Amelia, the Play—P.O.W.’s in the Civil War


Andersonville National Historic Site began as a stockade built about 18 months before the end of the Civil War to hold Union Army prisoners captured by Confederate soldiers.

Designed for a maximum of 10,000 prisoners, at its most crowded, it held more than 32,000 men, many of them sick, wounded and starving, in horrific conditions with rampant disease, contaminated water, and only minimal shelter from the blazing sun and the chilling winter rain.

Amelia (the play), manages to convey the surreal but true tale of a woman who cuts her hair and dons a Union uniform to appear like a man and a soldier—one of an estimated 500 women who fought in disguise in the Civil War—so that she may search for her husband somewhere in the Union Army.

Amelia is presented in Governor Island’s Powder Magazine at Fort Jay, an underground arsenal paved with brick–a location more evocative of war could scarcely have been found.

A cast of two extraordinary players, Shirleyann Kaladjian and Alex Webb, portray some ten men and woman (including Amelia and her husband Ethan). Their character and gender switching is flawlessly smooth—in fact it is so fast one has to be on the edge of the seat to catch it all, particularly Alex Webb who plays characters that are young, old, male, female, crippled, able bodied, Northern Southern, without a break and all at top speed. In effect, it seems as though ten people are speaking in turn—although only two people actually are seen to open their mouths.

They swoop their long skirts about, or strut with thumbs in suspenders like roosters. They play characters who are comical, fearful, domineering, kindly, stealthy, cruel–or simply, charmingly, tragically, romantically in love.

The costume changes are minimal with the exception of Amelia, who cuts her hair, takes off her dress (behind the scenes) and puts on the cap and uniform of a Union soldier. The acting is so smooth and so powerful one hardly notices the absence of another costume change to signal gender change. The  Powder Magazine itself provides the scenery and the setting.

The story begins with the tale of Amelia, dubbed “a smart woman” by her future husband Ethan, who defies her father’s wishes for her marriage and somehow manages to find in a feed store the sole man in her country Pennsylvania town who might want to spend time with a “smart woman,” with whom he can talk not about the abiding concerns of her village—-such as threshing—but about the important issues of the day such as Lincoln, freeing the slaves, and Ethan’s fears of the coming War.

A sample of their conversation: Amelia (a tiny wisp of a thing) tells the tale of the day she stared down a giant Brahma bull. Ethan so loves this story as an emblem of the teller, that he requests a retelling close to the end of the play.

This couple goes to the village dance and discovers that neither of them is very fast or slick on their feet, but nevertheless, they sweep grandly about, and have a wonderful time. It is clear that this is love. Amelia, never one for the orthodox, proposes to Ethan; Ethan gets down on his knees in the approved fashion, and accepts.

By cruel fate, the two have met just before Ethan decides to volunteer as a soldier for the Pennsylvania Regiment. Amelia begs him not to go; he swears he will be home within a few months.

A year later, she decides that if she is ever going to see Ethan again, she will have to leave her flourishing dairy farm and take the initiative. She cuts her hair, dons a uniform, kisses her mother goodbye, saddles up her beloved mare, and sets out south from Pennsylvania.

Amelia’s adventures are many. She meets an escaped African American slave who opens her eyes as to what he feels is the real cause of the war: the North’s interest not in ending slavery but in acquiring fields of Southern “cotton gold.” He proves to be a decent and helpful man; they forge a friendship. Some fugitives like this man are kindly and willing to share money and provisions, even with a white woman; others are vicious thieves. Amelia early loses her beloved mare to a thief and we believe in her grief—as she must cry out a goodbye to the only friend she has left.

The mood grows ever more somber as Amelia, hushed and deadpan, recounts the horrors she has seen in her march south. At one point she says she had been trying to follow the path of a river bed but she couldn’t actually walk in it because it was completely packed with the bodies of slain solders or with their body parts. And she had to move quickly to dodge hordes of hogs charging in to eat the bodies.

Following the river bed and other landmarks was essential because there were no clear guides available to Amelia showing which regiments were serving, and where they were encamped or on the March, and how fast they were moving. The stories changed daily or hourly.

Amelia finally has possible word of Ethan. Her final goal, in the search for Ethan, and it’s a horror—the Andersonville Prison.

A brief word picture of the prison by an inmate:

On July 9, 1864, Sgt. David Kennedy of the 9th Ohio Cavalry wrote in his diary: ‘ Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.’

Andersonville Prison, the most notorious Civil War prison/stockade, was constructed in early 1864 near the town of Andersonville in southwest Georgia. By July 1864, Andersonville, built to accommodate up to 10,000 soldiers, was jammed with over 32,000. A stream, ironically named Sweet Water Branch, was used as a sewer as well as for drinking and bathing. Most prisoners had no shelter, and were left fully exposed to the elements. Medical treatment was virtually nonexistent. The prisoners received rancid grain and a few tablespoons a day of mealy beans or peas.

“The poor food and sanitation, the lack of shelter and health care, the crowding, and the hot Georgia sun all took their toll in the form of dysentery, scurvy, malaria, and exposure. In the prison’s 14 months of existence, some 45,000 Union prisoners arrived; of those, 12,920 died and were buried in a cemetery created just outside the prison walls.”

Amelia was perhaps the first Union soldier ever to arrive at this hellhole and beg to be let in. About her experiences in the prison Amelia is largely silent. It doesn’t matter—a refugee friend who begged her not to carry forward her plan, clearly outlines the perils of Andersonville: that in addition to the aforementioned dysentery, scurvy, malaria and exposure, she risked violent attack, rape, and torture.

But she survived, red eyed, pale, matted hair, woolen jacket sticking to her ribs with sweat, to find Ethan. And she does. By a sheer fluke. Some of the prisoners stitched together their jackets to create makeshift ceilings so as to shelter them from the Georgia sun. She looked up; saw his name, his regiment, the name Pennsylvania and she found him nearby in the prison.

Amelia and Ethan, rapturously reunited at the conclusion of the story, are nevertheless clearly failing after too much time in Andersonville. Ethan haltingly remarks, “you and I, we don’t look so good.” But he then asks Amelia to retell the tale of the smartest, sweetest, most beautiful lady he knows and the day she faced down the Brahma bull. She begins; the light fails; voices fade.

I don’t think I was the only attendee who was weeping at the end of this play, a tour de force for both of its actors and an illumination of some the darkest days in the history of the United States. I do know that I vowed to follow this company and their works and that I will do so.

Photos courtesy of John Capo Public Relations.

Amelia runs through June 17, 2012.  For the schedule, see The Governor’s Island website. See  it as soon as you can!

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