Providential History on Trial: Memories of Andersonville Prison and the Civil War

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM
Room 208 (Hynes Convention Center)
Kent Alan McConnell , Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH

            In recent years, the story of nationalist sentiment as it relates to memories of the Civil War has been complicated by historians David Blight and Drew Gilpin Faust who have documented the difficulties of this process, its human cost, and concessions within.  This paper falls within a similar methodological vein as the former treatments, but examines questions of religious belief and the morality of the Civil War.  Focusing its attention on the much-debated history of the Andersonville prison camp, the research examines two particular episodes of suffering and death at the prison where the themes of reverence, memorial culture, and spectacle would collide.  Utilizing Susan Sontag’s theoretical analysis of photographs which suggests images are the “most mysterious of all objects” that “thicken” the “environment we recognize as modern,” this paper demonstrates that the death and suffering at Andersonville was not easily tamed by the prevailing nationalist myth that emerged around the Civil War. 

            In turn this affected the religious life of the nation in multifarious ways.  Memories of Civil War prisons could present troubling ideas about why God might permit the enemy to unjustly persecute or torture defenseless soldiers to the point of death. Such sentiments appeared in diaries of soldiers who were troubled, in theological terms, by the predicament of death and suffering in Civil War prisons.  If, as historian Carlos Eire asserts, “attitudes toward death and the afterlife are indeed a barometer of faith and piety,” then the actions and debate surrounding the Union dead in Georgia reveals a deep spiritual gulf separating Americans over the Civil War well into the so-called reconciliatory years of the Gilded Age.

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