- History of Andersonville Prison
Even at the war’s sesquicentennial there are vital facets of the Civil War that continue to repel attention. For no Civil War topic is this as true as in the case of Civil War prisons. To this day little substantial scholarship on Civil War prisons exists. Perhaps this is natural—the human appetite for destruction has limits and so we prefer to ignore the misery, incompetence, brutality, and shameful self-justification that characterized the prisons of the Union and Confederacy. Or it may be that the more uncomfortable aspects of the war, such as the suffering of Civil War POWs, defy the conventional and easy narratives that dominate popular understanding of the conflict. Yet the omission of these more unsavory parts of Civil War history contributes to misperceptions and confusions that still surround the war’s legacy.
Much to Ovid Futch’s credit, History of Andersonville Prison, which was first published in 1968, continues to be one of the few essential works on Civil War prisons. Futch’s book endures for a variety of reasons. His study marked the first full-length treatment of the infamous Confederate stockade at Andersonville and to date remains the best introduction to the controversial prison. The work is admittedly dated by flowery prose, for example, “the laughter and song of Negro workmen as their axes felled the majestic pines of that virgin forest,” that can induce cringes in a contemporary reader (5). But these rhetorical distractions aside, Futch distinguishes himself as an objective chronicler of the realities of Andersonville and as a perceptive critic of the historical distortions inherent in the prison controversy. Concise and well organized, the book systematically outlines the prison camp’s origins, explores the suffering Andersonville POWs [End Page 623] experienced, and explains the factors that contributed to the prisoners’ misery. Futch argues that much of the agony inflicted upon Union prisoners resulted from the “short-sighted management and lack of administrative ability” demonstrated by a variety of Confederate officials, most notably General John Winder (12). Futch’s frustration with Winder, who assumed command at Andersonville in June 1864, is evident throughout the study as Futch details how Winder engaged in numerous petty arguments with fellow bureaucrats while conditions inside the prison walls quickly deteriorated. The focus on bureaucratic incompetence—combined with an overburdened and failing Confederate infrastructure—renders the Andersonville story one of impersonal suffering caused by powerful forces beyond human control. This argument reminds readers that the book is a product of the era of objectivity, when Civil War historians wrote, as Futch acknowledges, with the goal of “seeking to be fair to both sides” (121). Readers who insist on emphasizing the role of human agency in their history will be disappointed, and the book ignores important elements of Andersonville’s past, most notably the influence of race and memory on the still controversial prison. But the strengths of Futch’s work—he includes an excellent bibliographical essay on prison sources, for example—are more than enough to recommend it for those new to the subject of Andersonville.
The new edition contains an introduction by Michael P. Gray, author of a groundbreaking book on the Union prison at Elmira. Gray gives a useful overview of Civil War prison historiography and credits Futch as the scholar who—with the exception of William B. Hesseltine, whose pioneering work on Civil War prisons still dominates the topic—did as much as anyone to inspire historians to investigate the histories of Civil War prison camps. It is telling that books published in 1930 and 1968 remain the benchmarks in the field, although in the last few years there are signs that the subject of Civil War prisons may start to receive the serious scholarly attention it deserves. Much remains to be said about Andersonville, and Civil War prisons in general, but the addition of Gray’s helpful introduction to an already influential work makes this volume along with Hesseltine’s an essential starting...