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  • The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy by Lorien Foote
  • John C. Inscoe (bio)
The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy. By Lorien Foote. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. 245. Cloth, $34.95.)

Beginning in the fall of 1864 and lasting until the war's end, the Confederate home front faced a new and formidable foe—some twenty-eight hundred Union soldiers who escaped from makeshift prison camps in North and South Carolina. They were, declares Lorien Foote in her new book on the subject, "a different kind of invading army, one that was weak and unarmed. They never fought a conventional battle. But they heralded the collapse of the Confederate States of America" (20).

The experience of imprisonment and escape inspired an unusual number of narrative accounts, from diaries to memoirs, both published and unpublished, that Foote makes the basis for assessing this "Yankee plague" and its role in the breakdown of southern resolve and resources in late 1864 and early 1865. Several of us have utilized these fugitive prisoners' narratives in studying home-front conditions for particular areas. (They are especially useful as commentary on Appalachia's Civil War.) But Foote draws much more from these rich source materials, using them to demonstrate the circumstances behind the massive number of escapes over the course of the war's fitful and final months; the extent to which the escapees bore witness to a wide range of subversive elements within the civilian populace; and the means by which many served as active agents in colluding with those locals to undermine the southern war effort. It was not Sherman's invasion, Foote argues, that broke the Confederacy in the Carolinas, but rather a series of critical breakdowns in the political, [End Page 673] governmental, and social structure already well under way before Sherman turned north from Georgia.

Not surprisingly, it was the collapse of the Confederate prison system itself that triggered this mass mobilization of fugitives. Forced to contend with ever-growing numbers of newly captured Federal troops in Virginia and the evacuation of prisons in Macon and Andersonville, Georgia, southern authorities demonstrated gross mismanagement in the transfer of prisoners to new, woefully unsecured and undermanned sites—often open fields—first in South and then in North Carolina. Many of the escapees pushed westward, heading across the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains into Union-occupied East Tennessee. Some of those imprisoned in Columbia, South Carolina, headed to the state's coast and others moved toward Augusta, Georgia, where they hoped to link up with Sherman's forces. Many of the latter surged through Edgefield, South Carolina, in such numbers that the influx led the local newspaper to proclaim at November's end that escapees "actually cover the land like the locusts of Egypt" (42). By then, the near collapse of the state government and absence of any military force left only local residents to capture and return the fugitives in their midst, which, at least for a while, they were surprisingly effective in doing.

Though drawing on a vast database of just over three thousand Federal escapees from southern prisons, Foote builds much of her subsequent narrative on four of the fullest of published accounts, supplemented by the voices of some fifty other fugitive memoirists. Cognizant of the post-war northern readerships toward whom their books were targeted, these authors played up the hardships, dangers, and "thrilling adventures" they endured in moving through the rural—often wilderness—South; yet their most detailed and revealing passages are those describing their run-ins with local residents, or occasionally fellow travelers—black and white, male and female, old and young. Foote wisely makes these interchanges her focal points as well, using them to render a vivid portrait of social and economic systems on the verge of collapse.

Such encounters often made for perilous scenarios for those on the run. As in Edgefield, home-front opposition to these Yankee fugitives more likely entailed civilians—acting either alone or sometimes as bands—than it did any state-sanctioned military or law enforcement. Foote depicts the southern mountains, in particular, as...


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