Andersonville Prison

Andersonville Prison

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Andersonville Prison
I was excited to learn of this assignment because I recently made a trip to Andersonville with my Army unit in March. During the bus ride, we watched the film “Andersonville” to gain a deeper sense of what the historical site was about before we arrived. To be quite honest, the historical site itself is actually quite boring and not much is left of the original grounds. Watching the film prior to arriving gave the visit much more meaning to me and I was able to actually visualize the events that took place and really feel a connection and understanding. After visiting the prison site, we moved over to the memorial cemetery, where approximately 13,000 imprisoned soldiers are buried, along with the six Raiders who were executed. The cemetery also accepts veterans and their family members for burial in adjacent plots to the Andersonville soldiers. There is also a Prisoner of War museum which I found to be the most interesting part of the whole visit.
The movie begins depicting the Civil War battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia on June 1 1864. A platoon size element of Union soldiers gets pinned and eventually some of the soldiers trying to escape are captured.

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While being held and transported two soldiers make a hasty plan for escape one night. As soon as the first soldier makes a move to get up and use the bathroom, which is part of his plan, he is shot dead. This really sets a violent tone for the movie and really punctuates how serious this war was, and how dedicated each side was to its own cause. The Union soldiers are then loaded on trains like cattle and herded to the South for encampment. The Union soldiers all wear clean blue uniforms, while the Confederate soldiers all wear various patterns and some wear rag looking clothes. They separate the officers from the enlisted men and board them on the trains. The soldiers are led through the gates of the Andersonville prison after a long and very uncomfortable ride in a boxcar. The walls stand 15-20 feet high, made from logs that are tightly positioned so that no outside view of the prison is possible. The infamous “deadline”, a fenced off area around the entire prison wall roughly 10 to 20 feet across, is introduced in violent fashion. A starved Union soldier mistakenly goes to grab something he dropped into the danger zone and is shot dead. Anyone who crossed the dead line was shot immediately, and the rule was well known across the prison camp. The Confederate guards were told they would be rewarded for killing a Union soldier, so they would play tricks on them to lure them into the forbidden space. This scene really shows the brutal nature of this war, and also really gives an idea of how badly starving these troops were. They would risk anything for a piece of bread, even their life.
Captain Wirz, commander of the Andersonville prison, is introduced to the audience by showing him issuing punishment to some prisoners who made an escape attempt by putting them in stockades. The Raiders, a large group of bandits and degenerate thieves that rob and kill fellow soldiers, are also introduced early on. They took clothes, personal items, and anything that could be of value to them for trading. Soon after a new batch of prisoners enters the gates, they make an attempt at luring the prisoners to a part of the camp where they can be ambushed and likely robbed and/or killed. Wirz then comes into the prison and parades a cart of food around, and several men who were caught escaping are seen lugging around chains attached to a huge steel ball. It becomes obvious that he strongly believes that showing his power over the prisoners is important to maintaining discipline within the camp

The Raiders were notorious in the camp, and in late June of 1864, the soldiers of the camp got fed up and demanded a trial of these heathens for their crimes. In July of 1864, the six top leaders were tried and hanged by their peers with the permission of the camp supervisors. They were buried separately from the rest of the deceased prisoners, and were not given proper military burial. They essentially had received a bad misconduct discharge and have since never received military honors.
Following the execution of the Raiders, life seems to go back to normal for the prisoners, basically concentrating on surviving each day. At the end, Captain Wirz declares to the prisoners that they have been exchanged for Confederate soldiers and are being released. They lead them out of the prison, but instead of being released, the text before the credits informs the audience that the prisoners are just being transported to another facility. The southern advance of the Union army was aimed at the Andersonville prison, so they moved the soldiers to other camps and shut that one down.
I believe the entire movie to be fact, with only some minor inconsistencies regarding the trial of the Raiders and their hanging. Perhaps the trial was a little doctored to what we are used to seeing on television today. I do not believe there were any “made up” situations or occurrences in this film, and that small things may have changed for the ease of filming and viewing it. All the research I have done supports all of the events portrayed in the movie.
I found the movie to be quite accurate in many ways compared to what I have learned about Andersonville over the past couple of months. I also found some minor discrepancies, but the one standing out the most to me was the obvious softening of the film to make it acceptable to cable television. I do not think the director even came close to depicting the levels of filth and disease that those men experienced. The movie should have taken on more of a Schindler’s List level of grotesqueness to be historically accurate, in my opinion. Another small omission I noticed was that all six Raiders were hanged in the movie without anyone falling or their rope breaking. According to the Crime Library website, (and in fact we were told this during my visit to the site) the ringleader Mosby Collins’ noose snapped and he fell to the ground, and had be brought back up to the top of the gallows and re-hung (Bruno). The Union soldiers performed an organized trial with a jury, prosecution and defense. The trial was recorded and presented to Captain Wirz for approval, and the sentence was approved by him apparently, and he allowed the executions to take place. In actuality, the request was sent all the way to the White House for approval. President Lincoln signed the order approving the execution, and it was carried out (Bruno). At the beginning of the movie, the prison is shown and is obviously a fraction of its final size in reality. The prison was expanded to nearly double its size in June of 1864, but the movie sized prison is obviously much smaller than any version of the real camp.
One of the things I found to be accurate and quite impressive in its detailed nature was how so much head scratching was done throughout the film. The actors definitely portrayed the infestation of head lice well. One soldier instructed another to hold their clothes over a fire to cook them off. To gather drinking water, the soldiers tell each other to ring out their clothes when it rains, and not to use the creek in the prison. Many also set out wash pans and cups to fill during the rain storms. Another interesting fact that the movie showed was the soldiers actually using maggots and lice for racing. They would bet on them and use them for entertainment. At one point in the film, high ranking officers came to the prison to evaluate the conditions, but apparently did nothing about them. Unfortunately, Captain Wirz was not punished until after the Civil War was over. The Stockade Branch River, which ran through the center of the camp, was shown as a nicely shaped, slow flowing stream. The reality of it was that the low area where there used to be a river had become an infested swamp land. The log walls of the prison in the movie were not constructed nearly as carefully as they were in reality. The movie wall had many gaps and you could clearly see the outside of the prison through these holes. The reality was that the logs were cut square and mated against each other, and no outside view was possible on the entire wall. Also not shown in the movie was the artillery setup around the camp. There were guns facing into the camp in case of mass rioting and guns facing outwards to stop any possible raids by the Union army.
After some careful analysis, I found a scene in the movie qualified as a historically important moment. After being captured during an escape attempt, a soldier expresses his grief and refuses to eat. He wants to end it all by walking across the dead line intentionally. His friend says:
Were going to make it through this together,
Or we’re not…… together!
Don’t make it easy for ‘em!
Now eat!
This quote from the movie really shows the sense of pride this man had in being a soldier and a leader. The quote is significant to history because actions such as this are what our country and our military have built their foundations on: patriotism. The man he is speaking to projects a feeling of the desperation many of the soldiers are experiencing, as they witness roughly 100 of their buddies dying each day. I believe the soldiers that survived the ordeal did so only because of teamwork and instilling hope in each other.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, as I thought the director did an excellent job recreating the facts of what happened while maintaining a rating suitable for most ages to watch. The costumes were well done, and I thought the makeup on one particular fellow with scurvy was fantastic. The acting was decent enough to get my interest, but not to get me overly emotional at any point. I would say I enjoyed this movie mostly because of my interest in history and because it was very historically accurate. Though I had no complaints about the movie, if I had to pick something to improve on I would probably say the length of the movie was a bit long, finishing at just under three hours. There was a lot of material to cover to get the point across, so I can not say how they would have made it any shorter.

Works Cited
Bruno, Anthony. “Notorious Murders and Timeless Classics/Andersonville/The Raiders of
Andersonville.” Crime Library. Accessed 24 April 2007
Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1981.
Davis, Kenneth. Don’t Know Much About the Civil War. New York: William Morrow &
Company, 1996.
Frye, Kevin. “Andersonville Civil War Prison.” Angelfire. Accessed 24 April 2007

Weeks, Dick. “Andersonville Prison.” December 20 2003. Shotgun's Home of the American

Civil War. Accessed 24 April 2007
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