Andersonville (1996) TV

 

 

Director:      John Frankenheimer.

Starring:     Jarrod Emick (Josiah Day), Frederic Forrest (Sgt. McSpadden), Ted Marcoux (Martin Blackburn), Carmen Argenziano (Hopkins), Jayce Bartok (Billy), Frederick Coffin (Collins), Cliff De Young (Sgt. John Gleason), Denis Forest (Mad Matthew), Justin Henry (Tyce), Tony Higgins (Tucker), Kris Kamm (2nd Wisconsin soldier), Andrew Kavovit (Tobias), Olek Krupa (Olek Wisnovsky), William H. Macy (Col. Chandler), Matt McGrath (Ethan), Jan Triska (Capt. Henry Wirz).

The infamous Confederate prison where some 13,000 Union soldiers died of disease, malnutrition, and starvation.  The only man hung for a war crime in the Civil War was the commander of this prisoner of war camp.  

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Cold Harbor, Virginia. June 1, 1864. Sgt. McSpadden sends a messenger to an officer to tell him that they will swing around and drive the Rebs to him. The officer agrees as long as there is no Confederate cavalry in the area. Running back to tell Sgt. McSpadden, the messenger is shot at and goes down. He tries to pick up his musket, but is stopped by the men who shot at him.

The messenger is walked over to a group of other prisoners of war. The men are told they will be staying the night and moving out in the morning. The messenger tells his cousin that they will bide their time and then make a run for it. They have heard how terrible the POW camps are and donít want to have to experience it directly.

The cousin has a plan to stand up and ask to relieve himself. One of the guards will take him and cousin will stab him with a knife. In the following commotion the messenger will make a run for it. They will meet later at a cabin they had seen on another day.

Cousin stands up while explaining what he wants and is promptly shot dead. Sgt. McSpadden tells the messenger, named Josie, that he better stay put.

More prisoners are gathered together. Nineteen Massachusetts, Josieís unit, meets men from the Second Wisconsin. The two units had fought together on the second day at Gettysburg.

Josie asks Billy to help him take care of Sgt. McSpadden, who received a wound to the shoulder. Billy says o.k.

A Confederate officer explains that they have no food for the prisoners or even for themselves. At night a train arrives to pick up the soldiers and the prisoners. Captain Russell speaks with Sgt. McSpadden and Cpl. Josie Day. The officers are not going on the train. The Captain tells the Sgt. that he will be in charge of the Massachusetts men. If anything happens to him, then the Cpl. will be in charge.

On the train the men are packed in close. One man starts to go crazy and the men have to subdue him. The men arrive at Andersonville. It is surrounded by a high log fence.

There are quite a few dead bodies laid out on part of the lawn outside the prison. Captured escapees are brought in and placed in stocks. The Swiss prison commander, with a thick German accent, yells at the captured escapees: "Teach you to run!" McSpadden asks the man what do they call this little peace of heaven? This is Andersonville, is the answer.

The place is way too over-crowded with prisoners. There are tents here and there around the huge area. And it is muddy and dirty. The new prisoners are asked all kinds of questions about news from the outside world. They especially want to know if they have heard anything about prisoner exchanges.

Some abusers want to start immediately taking advantage of the "fresh fish". A man with a crutch tells one of them, named Munn, to leave them alone, to stay away from the new men. Munn tries to pull a knife out, but gets hit with the crutch in-between his legs. Munn tells the man that they will take care of him later.

The helpful Samaritan says that the hyenas are called the Raiders. They steer the new guys over, whack them on the head and kill them. Josie thanks the man. The fellow is shocked that the men donít know him. He says he fought with all of them at Seven Pines, at Chickamauga and Antietam. The men finally realize that itís Dick Potter and they smile and laugh. Dick tells the guys that there is no food in here.

The Raiders run the place. And the Rebs trade with them. Whatever they need, whiskey, food, rations, the guards give them. The 7th Vermont didnít last a week. The Raiders took everything from them including their rations.

The Swiss commander, named Captain Wirz, comes in on a wagon filled with food. He demands that the thief who stole his bridle and harness return them. If not, there will be no food rations for the day for anyone. He tells the men that any day now there will be prisoner exchanges and they will be paroled in quick order. But no bridle! No halter! No food! The prisoners curse Wirz, but it does no good.

Dick shows the men around. The place is a pigsty. The men notice that the Rebs have kids watching them and Dick says the Rebs are running out of men. He also tells the men that the kiddies scare him worse than the soldiers. They get a 30-day furlough if they shoot a prisoner. Two very young guards entice a Yank over the dead line with the promise of corn to eat and then shoot him dead.

Col. Chandler and his aide Lt. Dahlgren come to speak with Wirz. They have been sent to inspect all the POW camps and itís Andersonvilleís turn.

The guards find the Iowa tunnel. 184th Pennsylvania, Gleasonís men, are digging their own tunnel. Dick is sent over to ask Sgt. Gleason if he will speak with McSpadden. He agrees, so McSpadden comes over and offers to help Gleason with his tunneling. The men are taken into Gleasonís tent. After warnings are given against telling any outsiders about the tunnel, the Massachusetts men are shown the tunnel entrance which starts right inside the tent.

The decision is made to remove the bullet from McSpaddenís shoulder. The drummer boy steals some whiskey from the Raiders.

Dick tells Josie that when it rains he should catch the water in his clothes and then wring them out and drink the water. Never drink what they call the "swamp water". The warning goes out: "Raiders!" A fight begins between the Raiders and the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts units. The Raiders win the fight and grab anything of value from the vanquished. Munn kills Dick with his knife. Josie cries over the loss of his good friend Dick.

Col. Chandler walks around looking at the conditions. Josie tells McSpadden that there are 46 dead bodies at the death house today. The men mustnít drink the swamp water or theyíll die. McSpadden has Josie tell all their men not to drink the swamp water.

Thomas goes to retrieve the banjo the Raiders took from his friend Martin. The other men tell him not to do it because there are too many Raiders, but he goes anyway. The Raider leader Collins makes a fighting contest of it. The boys tell Thomas that the other fellow doesnít fight fair. And sure enough the fellow attacks Thomas while his back is turned. Thomas takes a beating, but turns the tide when he head butts his opponent. Munn saves their fighter by hitting Thomas with a stout stick.

Gleason tells the Massachusetts men that there will be no more fighting with the Raiders. Stop worrying about the Raiders, because they are wasting time and strength better spent on digging the tunnel.

Josie and some other prisoners make a pact to come to each otherís aide if they should be attacked by the Raiders. During the talking, the young Toby letís out the secret that they are digging a tunnel. His buddies are shocked. When the talking is done they take Toby to Gleason to tell him the secret is out. Gleason says that now they have to dig day and night constantly because they donít have a month anymore. He says tunnel traitors will spill the beans to the Rebs for half an apple. And they have to keep an eye on the men who heard Toby tell about the tunnel.

The men see a prisoner known as Grundy acting suspiciously. Gleason is told and he shouts his men to action with the call of "tunnel traitor". They head out to intercept Grundy. Other men see what is happening and head for Grundy also. Grundy goes down to the dead line and calls out to the lieutenant to meet him down by the gate. The lieutenant demands to know what information Grundy has and Josie speaks up saying he wants help with mailing his letter. He has the necessary $2 dollars. This distraction gives the other men time to throw a jacket over Grundyís head. The lieutenant starts cursing the Yankee S.O.B.s, but he does not shoot any of the kidnappers.

Grundy is tied up and gagged. Massachusetts men say the Pennsylvania men will go first in the escape. Some of the men want to kill Grundy, but McSpadden tells them to leave the man with him because heís staying in Andersonville. He doesnít want to slow the men down. Gleason carves the initials TT on Grundyís forehead, indicating he is a tunnel traitor.

Gleason tells the men that they all wonít make it. But anyone who does make it is duty bound to get to Sherman or Grant to tell them about the terrible conditions at Andersonville. The men start escaping. Josie helps McSpadden escape. Martin and Thomas are the last two men to escape, but Thomas is seen and shot in the back. Matin goes back to help Thomas. He pulls Thomas into the woods, but Thomas is shot again. The dogs are let loose to tear the two men apart. Martin is captured and taken to the stockade.

The dogs are let loose again and they chase Josie and McSpadden, who climb up a tree to escape them. There they are found in the morning. McSpadden starts laughing as he sees the river, their goal, just below them. The captured men are put into the wooden stocks.

Col. Chandler scolds Wirz. Wirz has him go to the office where they can speak in private. More than 100 men a day die at Andersonville. Wirz could have build a dam to flush out the waste and built another camp to relieve the over-crowding. The commander violated the Articles of War by withholding food from the prisoners as punishment.

Wirz says he agrees with the colonel. He defends himself by describing the terrible circumstances and constraints under which he has to work. The prison was built for 8,000 men, but now they have some 33,000 prisoners. He asks Col. Chandler help him. He needs more men. And if he could be a major rather than just a captain he could get more resources for the prison. Col. Chandler canít believe what he is hearing from the camp commandant.

One of the men in the stockades is strangled to death when his legs give out on him. Chandler has his aide tell Wirz. The rest of the men are released from the stocks. Two of the prisoners are dead. The survivors are put back in the prison. They are hoping that Sgt. Gleason got away. Billy refuses to eat. He says as soon as he is better he is going to walk across the dead line. He doesnít want to live here in the prison. Josie crawls over to Billy to shout in his face that they are going to survive together or not, together. He demands that Billy eat and Billy agrees to eat.

A new group of prisoners comes in and the routine of abuse by the Raiders is once again repeated. Oleck tells McSpadden that the dogs got Gleason. He wonít tell the others: "No point in it."

Fresh fish come in again. But this time a man named Jim decides to attack the Raiders waiting to waylay the newcomers. He shouts whose with him. McSpadden stands up and says he and his men are with him. Collins has to retreat and form up his men. Nearly the entire camp seems to be on the move toward the Raiders. Collins and Munn are in the back behind their men. Munn starts knifing his opponents. Collins beats men with a stick. McSpadden goes after Munn saying he has been waiting for this day. The Raiderís champion fighter is mobbed and taken down. Josie fights with Collins. Jim gets behind Collins and whacks him across the head. He then continues to wail away on Collins. The men return stolen items to their rightful owners. Collins and Munn are tied up along with other Raiders. Some want to hang the remaining Raiders. But McSpadden and Martin successfully argue to approach Wirz with the idea of keeping the Raiders outside the stockade until a trial can be made ready.

Wirz thinks the idea is ludicrous. He asks his lieutenant if the Raiders are as bad as they say they are. The lieutenants says they are the worst of the Yankees. Wirz then asks if this would help the lieutenant keep order in the prison. It just might, says the lieutenant. So Wirz agrees to the request.

There is a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney. The jury is taken from the newcomers that arrived the day before. Witnesses are called. Man after man comes to testify against the Raiders. Josie is one of the witnesses. He argues that they do not stop being part of the U.S. Army just because they are prisoners. The Raiders knew what they did was wrong.

The prosecutor shouts at Josie to tell about what happened to Dick Potter. Jim testifies, Martin testifies, the drummer boy testifies, as well as many others. The jury decides that the worst six will hang and the other Raiders will have to run the gauntlet with men hitting them all along the way. On hanging day, Munn makes a run for it , but itís useless. While the prisoners shout "Hang them!" the six men are hung.

New prisoners keep coming in. Martin has a bad case of scurvy and his teeth start falling out. Martin also says he misses Thomas.

New men arrive. They bring news that Uncle Billy (Sherman) has burned Atlanta down and they are marching on to Savannah. But there wonít be any prisoner exchanges. The Rebs just go back to fighting against the Union and itís no deal if the South wonít return the black Union soldiers. One of the Massachusetts men says: "The niggers? Weíre supposed to die her for niggers?" The new men say that Grant and Lincoln know all about Andersonville. Some guy got out and told them. Could it have been a man named Gleason? Yes, thatís the name of the man. A big cheer goes up from the Massachusetts men. Gleason made it out alive and told their story!

Martin tells Josie that they are going to die in Andersonville. The army is headed to Savannah on the coast and Andersonville is inland. The armyís headed the wrong way for saving the men from their prison. The men bring the news about Gleason to Josie and Martin. Martin decides to play some dancing music for the men. But he canít. Heís too weak and trembles too much from the rain and the cold.

Tunnel traitor Grundy commits suicide by going past the dead line and getting shot.

The Reb lieutenant comes riding through the prison yard to say the Captain has something important to tell them. Colonel OíNeil is introduced. He tells them that their government has abandoned them. He asks them to join the Confederate army. As a reward, when the war is over they will have their own farm. Sgt. McSpadden answers the Colonel by forming his men into ranks and marching them away from the Colonel. The other units follow McSpaddenís example.

Men keep dying everyday. The bodies are collected in a wagon to be taken outside the prison walls. The drummer boy becomes very sick with the fever. Martin looks worse than ever.

The Captain calls the men to gather again. They are being exchanged starting today. The train leaves in two hours. The gate is open! Martin dies. Josie prepares a toe tag for Martin. The prisoners are walked out of the gate. Confederate soldiers line the path. Josie and McSpadden carry Martinís body out of the prison and place it by the other dead bodies.

Grave tombstone 7624 marks the burial spot of Martin Blackburn of Pennsylvania. And itís row after row after row of gravestones of the dead of Andersonville.

From 1864 to 1865 more than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned in Andersonville. 12,912 died there.

The prisoner exchange never happened. The men who walked to the trains were taken to other prisons, where they remained until the war ended.

After the war, Wirz was hanged., the only soldier to be tried and executed for war crimes committed during the Civil War.

 

Pretty good movie.  It's depressing to watch until the pace picks up with the revolt against the Raiders in the prison.  So there is a catharsis of sorts, but it takes a long time to get there.  The film give a lot of interesting information about the conditions at the infamous prisoner.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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