- Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866ed. by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler
Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866is an edited primary source collection that combines the letters of engaged couple and ardent Confederates Mary Nelson (Mollie) Scollay and Captain George Washington (Wash) Nelson Jr. with Nelson's postwar memoir of his prisoner-of-war experience. Nelson and Scollay, cousins and descendants of Virginia's "first families," shared a bond as upper-class, Episcopalian slave owners, and this position certainly influenced their decision to marry (p. 3). Not long after their engagement, Union forces captured Nelson in New Market, Virginia, in October 1863. In many ways, Nelson's imprisonment defined their correspondence: he remained a prisoner (at Johnson's Island, Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, Fort Pulaski, and Morris Island) until June 1865, and his frequent transfers caused disruptions in their communication. But the couple also transcended these difficulties, as they encouraged each other's relationship to God, shared gossip about family and friends, and meditated on their growing love.
The letters and memoir set up an intriguing comparison. By bringing together courtship correspondence and a postwar prisoner-of-war account, editors Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler highlight the multitudinous ways that soldiers and their families experienced imprisonment. Imprisonment affected Scollay and Nelson as individuals, as a couple, and as members of a community, while Nelson's 1866 memoir exclusively highlights his prison experiences and his treatment by Union officials. Excised from his account is the support Nelson received from his fiancée, his family, and his community, a decision that Nelson's sister found disappointing when she recopied the memoir months after it was written. Both the letters and the memoir touch on themes that will be of interest to scholars and students alike, [End Page 708]including issues of Confederate nationalism, Protestant faith, honor and manhood, gender and military occupation, white supremacy and race, and the destruction wrought by war.
Unfortunately, Williams and Kutzler make some frustrating editorial decisions. Writer and recipient are not identified at the beginning of each letter, and annotations only identify important figures by census data rather than by their relationship to the writer. Moreover, the introduction neither adequately deals with issues of race, slave owning, and white supremacy nor explores Scollay's frequent references to Union occupation. Scollay's biography is also much slimmer than Nelson's, particularly when it comes to slave owning and education, and the editors provide a family tree only for Nelson. On the companion website (https://blogs.uoregon.edu/prisonpens/), the "Timeline" and "Places" sections focus largely on Nelson's experience as a prisoner, leaving the impression that Scollay was a supporting character rather than a central actor. Prison Pens, while a valuable edited collection, would be more useful if the introduction were more balanced and more ready to deal with larger themes.