John Ransom’s Anderson Diary: Life Inside The Civil War’s Most Infamous Prison, with an introduction by Bruce Catton
Admittedly, this particular book is a classic because of what John Ransom wrote about his own experiences in Andersonville (and before that in Richmond’s ironically named Belle Isle prison), but Bruce Catton does a good job in framing this particular book as a masterpiece of prison literature. And so it is. In act, this particular chilling prison account bears a lot of similarities with the sort of prison literature that can be found from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Gulags, as Ransom comes off like a person not too unlike an Eli Wiesel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn in terms of his insights about prison life and the struggle for survival in the face of brutal imprisonment. Of course, in the interests of fairness and balance it is is a shame we do not have a similar masterpiece from a literate and observant and humane Confederate prisoner from Camp Douglas or Elmira prison who could have written a diary that would have served as a counterpoint to remind the reader that both the Union and Confederacy were somewhat savage in the way they set up prisons, suggesting both the ferocity of the war and the way that logistics systems for prisoners were overwhelmed by the sheer number of prisoners to be dealt with.
While the original diary had been destroyed in a fire, the text of the diary was able to be reconstructed by the letters the author had previously written to a local newspaper that immortalized the diary by having it published for his neighbors. The nearly 300 pages of this book are made up of fourteen chapters and various addenda. The book begins with the author’s discussion of his capture in the Knoxville campaign due to rebel trickery (1), and how he found himself spending New Year’s Day 1864 in prison in Richmond (2), and the way that the insecurity of Richmond’s prisons in the aftermath of the Dahlgren raid led to the author and other prisoners to be moved to the deep south (3). The author’s arrival at Andersonville (4) quickly convinces him it is the worst of all prisons, which is not far off, and he talks about how things go from bad to worse (5), have to put down the criminal population (6), and how the author was moved to a Marine hospital in Savannah just in time (7) and provides some insight on hospital life (8). His removal to Millen (9) is not a bad one, and he soon regains enough strength to escape (10) before being re-captured (11) because his accent gives him away. Finally, the author successfully escapes (12), finds himself safe and sound when Sherman’s troops take Savannah (13), and allows him the chance to talk about what happened to his fellow prisoners (14), along with providing some rebel testimony about conditions in Andersonville and some news of what happened to the author after the war.
There are a few aspects that make this a prison classic of the first order. For one, the author himself was resourceful enough to provide himself with writing material while a prisoner and to prove himself an intensely observant person about the situation he found himself in. His writings demonstrate that the prison camp experience tends to bring with it the proliferation of a criminal element that preys on the prisoners, and it is telling that the Andersonville staff, for all of the cruelty of the prison, actually encouraged the larger prisoner population to put down what would become “trusties” in the gulag system, the general criminal element that found itself in such prisons as well. The author shows a great deal of loyalty to those who helped him in his second successful escape, showing that the support of local blacks and of local Unionists was critical in allowing for successful escape, and the author was a humane enough man to make sure that such people were rewarded for the risks that they had taken. Not only is the author’s own narrative compelling, but the author’s context of prison life is compelling as well, making this an obscure masterpiece in an admittedly dark genre of literature.