning study of Andersonville Prison by observing, "Some 41,000 men shuffled into the prison stockade at Anderson Station, Georgia, between February of 1864 and April of 1865. Of those, perhaps 26,000 lived long enough to reach home. Theirs was undoubtedly the most unpleasant experience of the Civil War, but, almost without exception, those who wrote about Andersonville appear to have exaggerated their tribulations at that place." Clearly, Marvel's emphasis on the soldiers who survived the experience suggests how much he differs from previous chroniclers of Andersonville. While many readers will not be persuaded by the book's conclusions, all should find this work the most thoroughly researched and provocative analysis of the subject to date. Andersonville Prison was created early in 1864, largely to relieve the situation at Belle Isle prison in Richmond. At Belle Isle, which was located in the middle of the James River, conditions had so deteriorated that the Confederate government feared a Union raid on the capital might succeed if Yankee troops were able to release federal prisoners. Indeed, Union Colonel Ulric Dahlgren's failed raid on Richmond later that same year, which took place right after most of Belle Isle's prisoners had been shipped off to Andersonville , might have resulted in Union prisoners burning the city, if Dahlgren had succeeded and Belle Isle's prisoners hadn't already been moved. If Belle Isle's crucial location made it dangerous for holding prisoners, Anderson Station, just south of the city of Macon and north of Americus, Ga., seemed an ideal site for a prison. While isolated, the site contained rail connections necessary for moving thousands of prisoners and tons of supplies. Furthermore, the prison's projected location seemed to offer necessary timber and water. When the first prisoners arrived on 24 February 1864, they discovered a better environment than the one they had left in Richmond. As Marvel writes, "Those who ventured down to the stream found the water sprinkled with tiny green flakes of vegetable matter, and it smelled a tad sulfurous, but otherwise it looked amazingly clear and fresh, in pleasant contrast to Belle Isle." 248Southern Cultures A view of Andersonville prison in 1865. (AJ. Riddle, Library of Congress.) What went wrong then? According to Marvel, nearly everything. Although initial confusion existed over the facility's chain of command, Swiss-born Captain Henry Wirz eventually gained control of Andersonville. His command of the facility, however, was never secured. As personnel problems were resolved, health problems arose. These problems included an outbreak of smallpox, contaminated water, poor sanitation, and the inability to obtain bolting cloth with which to sift commeal. By May 1864, matters had worsened considerably as the prison population exceeded the camp's 10,000-person capacity , and food shortages developed. By 20 May, prisoners were dying at the rate of twenty men per day. Still, times never would be so good again at Andersonville. Eventually, the camp's population exceeded 30,000, and the daily death rate rose to one hundred. Marvel does a superb job of presenting the chronology of events, but his analysis of prisoner treatment will most interest readers. Who, he asks, was responsible for the worsening conditions? Specifically, should Captain Wirz have been executed for what transpired at Andersonville? For Marvel, the answer is to avoid blaming anyone, particularly Captain Wirz. The prison commander, the author claims, was as much a victim as the Union soldiers held at the camp. Conditions could have been improved only if the federal government had agreed to a prisoner exchange that excluded black Union soldiers. For the Confederacy, however, to release such soldiers meant "renouncing the very reason for its existence." While Marvel concedes that conditions at Andersonville were atrocious, he doubts if these conditions were any worse than those Confederate prisoners faced in Union Reviews249 camps. Marvel points out, for example, that guards and prisoners...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 247-251
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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