Myth: Prisoners at Andersonville called their shelters ‘Shebangs.’
Fact: While shebang was a term sometimes used to describe prisoner shelters at Andersonville, its usage was probably quite limited. In some 1,200 pages of postwar testimony by prisoners held at Andersonville, the word appears four times, and is virtually absent from most prisoner diaries and contemporary memoirs. Far more common terms include tent, hut, dugout, burrow, lean-to, shanty, and shelter.
As you can see from the photo, the term shebang is almost synonymous with Andersonville, even to the point where many park publications and signs used the term exclusively. But how did this term become so widespread if so few prisoners actually used it? The likely culprit is MacKinlay Kantor, whose 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Andersonville features ‘shebang’ as a universal term for shelters in Andersonville. Kantor’s bibliography cites Thomas O’Dea, whose famous lithograph and accompanying pamphlet use ‘shebang’ as a term to describe the huts. Kantor, an astute writer, recognized the literary potential of the term and decided to incorporate it into his story. Because of the popularity of his novel right before the Civil War centennial, a whole generation of Civil War enthusiasts began to use 'shebang' as a term specific to Andersonville. Following Kantor and popular culture after the centennial, the National Park Service then incorporated the term shebang into many of its programs, publications, and signs when Andersonville became a national historic site in the early 1970s. Since then, many writers and researchers then followed the lead of the park, which only increased the popularity of 'shebang' as an Andersonville specific term. Even today many websites and historians point to Andersonville as the source of the term 'shebang,' or the phrase "the whole shebang," or speculate that it was a Celtic word introduced by prisoners held at Andersonville.
Some prisoners did use the term 'shebang' – most notably Thomas O'Dea and Warren Lee Goss. However, the hundreds of other prisoners who testified before Congress and published memoirs and diaries used other terms to describe their shelters. So while 'shebang' might be A term for shelter, it's not THE only term.
Last updated: April 14, 2015