- The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy by Lorien Foote
Although the collapse of the Confederate military and government has been discussed in great detail over the years, Lorien Foote's The Yankee Plague: [End Page 178] Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy introduces a previously unstudied element into the equation: the thousands of escaped Union army prisoners. These fugitives took advantage of the incompetence and confusion that marked the Confederacy's final year and made their way like a plague through the Carolinas and Georgia, undermining the confidence of the white civilians they encountered. Foote analyzes the roles that slaves and sympathetic white southern women played in helping the fugitives escape and in hastening the end of the Confederacy.
As Union troops began to move into Georgia, the Confederacy was forced to move Union prisoners into the Carolinas. Due to almost constant breakdowns in communications and supply lines, the prisoners were moved into areas where troops had neither expected nor prepared for them. One especially unprepared place was Camp Sorghum in Columbia, South Carolina, where prisoners were housed in open fields with no walls and untrained guards. Hundreds of prisoners wandered away, but that part was just the first and often easiest step. They then had to escape patrols, bloodhounds, an alert citizenry, and unforgiving geographic obstacles to make it to their desired locations: William Tecumseh Sherman's army in Georgia; Knoxville, Tennessee; or Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Many fugitives found that they needed local knowledge to have any chance at success. For example, "Slaves who aided Federals provided them with advice and tools to avoid bloodhounds. They rubbed pepper, green onion tops, and turpentine on the Yankees' shoes and legs" (p. 36). For the fugitive Yankees, learning to trust slaves was a new experience and contradicted their previously held assumptions about the inferiority of African Americans. These same changes in attitude came when escapees dealt with wealthy white women and "mountain women" who never seemed to act as the Yankees expected but were equally instrumental in their success (p. 87).
Foote relies on a database she created using National Archives records of 3,010 prisoners who successfully escaped and reached Union lines. In addition to the interviews and records contained in those sources, she draws on a large number of memoirs and articles written by Union prisoners. This collection of sources allows Foote to provide detailed and engaging portrayals of some prisoners' escapes. Yankee Plague is both a series of adventure stories, most of which have happy endings, and an analytical look at the collapse of the Confederacy.
Foote's work is a significant achievement in that it introduces a new dimension to discussions of the Civil War. While Union prisoners have been well studied, those who successfully fled and what happened to them once they finally made it to safety have largely escaped our notice. But what makes Yankee Plague even more valuable is the prominent role it gives to those who are usually supporting players. To most Yankees, slaves were faceless members of a four-million-person mass until soldiers in desperate situations encountered slaves who could play vital roles in helping the prisoners escape. The same was true for southern white women, who often had particularly bad reputations among Union soldiers. Escaping Yankees found unexpected sympathy and help from white southerners who had already lost hope in a cause that was truly lost. [End Page 179] Foote provides a valuable service by revealing the roles that previously unrecognized actors played in the chaos that marked the Confederacy's final days.