Documentary looks at the dark world of Civil War prisons

Civil War prisons 600
Joseph F. Wilson (center) wrote and and produced "Civil War Prisons - An American Tragedy" with help from film editor Rich Mendoza (left) and Wilson's musician brother, Mike.

A retired plumber in Magnolia who is a Civil War buff, his musician/optician brother from Barrington, and a Voorhees video editor have teamed up to make a documentary.

And it's a powerful piece of work.

The South Jersey premiere of Civil War Prisons - An American Tragedy is set for Civic Hall on the Blackwood campus of Camden County College at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 26.

Featuring professional voice actor Scott R. Pollak's polished narration, 300 evocative historical images, and a wistful soundtrack, the 77-minute movie is elegiac and unequivocal. I saw it in advance the other day, and the film has stayed with me.

"It's hard-hitting," Pollak, who grew up in the South, says from his home in Colorado. "It sounds cliched, but it was a labor of love for me to put my voice to a project like this."

Civil War Prisons seeks to hold accountable political and military leaders on both sides who found it advantageous to retain, rather than exchange, captured soldiers, despite the squalid conditions many of the men endured.

About 56,000 soldiers, Confederate and Union, perished in captivity; many starved to death. The photos of emaciated victims included in the film are unforgettable.

"What happened to these guys was horrible, and I want to educate people about it," writer, producer, and amateur Civil War scholar Joseph F. Wilson tells me at his home in Magnolia.

"The film is kind of opinionated; I put my own little edge on it," Joe, 63, adds. "But I welcome people to challenge anything I wrote. It's all based on fact."

Joining us for the conversation are Joe's brother Mike - who performs all the music and wrote an original song for the film's soundtrack - and Rich Mendoza, a Civil War reenactor who owns a digital video production company.

Rich is responsible for the film's fluid, fluent use of still images - the sort made famous by Ken Burns, whose epic The Civil War will mark its 25th anniversary with a PBS rebroadcast in September.

"I've seen it five or six times," Joe says. "I'd never made a documentary, but I'd been lecturing about the prisons for about 10 years.

"And because of the personal connection, I thought it would be the perfect documentary to do."

The personal connection is the Wilson brothers' great-great-grandfather Union Army Cpl. George Garman of Philadelphia, who joined the 36th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1861.

Garman, only 17 when he enlisted, was captured by Confederates at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, and survived five months at Georgia's infamous Andersonville prison.

About 150 prisons in the North and the South housed a total of 420,000 soldiers during the Civil War. Most were makeshift, overcrowded facilities.

"I never knew the depths [of the prison story] until I sat down with these guys," says Rich, 67, who spent about 80 hours editing the film with the brothers.

He became part of the project because he'd given Joe his business card at a Civil War commemorative event in Gettysburg two years earlier.

Gettysburg also was where Rich made his first-ever Civil War film; at age 10, he shot battleground footage with a home movie camera during a school field trip, later adding a boyish, tape-recorded accompaniment.

Mike, 57, began playing guitar and other instruments as a child. He says it took about six weeks to record the songs for the soundtrack of the documentary.

Noting that he had also been involved in making music videos, he adds that "it wasn't foreign to me" to think in musical and visual terms simultaneously.

His renditions of classic tunes such as "Shenandoah" and "Faces of Soldiers," the theme song he wrote, lend the film just the right notes of grace.

Joe, who plans to enter the documentary in the Garden State Film Festival and other competitions, says he had to leave "too many stories" out of the film.

"It could have been three hours long," he laughs, adding, "Well, there could always be a part two."

For more information about the film, contact Joseph F. Wilson at

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan