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Book review: The Horrors of Andersonville

Catherine Gourley is an award-winning author and editor of books for young adults, with more than twenty titles to her credit. Her latest work, The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death Inside a Civil War Prison, will appeal not only to youth, but also to any Civil War buff looking for a good overview of the infamous Confederate-operated prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. The author interweaves a fictional cast of characters, both those wearing the blue and those of the gray persuasion, to introduce the reader to the misery and suffering that marked the conditions in what was arguably the worst prisoner-of-war camp in the country during the Civil War.
Skillfully telling the story of the main characters without sacrificing reality, Gourley uses sidebars to give the reader more depth and details on such topics as burying the dead, distribution of rations and supplies, President Lincoln’s views on prisoner exchanges, medical conditions, real-life escape attempts, and facts and fabrications that have arisen over the years since the camp was closed and its commandant, Swiss-born Henry Wirz, became one of the few Confederate officers executed for war crimes.

Gourley’s fictional “band of brothers” must recover from the shock of being taken prisoner, endure the humiliation of initial captivity at Richmond’s Belle Isle, live through the long and grueling transport to southern Georgia, and then find a way to survive (or not) at Andersonville. She introduces a number of antagonists, including members of a wicked gang of “Regulators,” fellow Union prisoners, who control the social and “economic” circles within the ranks of the prisoners.
Her writing style is lucid and well flowing, with believable character definition and a steady pace and style that invites the reader to turn the page and learn what happens next to the heroes and villains. The side bars can be distracting if the reader skips between the storyline and the factual details presented, but that is a minor issue and perhaps it is best to read the story and then go back and pick up the facts before a second reading for context.
The book is filled with illustrations, period photographs, and other useful information, although maps would have been useful for the new Civil War reader who might not know where Belle Isle was located within the Confederacy versus Andersonville and other locations mentioned. She also could have worked in the story of the Sultana, an overcrowded Mississippi River transport vessel that exploded and sank rapidly, killing more than a thousand exchanges prisoners, including hundreds of ill-fated soldiers from my native Ohio.
All in all, Catherine Gourley’s interesting book should appeal to a generation that needs to better understand our country’s rich heritage, both the good and the bad. Few of the modern generation know much about the horrors of Andersonville, other than to perhaps have seen the old TNT mini-series on DVD or on-demand downloads. She is to be commended for tackling a difficult subject like Andersonville and making it come alive for the casual reader.
The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death Inside a Civil War Prison Camp
Catherine Gourley
Twenty-first Century Books, 2010
192 pages, illustrated, hard cover with dust jacket
ISBN 978-0-7613-4212-0