- Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered ed. Michael P. Gray
Over the course of the past two decades, Michael Gray has established himself as a leading scholar of the Civil War prison experience. His first book, The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison (2001), broke new ground, and this current offering does the same. Often anthologies fail to live up to their potential because of the inability of their essays to bring cohesion to the topic or the failure of the essays to capitalize on the power of scholarly innovation. This book avoids both of these issues [End Page 127] and effectively brings the study of Civil War prisons into the twenty-first century.
Gray, a professor of history at East Stroudsburg University, has gathered an exceptional collection of scholars offering new and interesting treatments of the Civil War captivity experience. In his introduction, Gray does an excellent job of taking the reader through the historiography of Civil War prison and prisoner studies. His examination of the major figures and works is bolstered by his solid appreciation for the impact of our contemporary concerns on the writing of history. In this case, he uses the centennial celebration in 1961 as a touchstone in the development of a mature study of Civil War prisons and shows how that development has continued up to the present day. Scholars lamenting our field's loss of focus on historiography will be pleased with the quality and content of Gray's introduction.
Divided into three sections, the book does less studying the prisons and prisoners and more deconstructing the integral elements of captivity. Evan Kutzler's essay on the environmental aspects of captivity reminds readers that the common louse could wreak havoc on the morale of prisoners. Kutzler uses the louse to call for a greater focus on environmental concerns during the Civil War by reminding readers that "how prisoners gave meaning to the sounds of birds or the feeling of lice says much about both the experiences of captivity as well as the imaginations, presumptions, and standards they brought with them into war and captivity" (17–18). Gray's offering examines the tourism industry that popped up around prison camps and brought citizens to the stockades to view the captured enemy. He concludes that despite the Union army's proud adoption of Francis Lieber's code, it clearly looked the other way when it came to violating General Orders No. 100, section III, articles 56 and 75, which explicitly protect prisoners from "intentional suffering or disgrace" and any intentional "indignity" (43). Angela Zombek explores the importance of religion to the prisoners through her examination of the wartime activism of Catholic priests. Although these three essays do not hold together as well as essays in subsequent sections, they are excellent, innovative treatments.
The second section focuses on the suffering of prisoners and opens with Lorien Foote's discussion of retaliation against prisoners of war. From using prisoners as human shields to the Confederacy's permitting state courts to charge and prosecute Federal prisoners during wartime, the Confederacy walked a dangerous line in regard to the rules of warfare. Christopher Barr's essay examines race and slavery within the prison environment and finds the power that race had over captivity, with a healthy [End Page 128] dose of historical memory. Tellingly, Barr writes, "If the politics of slavery and emancipation could affect how white prisoners understood their captivity, it defined how black prisoners experienced it" (117). Kelly Mezurek treats the ironic phenomenon of Confederate prisoners being held by black Union guards. For the Union army, using African American prison guards permitted black participation, but in a more menial role than that of front-line soldier. It gave the army a place to assign black troops outside the limelight of combat operations and had the added psychological benefit of turning the racial tables on white southerners fighting for the cause of racial superiority.
Perhaps the most innovative section of the book is its...