Title Reviewed:
Andersonville: The Last Depot

Author Reviewed:
William Marvel

Earl J. Hess


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 91, Issue 4, pp 443-444

Article Type:
Book Review

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Andersonville: The Last Depot. By William Marvel. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Pp. xi, 337. Map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)

Andersonville was certainly the most infamous of all the Civil War prisons, North or South. The controversy surrounding the place has inspired numerous accounts, ranging from the bitter memoirs of its survivors to a famous novel by MacKinlay Kantor to a scholarly study by Ovid Futch. William Marvel, however, has written a book that far outpaces all previous work on Andersonville. He has produced the definitive history of this prison, shorn of hidden agendas, thoroughly based on exhaustive research, and written in a style that approaches a cross between traditional scholarly language and the immediacy of journalistic accounts. It is difficult to find fault with this book, which was written as much from the heart as from the head.

Marvel did his work with an admirable attention to detail. He covers all aspects of the construction, administration, and dismantling of the prison in addition to creating vivid pictures of the personal experiences of those involved in the history of Andersonville. Marvel finds fault where it is justified, but he is not motivated by a desire to indict, only to understand. He has furthered his own understanding of the history of this prison by examining the site, which, in 1864, was nothing more than a stockaded camp where 41,000 Union prisoners of war were housed.

The strength that carries this book is Marvel's uncompromising desire to find all relevant material on Andersonville and then to evaluate the usefulness of that data. The author has concluded that politically motivated stories about the atrocities allegedly suffered at the prison were generally unreliable. Overall, Marvel indicates that the immense suffering of the inmates was overwhelmingly the result of mismanagement and lack of resources on the part of their Rebel captors. He also suggests that the northern government, through its refusal to exchange prisoners in 1864, bears some of the responsibility for the overcrowding that plagued the Confederate prisoner of war system during the last year of the conflict. These are not new interpretations, but no one has proved them as well as Marvel has.

There were numerous Indiana soldiers at Andersonville, but the book's slim index is not detailed enough to enable the reader to find quickly their stories. African-American soldiers were held there as well, and southern slaves were instrumental in the building of the prison. Women found their way to Andersonville as well; some were prostitutes, others were relatives of the prisoners, and still others were residents of the area who came to look at the Yankees. Marvel briefly discusses the aftermath of this brutal episode of Civil War history—the trial and execution of Andersonville's commandant, Henry Wirz, as a war criminal. He does not, however, examine the role of Andersonville within the wider context of postwar politics. Some observations on the place of the prison in the nation's collective memory of the war would be interesting, but Marvel, who surely will be acknowledged as Andersonville's historian, does not attempt it. Nevertheless, this is a rich history deserving to be read.

EARL J. HESS is assistant professor of history, Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee. He is coauthor of Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (1992).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.