There are few more sobering episodes in American history than the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga. Built to hold 10,000 prisoners, Andersonville at its dire peak contained three times that many poor devils, and as the Civil War dragged on and Southern resources dwindled, captive Northern soldiers endured a living hell, with nearly 13,000 fatally succumbing to disease and malnourishment.
Of course, the South didn’t have a monopoly on lousy prisons. But to the losers goes the harshest PR, and Saul Levitt’s dramatization of the military trial of commandant Henry Wirz — which held him responsible for the horrific camp conditions — addresses life-or-death issues such as authority, duty, responsibility, conscience and the ethics of wartime. (Capt. Wirz was the only man, North or South, who was tried and convicted for war crimes.)
The piece, originally presented on Broadway in 1959 — and later as a very high-profile PBS television production in 1970 — is being produced jointly by Smyrna-based Lamplighter’s Theatre Company and the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society Inc. as part of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the conflict’s onset. Director Mike Parker has put together a cast of relative unknowns, though his production also benefits from consults with reenactors and historians to ensure an authentic approach. The play will be performed in the sanctuary of the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church, which served as a Civil War hospital.