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The explosion and wreck of the Mississippi riverboat Sultana in 1865, which killed 1,700 passengers, mostly Union soldiers recently released from Confederate POW camps, is but the capstone of this engrossing survey of the many varieties of suffering in the Civil War. Journalist Huffman (Mississippi in Africa) doesn't even get aboard the Sultana until the last third of the saga. Before that, he fills in the backstories of four Yankee survivors as they fight in the battle of Chickamauga, go raiding with Sherman's cavalry and finally get captured and sent to the infamous Southern prison camps at Andersonville, Ga., and Cahaba, Ala. There they endure the torments of starvation, exposure, festering and maggoty wounds, predatory criminal gangs, lice and diarrhea-a scourge, Huffman notes, that was far deadlier to soldiers than bullets. Making skillful use of war diaries and memoirs, the author makes these quieter ordeals just as moving as the Sultana's doomed voyage, with its "hellish scene[s] of hundreds of screaming people being burned alive" or drowning each other in panic. Huffman fits the climactic disaster into a meticulously researched, harrowing look at the sorrow and the pity that was the Civil War. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.