Towards the end of the 1990s, James McPherson and William J. Cooper noted that amid the voluminous literature on the Civil War very little existed relating to the military prisons. Since then, the call for more work on this tragic, unromantic side of the war has been answered by historians who have published works about particular prisons and each sides' military-prison systems generally. Breaking with most other scholarship detailing Union and Confederate policies towards and treatment of prisoners of war, Cloyd explores Civil War prisons in popular memory over time, arguing that atrocity tales were first manipulated for various cultural and political purposes and then sanitized, allowing Americans to forget certain difficult historical realities in favor of more comfortable and unifying myths.
Before delving into the mountain of postwar polemics related to the prisoner issue, Cloyd lays as his foundation the argument that both North and South were guilty of neglecting and mistreating prisoners during the war. Northern and southern officials, including Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, are condemned for their abusive and lethal policies towards prisoners. "The appalling death rates of Civil War prisoners," Cloyd contends, "resulted from a culture bent on destruction, and both North and South insisted on wreaking that devastation even on its unarmed captives" (p. 29). [End Page 422]
Despite the blood on the hands of some in both regions, veterans and politicians shamelessly ignored historical truth to create an enormous body of atrocity propaganda between 1865 and the 1920s. In postwar writing and speeches Northerners and Southerners portrayed their own prisons as models of humanity while the enemy was depicted as treating unarmed captives with a level of brutality worthy of the Middle Ages. Northerners produced highly distorted images of captivity in the South in order to reaffirm their claims of moral superiority to the South and the Confederate cause. Southerners engaged in the very same distortions and exaggerations for essentially the same reasons. By the 1920s, a lot had been written about Civil War prisons but little of it was designed to do anything beyond glorifying one side and demonizing the other.
That changed, according to Cloyd, after 1920 as writers became less concerned with assessing blame for mortality and suffering in Civil War prisons and increasingly argued that such were the tragic fortunes of modern war. While this certainly muted sectional animosity so long associated with the topic, it diminished the important lessons Civil War prison atrocities taught. By overlooking the historical reality of prisoner mortality to embrace the historical myth that it was nobody's fault, society was (and is) free to ignore, or worse, excuse atrocious behavior to cling to the cherished myth of American exceptionalism. That is the important lesson and warning of Civil War prisons.
Several of the premises of the book are open to some serious question. The contention that post-1920 writing, especially about northern prisons, got away from blaming Union officials for excessive mortality and ill-treatment is suspect. Writing since 1920 has been less strident, but Union officials like Edwin Stanton and William Hoffman have been consistently criticized for abusing prisoners by both professional and lay historians. More critical is that the central theme of the book—that both sides treated prisoners atrociously—has been seriously challenged, at least in writing about Union prisons, by scholars such as Benton McAdams and Roger Pickenpaugh. Since these and other recent works undermine one of the foundations of [End Page 423] the book, they needed to be engaged.
Ultimately, the book is a nice addition to the expanding literature on Civil War memory and popular culture. It is well researched and elegantly written. Its shortcomings, while not insignificant, should not overshadow the fact that it is the most comprehensive work to date exploring the connection between Civil War prisons and popular memory and will serve as the basis for future work in the area.
James Gillispie, arts and sciences division chair at Sampson Community College in Clinton, North Carolina, is the author of the...