Andersonville Civil War Stockade
The play: AND GRACE WILL LEAD ME
HOME: THE AMERICAN POW DRAMA"
The South Georgia springtime bursts forth each year with a stunning display
of Bradford pear, Dogwood, and Tulip trees. Later the Magnolia trees will
contribute their sweet blossoms to the seemingly endless array of flora and
fauna that seems always blossoming or nearly in bloom. The proud and elegant
traditions of the area are seen in the stunning Victorian-style homes of nearby
Americus. A few miles further down the road in Plains, Georgia, the Jimmy Carter
National Historic Site is a testament to the will and determination of one man
who saw no limit to what he could achieve.
Within all of this at Andersonville, there is an open field that seems to
blend in with the overall tranquility of the rolling landscape, while nearby, a
seemingly endless progression of simple white crosses hold forever the names of
the thousands of men who died in this place.
Andersonville stockade was erected towards the end of the Civil War to house
a sudden glut of Union prisoners of war after the prison exchange system had
broken down. It had been the tradition during this war and during most wars
fought prior to this, for both sides of the battle to meet and exchange the
prisoners they had taken. But through a proclamation issued by the North's own
General Ulysses S. Grant, this system was no longer to be honored. Suddenly the
South had to find a place for thousands of prisoners taken on the battlefield.
At this time the South had been devastated by the war. With its
transportation lines destroyed and its infrastructure weakened, there was hunger
and need among even its own troops. Most able-bodied men had been sent to the
front to fight and it is unlikely that the Confederate forces had the manpower
or the resources to accommodate this sudden influx of prisoners.
A makeshift stockade was built at Andersonville which had neither shelter
from the elements nor any sanitation facilities. Men lived exposed to the
weather and surrounded by their own excrement. The stockade of
sixteen-and-a-half acres, (later expanded to twenty-six acres) was overflowing
with as many as 33,000 prisoners. Disease ran rampant, as did crime among the
prisoners in what became a hellish model of Darwin's survival of the fittest.
While Andersonville was not the only stockade of the war -there being similarly
horrible places on the Union side of the Mason-Dixon line as well - it was to
become the most infamous. Its commander, Captain Henry Wirz, was tried after the
war and was held responsible for the deaths of the more than 13,000 men who
ultimately died there.
As Andersonville was one of the first places where prisoners from the battle
were held, it has become an international epicenter for the plight of prisoners
of all wars. In 1996, Congress mandated the construction of a national prisoner
of war museum at Andersonville, which is today a remarkably dramatic tribute of
man's inhumanity to man and of man's ability to survive.
It is somewhat of a daunting task to consider how in the world to make a play
about a stockade where a lot of people died over time. Unlike many of the other
depictions of the POW experience, there wasn't really any interaction between
prisoner and guards that could help to build the drama. At Andersonville,
prisoners were just thrown into a huge stockade and left to fend for themselves.
I began casting about wildly to try and find something to inspire the writing
of this play. I read Gene Genet, Theater of Cruelty, as well as some of the
writings of Jean Paul Sartre on the nature of freedom. But it wasn't until I
decided to attend a meeting of the Georgia chapter of the American Prisoners of
War Society that I began to understand how to approach this effort.
I am not sure why I decided to go to this meeting. At the time, I didn't see
what the experience of prisoners from Korea or World War Two was going to tell
me about the Civil War. But talking with the men from many different conflicts
about their experiences I realized that there were universals in the POW
experience that cut across all wars and circumstances. Some of the things that
held true for prisoners in the 20th century also held true for the POWs at Andersonville. Suddenly, I had a window into the people I could never meet.
found that a large function of the meeting was to help them heal each other
through the discussion of their common traumatic experience. In addition,
and witnessing their interactions with each other,
I was still struck by the way the men discussed their experience among
themselves as a way to heal from their traumatic experiences. Also, by viewing a
cross-section of POWs from World War Two on through to the Vietnam War, it was
possible to see the different stages of this healing process. The extent of the
counseling most of these men received upon arriving home was that they were
simply told to forget about what happened to them. Most actually took this
advice, only to later be imprisoned by the residual effects that wouldn't let
them forget their experiences. Many complained about an inability to sleep at
night, reactions to loud noises, or sudden bursts of anger that would manifest
itself in inappropriate ways. In time, they began to talk about their
experiences as a POW, initially with people who had had the same sort of
experience. But the way they talked about it changed over time, as well. I
noticed that the Vietnam vets with whom I spoke recalled their stories with a
rigidity and attention to superfluous detail, while those from earlier conflicts
had more time to let the story settle and were more able to engage in a free and
wide ranging conversation about their experience.
I felt as though these men were still reaching for a freedom from their
captivity that they hadn't quite achieved. It occurred to me that if they could
somehow take their story and tell it on stage to a room full of strangers, this
would be a progression of the process they had entered into, and that by doing
so, they would be able to cut the final link in the chain between themselves and
I also began looking at the world outside the stockade during the time of the
Civil War. Of course, the South was still participating in the institution of
slavery and a lot of these slaves were used to build the stockade and to help
keep it going. I had read, also, of people who lived outside the stockade who
sensed that terrible misery that was going on there and who tried unsuccessfully
to bring food to the prisoners. I assumed this came out of a shared sense of
suffering these people felt over the fate of their enemies. It made me think of
Jean Paul Sartre's idea that through the act of imprisoning another, a person is
also imprisoning himself.
The trick to writing this play was to bring these elements together and to
reach for the universal truths of freedom and captivity inherent in the whole of
it. In the end, the characters I created for the Andersonville drama raised
issues of freedom and captivity that were commented upon by actual POW's who
participated in the show live each night. The bridge between the experience of
these men and the experience of the Civil War characters created universality in
the experience of all prisoners of war. This was supported by a character in the
play who was somewhat ‘unstuck in time', and who represented the universal POW
experience. The slave narrative and the poignant spiritual songs that commented
on the themes of the play throughout, offered another layer to what had become a
story about freedom and captivity. Finally, the despair of the people living
outside the prison over the things they are a part of, but cannot change,
embraced the despair of which Sartre had spoke.
In the end of the play, the person who is most free is the slave in shackles
for refusing to be a part of something he believed to be wrong, while the person
who is the least free is the Antebellum Southern woman who is frustrated in her
attempts to feed the prisoners.
AND GRACE WILL LEAD ME HOME: THE
AMERICAN POW DRAMA"