MacKinlay Kantor’s novel, Andersonville, won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize. A friend, knowing my interest in the Civil War, gave me the novel a few weeks ago. Expecting the worst and expecting the usually heard information on Andersonville and the treatment of prisoners of war there, I plowed into it. I was surprised to find a balanced novel that uses a Southern protagonist and that reflects decades of research. Unless the reader allows them to slip by, the historic facts in the novel help tell the real story of Andersonville. For example, the novel reveals how Wirz really did try his best in an impossible situation, how the Northern leaders refused to allow prisoner exchange, even when our representatives pointed out to them how the South could not adequately take care of so many prisoners, and how the thugs among the Northern prisoners victimized the Union soldiers far more than their jailers. The characters who walk through the novel’s 760 pages represent nearly every strata of American society during the Civil War, making the novel to be a panorama of our nation.
Kantor’s writing style reminded me of Cormac McCarthy—it is intense, with vivid interior and exterior realism. If you want to know the facts of Andersonville you can find them elsewhere, but if you want to experience Andersonville from both a Southern and Northern perspective, you need to read this novel.