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Theater taught me about the War Between the States

Except for a superficial high school inspection of Stephen Crane’s novel, “The Red Badge of Courage,” “The Andersonville Trial” was my introduction to the Civil War.

Saul Levitt’s play made its Broadway debut in 1959. I became aware of it in the fall of 1962 as a 17-year-old Orange Coast College freshman.

“The Andersonville Trial” is a dramatization of a real-life trial held after the war, in the fall of 1865. Mjr. Henry Wirz, superintendent of the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, was convicted of war crimes. He was hanged in November of ’65.

More than 45,000 Union prisoners were held at Andersonville, and 13,700 died in filth and degradation. The conditions of the camp, located near Americus, Ga., were appalling.

Ninety-seven years after the war — OCC’s fall semester of 1962 — I saw a poster announcing auditions for the play to be staged in late October. I decided to audition.

I had no idea what the play was about until I secured a copy of the script.

I won the role of Pvt. James K. Davidson of the Union Army’s 4th Iowa Cavalry. Davidson was captured in August of 1863 and held at Andersonville for nearly a year. When he appears to testify in the play, he’s a vacant and broken young man. He no doubt suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Physically, I was right for the part. I weighed 125 pounds. During his testimony, Davidson breaks down while describing an escape attempt in which he was treed by dogs and his companion nearly mauled to death.

“Oh, the dogs …" he pitifully moans.

Due to illness, with three weeks left in rehearsals, director John Ford had to step in and play the role of Wirz’s defense attorney, Otis Baker. A major role, it presented Ford with a huge dual challenge that he pulled off nicely.

Art Huddleston, an OCC student who later performed professionally in New York, played prosecuting attorney Col. Chipman. Huddleston was magnificent and grew the best beard in the cast.

Though I tried growing one, at 17 I came up short. Just peach fuzz.

OCC student Fred Martin, who towered over the cast at 6 feet 4, played the trial judge, Gen. Lew Wallace. After the war, the real Lew Wallace became governor of New Mexico and wrote the novel, “Ben-Hur.” Austrian native John Werleman, who naturally spoke English with a German accent, was perfect as camp commander, Wirz, a Swiss immigrant.

I remember that the run of the show coincided with the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Since it was a mostly male cast, we spent much of our backstage time worrying about the draft.

One cast member assured me I was safe: “You’re 17. They won’t draft you for a couple of years. I’m 20. I could go tomorrow.”

Seventeen months later I enlisted.

After the final curtain each night, cast members would bid one another adieu with gallows humor: “See you tomorrow night … unless we’re toast.”

Nearly two years after the close of the show I was assigned to a company at Fort Benning, Ga., on the Chattahoochee River, 50 miles west of Andersonville. Without a car, however, I was unable to make the trip.

In 1993, I became personally attached to the Civil War while taking a tour of the Manassas Battlefield near Washington, D.C. I was hooked.

I’ve since read more than three-dozen books about the war. I’ve also personally visited Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Appomattox Courthouse, Petersburg, Harpers Ferry, Fort Fisher, Fort Sumter, and many others.

Two decades ago, I read John McElroy’s stunning first-hand account, “Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons.”

McElroy wrote of Wirz’s execution: “When all hope was gone he nerved himself up to meet his fate and died as thousands of other scoundrels have, with calmness.”

Finally, in the summer of 2006, I walked Andersonville’s haunted precincts. It seemed familiar, as though I’d been there in a previous lifetime.

“Oh, the dogs … “

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.


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