A Play about a Civil War Prisoner Debuts in a Real Civil War Prison

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Fort Jay
New York, NY

Monuments at Andersonville National Historic Site, 2007 (From Wikipedia)

I walked down the cold, damp stone hallway of Fort Jay to the powder magazine, enclosed in thick walls more than 200 years old, shivering from the chill of the room and of history. A theater company was staging a new Civil War play, Amelia, in the fort because it actually served as a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, home to nearly 1,000 Confederate officers.

The plot of Amelia carries a recently married young woman form her farm in Pennsylvania to the dreaded Andersonville prison camp in Georgia (actually it was called Camp Sumter but became infamous worldwide as Andersonville after the nearby village) where, disguised as a male Union soldier, she deliberately gets herself captured and taken inside the walls in order to find her husband, a Union soldier being held there.

Amelia is an absorbing play with a two person cast that recreates Civil War history with uncanny accuracy and delivers a knockout story of young lovers caught up in one of history’s great wars. What makes the play so gripping, though, is the real life setting inside the chilly, square shaped Fort on Governor’s Island, a ten-minute ferry ride from lower Manhattan and across the water from the Statue of Liberty (the fort is operated by the National Park Service). What better place to produce a play about prison camps than a real prison camp?

Everything about the production is eerie. You get on the ferry like the prisoners did back in the 1860s and leave the civilized world behind as you sail to Fort Jay, a sturdy stone-and-brick fort originally built during the American Revolution to protect New York against the British, and rebuilt several times over the years. The foreboding looking fort is protected by old cannons and a pile of old cannonballs sits in front of the entrance. The powder room is connected to the rectangular interior of the fort by a lengthy hall. Several long, dark corridors extend off the powder magazine and other rooms are connected to it by wide, thick steel doors.

Connected to the fort are barracks where the Confederate prisoners were kept. A large American flag with thirteen stars flies over the fort for effect. Today, the fort is open, as is the entire island, for picnics, bike rides, polo matches and art shows, events as far away from the Civil War as one could imagine. Inside the fort’s powder magazine, though, within the structure’s dark, dank rooms, Amelia carries visitors back in time.

The story in Amelia is simple. A young woman, Amelia (played by Shirleyann Kaladjian) falls in love with a local man in Pennsylvania who enlists in the Union Army and goes off to fight at Gettysburg and other places. He is captured and taken to Andersonville. His wife does not know where he is but, on foot and on horseback, she tracks him from Gettysburg southward, following leads as to his whereabouts provided by different people.

At home and along the way, she interacts with a dozen or so people, men and women, civilians and soldiers from both sides. Here’s where the play sizzles. All of these people are played by one actor, Alex Webb, who never changes clothes. He is Amelia’s mom, a harsh Union officer, a ‘raider’ tough guy at Andersonville, a Confederate wagon driver, horse thief and assorted other characters. He moves his body like rubber in marvelous ways and adapts different voices for 90 minutes. After a few minute of shock, you get very used to Webb and his many characters. The two person play becomes a play with a cast of twenty or more thanks to his majestic acting.

The story is a long national journey for the Amelia in which she finds out much about her husband, herself, and the men of both armies, good and bad. The audience is kept on the edge of their seats as she wanders father and farther south. Will she be assaulted, kidnapped, wounded, raped, killed? Will she make it? Is her husband still alive?

Kaladjian and Webb are compelling as the star-crossed Civil War couple. Director Bill Largess has done a wonderful job of using them, and their phantom characters, to tell a great story with a stark set, minimal lighting and sound and a stage that has seen thousands of people trod over it in 150 years.

Actor Webb also wrote the play and did a fine job on the history of it. There were about 500 women who served in the war on both sides, some for up to two years. They all disguised themselves to look like men. Some participated in key battles, such as Antietam, and several were wounded. The play’s Amelia is a true recreation of the war’s female soldiers.

Webb gives the audience an engaging history lesson about Andersonville; even longtime Civil War buffs will learn a thing or two. The play recalls the construction of Andersonville for 10,000 prisoners and its pathetically overcrowded population of 32,000. Over twelve thousand prisoners died there. Webb talks about the lack of barracks or tents for protection against the elements, the lack of medical care and, importantly, a group called ‘the raiders,’ Union brigands who harassed, beat and held up other Union soldiers. Andersonville was not the only hellhole prisoner in the war. The Union had one at Elmira, NY that was nearly just as bad. Andersonville’s abuse of its prisoners was so horrific, though, that after the war its commandant, Henry Wirz, was hanged (the only Confederate executed).

History buffs should leap on to the ferry to Governor’s Island to see the play (free tickets, too, if you reserve them on Ameliatheplay.com). It’s a great way to learn about the Civil War and the men and women in it. And, the rest of the day, you can lie on the sprawling lawns and picnic or ride your bike along the island’s trails and gaze at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

PRODUCTION Producers: All in Three Years Co.; Lighting: Marianne Meadows; Costumes: Sigridur Johannesdottir; Sound: Stowe Nelson; Stage Manager: Joshua Klein. The play is directed by Bill Largess.

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