Every armed conflict yields an uninviting harvest of imprisoned soldiers. The American Civil War was no exception. Unfortunately, yet predictably, when the war came, neither side was prepared or particularly concerned with the fate of prisoners of war. Deplorable management coupled with scarce resources led to overcrowding, illness, violence, and death.
For some time, the study of Civil War captivity appeared settled. From a historiographical perspective, William B. Hesseltine's Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology (1930) dominated the field. Despite its shortcomings, Civil War Prisons represented the first authoritative study of the wartime prison systems and, to its credit, shattered the widely held belief that Confederate leaders willfully killed their wards through deliberate neglect. Hesseltine argued, and most Civil War historians now acknowledge, that the collapse of the Confederacy's infrastructure led to large numbers of fatalities among Union prisoners of war.
The fate of Union prisoners, the collapse of Confederate infrastructure, and its impact on the southern home front are precisely at the heart of Lorian Foote's The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy. The book straddles the winter of 1864–1865, when the Confederacy, and the groundwork [End Page 687] supporting its war effort, began to collapse. This systemic breakdown allowed thousands of Union prisoners to run or in some cases walk out of prison camps and head to the Carolinas. These escapes, Foote cleverly argues, sent a clear message to the southern home front: the Confederacy was on life-support.
The Yankee Plague does an excellent job of describing the chaos that ensued as thousands of former Union prisoners fanned out across the southern landscape in a desperate attempt to reach General William T. Sherman's juggernaut, meet up with the Federal navy, or make their way to Union lines via the meandering and insecure route through East Tennessee. Foote's excellent storytelling skills and superb research does much more. Her narrative tracks down the personal stories of individual escapees as well as groups of runways as they lied, tricked, and cajoled help from slaves, Confederate deserters, Cherokee Indians, criminals, Unionists, and helpless white civilians fed up with the war and the Confederate government. In the process, she paints a powerful image of Confederate disarray and thematically approaches issues of self-emancipation, a lawless border, women's agency, and the impracticality of waging wars with scarce resources while tasked with the creation of a national government.
The Yankee Plague is one of most intriguing books on Civil War captivity in years. Its research base, aided by a database that includes the names of over three thousand Union escapees who made it to Union lines, is splendid and delves into traditional primary sources such as diaries, letters, and military records. Its contribution to the historiography is extensive as it testifies, among other things, to a Confederacy that faced the Union's final blows while materially weak and psychologically crippled.
To Foote's credit, she extends her analysis and offers a brief foray into the fate of former POWs during the postwar years. Instead of getting caught up in the political battles of Republicans and Democrats waving the "bloody shirt" over southern atrocities, she gives her readers an interesting, albeit brief, look at how individuals rebuilt their lives, and how they remembered their time in captivity and their [End Page 688] break for freedom. The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy is mandatory reading for all interested in the conflict and its aftermath.
JOSĚ DĬAZ is an associate professor and librarian at The Ohio State University. His dissertation explored prisoners, captivity, and the Civil War.