- Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War by Angela M. Zombek
Angela M. Zombek shows the value of fresh periodization and framing in this book on Civil War military prisons. Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War puts Civil War military prisons in the context of early republic and antebellum histories of incarceration in the United States, an early starting point that enables Zombek to provide some surprisingly insightful analysis. Zombek also shifts the frame of antebellum and Civil War prison scholarship away from some of the most famous and well-studied cases (other than the prison at Andersonville, Georgia, which is included) to focus on Camp Chase Prison (Ohio), Johnson's Island Prison (Ohio), Old Capitol Prison (Washington, D.C.), Castle Thunder Prison (Virginia), and Salisbury Prison (North Carolina) as well as the penitentiaries that preceded them in those states. Zombek avoids the northeastern United States to shift her analysis away from the well-known narratives of the dominant Pennsylvania and Auburn, New York, prison systems.
Zombek uses these shifts to argue the somewhat startling premise that both Union and Confederate "wartime officials relied heavily on antebellum practices to manage thousands of captives. Antebellum assumptions about prison administration, the proper treatment of inmates, inmates' identity, and methods of punishment born in penitentiaries shaped the administration of both Union and Confederate military prisons" (p. x). Zombek finds that wartime prison officials relied on antebellum standards of humane treatment to pattern the punishments they fashioned for prisoners of war, wartime criminals, and civilians suspected of treasonous behavior. She stresses the commonality in goals—punishment—between antebellum penitentiaries and Civil War prisons, and she demonstrates well how continuities in penal theories and practices influenced everything from the Lieber Code to prison architecture.
In carefully themed chapters, Zombek demonstrates how antebellum ideas about prisons shaped the experiences and identities of both prison officials and inmates. Chapter 1 charts how military, state, and federal officials (and some prison reformers) debated penal theories in the antebellum period, and chapter 2 examines how those debates influenced the building of penitentiaries in Ohio, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Georgia before the war. In chapter 3 Zombek argues that both Union and Confederate officials assumed much power from the states in prison administration during the Civil War but continued to follow established antebellum patterns of administration and punishment. Chapter 4 employs creative use of prisoners' writings to argue that prisoners "manipulated [End Page 699] rules and shaped the internal dynamics of prisons," and in the process Zombek uncovers how military prisons shifted prisoners' own identities—often in ways comparable to prewar criminals (p. xix). Chapter 5 examines prisoners' correspondence and visitors to probe the prisons' wider social and political engagement. Even though outsiders were often concerned with prisoners' well-being, chapter 6 demonstrates that they retained a fear of escaped war prisoners, who were stigmatized as criminals.
Despite stressing continuity, Zombek does chart some important areas of change. She argues in chapter 7 that the growth of the population of imprisoned women, who "faced an even harsher stigma than men," was one of the most significant changes of the wartime penal system (p. 158). Zombek could have analyzed race more closely but handles gender well. Chapter 8 details state and federal debates about prison reform after military prison closure, and the conclusion examines the failure of those reforms after the war, even as federal power was enhanced by prison control.
Zombek's tightly written and argued account will be required reading for anyone interested in the penal system and should appeal to anyone open to seeing Civil War prisons in a new way.