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3/25/14 at 11:38 AM 0 Comments

The Night the Lights Went On in Georgia

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The Sentinels of Andersonville book cover

(This article comes from The Book Room - The Christian Post's new section for book enthusiasts and authors.)

By Tracy Groot, author of The Sentinels of Andersonville

I went on down to the land of Dixie, in the summer of 2012, to collect some facts for a novel I was writing about the Civil War prison at Andersonville. I went versant in its lore, familiar with its principal players, and had hoped that in walking the grounds where so many men had suffered and died, I’d take in a residual vibe I’d use to infuse my pages, whatever that vibe was, however it presented.

I walked, and waited, and listened. I made myself available. I sat right in the middle of this place of anguishes past, and maybe that day I was a mere Philistine—I didn’t sense any vibe. The broad rolling acres are quiet, lovely. The grounds are well-kept, and if there is a vibe, then the vigilant care put into its upkeep, all 26 preserved acres, imbues upon the place a poignant hallowedness; this, I felt.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Captain Henry Wirz, commander of the Andersonville Prison for Union soldiers, was hanged for Civil War crimes on November 10, 1865. Debates of the fist-fighting kind rage to this day as to whether or not the U.S. Government had hanged an innocent man; the owner of a little café in Andersonville said she had to tell two men, one a Northerner and one a Southerner, to take it outside. They did.

Though I wasn’t ready to brawl in the dirt over Wirz, I had opinions about this man of my book-learning, with no intentions to change them—especially when I encountered the reason for the fight at the café: in the center of the tiny town of Andersonville, there is a monument erected to the memory and honor of Captain Henry Wirz, “to rescue his name from the stigma attached to it from embittered peoples,” says one of its 4 plaques: right in the shadow of the prison over which he had responsibility—the place where 13,000 Union men perished from starvation and exposure—the place that had broken countless others, broke their bodies and broke their souls, for the rest of their days on earth.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I said to my husband, “They put this here? Could anything be more inappropriate?”

It is unlikely that a war monument has caused more controversy on American soil than this one; from the moment it was unveiled by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in May, 1908, it provoked and continues to provoke the kind of quarrel that sometimes ends in a fist fight.

One cannot study Andersonville Prison without forming some sort of opinion about Captain Wirz, the prison’s “hapless” (as one historian called him) commandant. The more one learns about the atrocious conditions, the more hot indignation forms a gavel in the hand. Turned out, Wirz nearly derailed my novel.

I was supposed to tell the stories of two Rebel soldiers and the effort they made to help the prisoners. I was supposed to tell of a Southern belle who tried to rally a town to action. But the more I learned of Wirz, the more I thirsted to know, and he began to show up in my novel. He held me in some warped little thrall. It’s quite satisfying to vilify the vile, and if the government had hanged him, my novel would crucify him. Book-learning beckoned, and I cracked on.

The rest of this article is available here.

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