The film is loosely based on the diary of John Ransom, a Union soldier imprisoned there. Although certain points of the plot are fabricated, the general conditions of the camp accurately match Ransom's descriptions, particularly references to the administration of the camp by Captain Henry Wirz. His line on escaping prisoners is very similar to the book, "The Flying Dutchman [Wirz] offers to give two at a time twelve hours the start".
The film begins with a group of Union soldiers being captured and forced to surrender at Cold Harbor, Virginia, in June 1864. They are transported to prisoner-of-war Camp Sumter, near Andersonville, Georgia. When they enter, they discover a former comrade, named Dick Potter, who explains the grim realities of daily existence in the camp – primarily the lack of shelter, clean water, and regular food supplies. He also states the danger of a rogue group of Union soldiers, called the "Raiders", who hoard the camp's meager rations, and lure unsuspecting "fresh fish" – newly captured soldiers – into their area of the camp, to attack and rob them.
With every able-bodied man required for fighting, young teenagers and old men are used as guards. At one watch tower, manned by two young guards, a Union soldier offers money for some corn. He is instructed to step over the "dead line" fence and approach the watch tower to trade, which contradicts the rules of the camp. But reluctantly, compelled by need, the soldier steps over the line, and (in a macabre type of game) the soldiers in the next watch tower shoot him dead.
As the story unfolds, the unit captured at the beginning of the film ally with some inmates, and help them by working on their tunnel under the stockade wall. Eventually it is complete, but one man tries to inform the guards, in hope of receiving a reward. He is captured and "TT" (meaning tunnel traitor) is cut into his forehead as a warning. The escape is attempted one night, and all goes well until the last man is spotted and shot, and the dogs are unleashed. In a very short time, most escapees are back in the camp and placed in standing stocks as punishment.
The situation with the Raiders eventually becomes unbearable, as group after group of new prisoners are targeted upon arrival. Night raids are made, with possessions being taken from tents and prisoners injured or killed by the Raiders. After a banjo is stolen, one man fights to get it back but is badly beaten. Things progressively get worse until finally one man decides he has seen enough of the "vultures out to rob and murder the new boys". He rallies support from the disparate groups, and within minutes hundreds of his comrades are charging the Raiders' camp. A massive and deadly riot ensues.
In the end the Raiders are beaten, stolen goods are redistributed to their owners, but many want them all hanged outright. But upon the insistence of a few, a request for a legitimate trial is made to Captain Wirz, the Confederate commander of the prison camp. A trial is held, with a jury made up of new internees, which ultimately results in the six ring-leaders being found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. After the executions life becomes relatively peaceful, but the cold reality of starvation, and lack of sanitation or medical care, begins to set in as emaciation, dysentery, scurvy, and fever take their toll, causing many to die. As the film ends, an announcement is made by Wirz that all prisoners are to be exchanged – the surviving Federal soldiers leave the camp, filing past their dead comrades on the way to the trains.
Against a view of the present-day Andersonville National Cemetery, the movie's end coda reads:In 1864–5, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned in Andersonville. 12,912 died there. The prisoner exchange never happened. The men who walked to the trains were taken to other prisons, where they remained until the war ended. After the war, Wirz was hanged, the only soldier to be tried and executed for war crimes committed during the Civil War.
Jarrod Emick - Josiah Day
Frederic Forrest - Sgt. McSpadden
Ted Marcoux - Martin Blackburn
Carmen Argenziano - Hopkins
Jayce Bartok - Billy
Frederick Coffin - Collins
Cliff DeYoung - Sgt. John Gleason
Denis Forest - Mad Matthew
Justin Henry - Tyce
Tony Higgins - Tucker
Andrew Kavovit - Tobias
Olek Krupa - Olek Wisnovsky
William H. Macy - Col. Chandler
Matt McGrath - Ethan
Peter Murnik - Limber Jim
Gabriel Olds - Bob Reese
William Sanderson - Munn
Gregory Sporleder - Dick Potter
Jan Tříska - Capt. Henry Wirz
Bruce Evers - Lt. Barrett
Robert David Hall - Samson
The mini series was a pet project of mogul Ted Turner, an American Civil War enthusiast who wanted to bring to the screen a series of historically accurate films about the conflict. After the critical acclaim and financial success of his previous production Gettysburg in 1993, he would go on to produce its prequel Gods and Generals in 2003. All were massive productions on huge scales.
Andersonville was filmed on location on a farm some fifty miles south of Atlanta (about a hundred miles north of the actual location of the camp) where a huge set was built (not quite to scale) of the actual camp. Accurate in detail down to the officer's quarters outside the camp gates, the fifty foot high raw timber walls and thousands of ragged tents, a working stream, and even a full scale railway depot with half of a locomotive made of wood were built on the property. At any given time there were hundreds of extras employed every day, many of whom were Civil War reenactors who came from all over the nation to take part in the production. Their deep devotion to the subject matter and attention to detail gave the film much of its authenticity. Many of the extras were also college students, both men and women brought in by the busload for the larger scenes. At its height more than four thousand extras a day were employed, making it necessary to have an ultra early call time of three a.m. for a general set call of seven. Dozens of additional makeup, hair, wardrobe and production staff were needed for these scenes, which actually went very well due to military style organization with the "troops" even being marched in platoons from the preparation tents to the set.
Shot in the early to late fall of 1994, it was a typical southern season of change with the weather proving difficult at best. With temperatures swinging between extremely hot to cold and rainy, the heavy red clay that makes up Georgia soil would turn into a sludge up to three feet deep during rains and would solidify to rock hard status a day later when temperatures soared. Long days took their toll on the cast and crew and the situation came to a head when disaster struck at the end of principal photography.
The critical scenes involving the trials and hanging of the raiders were shot over two days with the raw film being shipped out to Los Angeles labs every few days. The crate containing this film was lost in transit by the shipping company and though there was tremendous effort to find it the film was never located. Shooting had just wrapped with sets being torn down and the farm location restored. This necessitated a partial re-building of the set on location in North Carolina and a gathering of all the principal actors involved in the scenes for a very costly re-shoot which took about a week to complete.
In an interesting twist, one of Frankenheimer's good friends and favorite actors, Burt Lancaster died the morning of the first day of shooting, October 20, 1994. He and Frankenheimer had made several films together in the 60's and it depressed him. He was heard to say by his personal assistant "Why couldn't it have been Richard Harris?".
The program won a 1996 Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing for a Miniseries or a Special for director John Frankenheimer. It was nominated in six other categories as well, including a nomination for cinematographer, Ric Waite.