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The Sentinels of Andersonville

I’m about 2/3 of the way through a remarkable (and remarkably entertaining) novel, The Sentinels of Andersonville by Tracy Groot.

It focuses on a small group of Confederates determined to help the Yankee prisoners in the ghastly Andersonville stockade, though others around them view their mercy and humanitarianism as treason.

One of the “Friends of Andersonville Prison” is a prison guard, Dance Pickett, an thoughtful and refined young man whose soul is being crushed by the horrors he’s forced to witness. Another is Emory Jones, a rebel soldier who has just delivered a Yankee to the prison. In doing so, he discovered that the Yankee just might be his best friend and that Andersonville is far worse than he could have imagined. Regretting having done his duty, he is now determined to get that prisoner, Lew Gann, back out — and to destroy the whole place if he can.

A reluctant participant is Dr. Stiles, who volunteers at the prison hospital and is sick with grief over what he’s forced to witness, but is fearful of putting himself and his family at greater risk. The ringleader of the ringleaders is his young adult daughter Violet. Violet is naive and patriotic in the cause of the South. She’s also bright, determined, and self-righteous enough to believe that you must fight evil. Just because you must. When she accidentally stumbles upon sights her father never wanted her to see, there is no stopping her.

In short, she’s a lot like a lot of us. All these people are. The evil of Andersonville (which was in some ways worse than most Nazi concentration camps, having not even a barrack or an outhouse, but just tens of thousands of sick, skeletal men milling in unimaginable filth and mired in criminally incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy) seems insurmountable. Most locals respond by ignoring or denying the horrors on their doorstep — after all, the Yankees are invaders responsible for killing their sons. The few who care feel powerless. Even once Violet spurs them to action, they still despair (except Emory, who never despairs even when things are bleakest), still are unsure what they can do.

Why do I call this novel remarkable? Several reasons.

First, Groot manages to wrap an engaging, charming, often quite amusing story (not to mention a little romance) around this grim material. The book is both heartbreaking and witty.

Second, the subject itself is, if not unprecedented, at least bold and unusual.

Third, while it’s a novel, it’s clearly based on solid research and a knowledge of both the terrible realities and the culture of the time and place.

Fourth, it views both sides in the war with understanding. (And I smile to notice that Groot, like a wise freedomista, generally avoids the erroneous term “Civil War.”)

Fifth, I guess I’d have to say, is the source. I picked this book up at random at the library, where some librarian had stood it up for display at the end of a shelf. I carried it home with low expectations — which sank even lower when I noticed it was published by Tyndale House — best known for bibles and the ludicrous, leaden, albeit lushly lucrative Left Behind series.

I avoid novels from Christian publishers. Not because I’m a bigot, but for the same reason I avoid typical freedomista novels — because I prefer good stories, well-written to heavy-handed lectures or barely disguised propaganda tracts.

This book is none of that. The religious views expressed by its characters are exactly what you’d expect from people of their time and place and are never, ever shoved gracelessly into some poor reader’s face. In fact, the book is subtle but clear on the fact that most people who call themselves Christian would, in fact, not only tolerate evil but condemn others who step up to do what’s really right — when what’s right means opposing established authority.

It’s simply a heck of a good story about ordinary people facing off against extraordinary, entrenched, seemingly immovable evil. Bureaucratic evil. Governmental evil. The evil of unnecessary disease, starvation, foulness, suffering, and indignity. And it’s loaded with statements like this (I’m leaving out the name of the character these words apply to, ’cause that would be a spoiler):

[Name] will hang in two days because he wanted to help others. The law is for lawbreakers — he is no lawbreaker, not by the spirit of the law, of which we do not seem to be the custodians any longer. There is only the letter of the law, and it kills. And I am tired, tired of it all.

Though I don’t know how the story comes out yet, I can already say I highly recommend this book.

I also notice that Tyndale has another recent title, The Auschwitz Escape by Paul C. Rosenberg, which I hope may be along the same lines. I’ve just put that in my library queue, also.

If both books turn out to be so subtle in their religion and so overt in their freedomista thinking, I’m going to begin wondering what Tyndale is up to. So far, with The Sentinels of Andersonville, what they’re up to is excellent.


  1. MJR
    MJR August 3, 2015 9:58 am

    This looks like a good read and I am desperately looking for a good read. Once the two novels I have on the go are done I think I will give this a try. Thank you Claire.

  2. Claire
    Claire August 3, 2015 10:01 am

    Thank YOU, MJR. I don’t think you’ll regret it. While it has a few talky passages, its story otherwise moves right along and is probably not quite like anything you’ve ever read. Let me know what you think once you’ve read it.

  3. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty August 3, 2015 10:07 am

    Sounds like a winner, Claire. I’ll have to look for that one.

  4. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau August 3, 2015 10:20 am

    What?!! You don’t like “Left Behind”? 🙂

    Thanks for the tip about this novel.

  5. Pat
    Pat August 3, 2015 10:42 am

    Tracy Groot . ‘About’ and ‘Books’ (start at the bottom and work up) explains how Tyndale House got into it. Even the “religious” novels sound like they could be interesting, though I doubt I’ll read them. I am interested in the two WWII novels, though, as well as The Sentinels of Andersonville.

    (Somehow her name is familiar, but have no idea where I’ve heard it.)

  6. UnReconstructed
    UnReconstructed August 3, 2015 11:15 am

    Andersonville has a terrible name, and quite deservedly so.

    Few know about the Unions POW camps. Since they won, those facts are considerably less known. After all, it was a glorious war against the evil slavery lovers, right?

    Camp Douglas and Elmira were some of the more notorious Union prisons. Conditions there were pretty much as bad there as Andersonville.

    Earlier in the war, they exchanged prisoners.

    When Grant got in charge if the Union, he stopped that practice because he realized that he would win by attrition, since the Confederacy was short on manpower.

    The book looks to be a good read, though. Perhaps I’ll pick it up after I finish Stephenson’s latest.

  7. Claire
    Claire August 3, 2015 11:23 am

    UnReconstructed — I knew somebody would bring up these issues, and rightly so. FWIW, this novel also mentions Camp Douglas as rivaling Andersonville, and it mentions the lack of prisoner exchanges (though doesn’t go into detail about why).

    Yes, Andersonville is better known than Camp Douglas because victors get to write the history (and for the same reason, Sherman’s march to the sea isn’t notorious as the atrocity and war crime it was). But believe me, this particular book is no attempt to whitewash the North and vilify the South.

    That said, Andersonville seems to have been a particularly tragic combo of the stresses of war and the consequences of inept, uncaring, inflexible bureaucracy. The sheer immovableness of bureaucracy is part of the story here and is worth telling.

  8. Pat
    Pat August 3, 2015 1:14 pm

    Sorry. Under “Writing Bio” (in About), it states:

    “After Madman, she tried to sell a few books that still haven’t sold, while doing freelance work on the side. Then she landed with Tyndale Publishers and found a niche writing stories set in historical events—the small hinges, Winston Churchill once said, upon which history turns. She likes the Small Hinges gig.”

    And I was also referring to her general belief as a Christian, which is mentioned throughout her website and seems to be a part of her philosophical reference. That woould probably explain her wanting to “land with Tyndale Publishers” in the first place.

  9. Claire
    Claire August 3, 2015 1:48 pm

    Thanks for the explanation, Pat. The “Small Hinges” gig. I like that.

  10. Shel
    Shel August 3, 2015 8:57 pm

    This is a particularly difficult subject for me. First, I greatly dislike historical novels. I find them a potentially very effective form of propaganda, especially if well done, as the unknowing can very easily be led to believe fiction is fact and that the depiction is accurate. If read as a work of art, as any novel is, then a good one certainly is worthwhile for that purpose; but it’s very dangerous to accept it as a description of reality. If I wanted to know about Andersonville, I would at least try for a first hand account like Andersonville Diary or a well researched historical volume.

    Regarding the subject matter, as UnReconstructed says, Camp Douglas and Elmira were truly horrific places (Elmira had a higher death rate than Andersonville, don’t know about Camp Douglas), and Point Lookout and Fort Delaware certainly produced their share of corpses. This was while the Union was a land of plenty and the Confederacy was starving. At least one prisoner was able to escape Andersonville simply by walking out because many guards wore Union uniforms, as things were so difficult they had nothing else to wear. One would hardly expect pristine prison conditions in this situation. And that experiment in California (I think) some time back demonstrated that even mock guards and prisoners tend not to do well together. At one point, as I understand it, the Confederacy tried to buy medicine for the prisoners but the Union turned them down. So perhaps a better story would be well fed and clad northern civilians taking pity on starving dying Confederates, but as UnReconstructed says, the winners write the history; and flipping the script on this novel would risk producing an unpopular book.

    And, consistent with the standards of the winners, Major Henry Wirz, the camp commander, was hanged in front of a chanting crowd after a controversial trial.

  11. Pat
    Pat August 4, 2015 3:16 am

    🙂 No… I don’t think it was him.

    But sure wish I had the power to re-grow some of me.

  12. Claire
    Claire August 4, 2015 4:10 am

    “So perhaps a better story would be well fed and clad northern civilians taking pity on starving dying Confederates”

    It’s wrong to assume that, just because a novel is about Andersonville, it implies that the author is somehow condoning the similar atrocities of the North.

    On the contrary, you could look at this story as saying decent people — anywhere — oppose the horrors committed by governments — anywhere.

    If you read the story you describe about those well-fed northerners, you might complain that the author was making them look more virtuous than southerners who did nothing about the Andersonville horrors in their own midst.

    Can’t win.

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