“They Cover the Land Like the Locusts of Egypt”: Fugitive Federal Prisoners of War and the Collapse of the Confederacy
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“They Cover the Land Like the Locusts of Egypt”
Fugitive Federal Prisoners of War and the Collapse of the Confederacy

Three officers from Maine volunteer regiments huddled together for warmth in the woods sixteen miles north of Newberry, South Carolina, on November 10, 1864. They had escaped from a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp outside of Columbia eight days before and were headed for Knoxville, Tennessee. The moon was large and bright, and it would not be safe for them to move until well after 9:00 p.m., when most residents of the area would be asleep. They wanted to put distance between themselves and other escaped Federals, but that was proving to be a difficult task. When they skirted Newberry on November 9, they encountered two other parties, of four men each, and learned that seven others had been recaptured on the same road the day before. Maj. Charles Porter Mattocks, Lt. Charles O. Hunt, and Capt. Julius B. Litchfield were 3 out of 2,676 Union officers and soldiers who sneaked across the South Carolina countryside between September 1864 and February 1865. On November 30, the Edgefield Advertiser aptly summed up the situation in an editorial blasting state officials in Columbia. Yankees “seem to be everywhere; they actually cover the land like the locusts of Egypt.”1

Every day white and black southerners confronted fugitive Federals in startling and alarming encounters. Capt. J. Madison Drake, of the Ninth New Jersey Volunteers, boldly entered a log cabin with his companions. They rummaged through the larder and roasted potatoes on the hearth, to the surprise and consternation of the family. When a minister discovered a Yankee napping underneath his fodder, the fugitive awoke and attacked the reverend, who finally subdued the man after a brutal fistfight. One Federal, in search of a slave to guide him, hid behind a tree in the deep woods alongside a path and leapt out and tackled the first young black man who came along.2

Before Union armies invaded the interior of South Carolina, the enemy of all loyal Confederates was literally at the doorstep. These thousands of Yankees were prisoners of war who had leapt from trains transporting them [End Page 30] from Georgia or escaped from makeshift prisons in Charleston, Columbia, and Florence. Confederate prison authorities, Confederate military officials and troops in the region, and the state militias, had proved unable to effectively handle the situation. Protection from the pestilential Yankees devolved onto the people of South Carolina.

Historians know little of this story, and certainly nothing about the scale of escapes from the Confederate prison system that occurred between September 1864 and February 1865. Scholarly interest in the published accounts of escaped prisoners of war has been limited in scope to the descriptions such accounts provide of desertion and guerrilla warfare in Georgia and North Carolina and the people of the Appalachians or to the study of such works as exemplars of nineteenth-century personal narratives. Although a plethora of studies exist on the Civil War in North Carolina, the only scholarly monograph that gives in-depth coverage of South Carolina’s war years was published in 1950.3

The literature on Civil War prisons likewise ignores the situation in South Carolina, since previous scholars have missed the numbers involved in escapes. Furthermore, historians who study Confederate prisons tend to write community histories that stand in isolation from other narratives of the war or tend to focus on questions of blame for the horrifying conditions within such prisons. Although historians have examined how structural and bureaucratic problems in a declining Confederacy contributed to the high death rates in Confederate prisons, they failed to consider how the Confederacy’s emergency transfer of nearly fourteen thousand POWs from sites in Georgia to South Carolina fit into the story of the Confederacy’s collapse in the region during the last winter of the war.4

If one looks beyond the published escape narratives and examines major archival sources in Washington, D.C., and South Carolina, a significant story emerges. Confederate prison and Federal government records indicate that at least 2,676 Federals escaped from captivity in South Carolina between September...