- The Intellectual Roots of the Lost Cause: Camaraderie and Confederate Memory in Civil War Prisons
On June 14, 1861, Isaac W. K. Handy, a forty-five-year-old Presbyterian minister living in Portsmouth, Virginia, preached a sermon marking the “National Fast, appointed by Pres. Jeff Davis.” After reading the twentieth chapter of the book of Judges, which narrates civil war among the ancient Israelites, Handy defended the righteousness of secession from a government that acted unlawfully. When Virginians began to raise local companies, he did not enlist to fight Yankees, though his eldest son, Frederick, did. Instead, he remained at home with his wife, Rebecca, and led his congregation. Publicly and privately he maintained, “the South is Right.” Meanwhile, he began to keep an archive of the war years and asked his son Moses, who was working for his uncle in Maryland, to use a particular paper for his letters: “I intend to preserve your letters, & can file them better when of a uniform character.” He also saved letters from his two adult daughters, one of whom counted money for the Confederate treasury in Richmond.1 In June 1863, about a year after the Union army occupied Portsmouth and the surrounding area, Handy managed to obtain permission to travel to Delaware to visit family in Port Penn. Not long after he arrived, a newspaper reported that Handy had publicly disparaged the American flag, an allegation he challenged for the rest of his life. He was arrested and sent to Fort [End Page 253] Delaware prison, located on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River.2
A federal fortress built in the 1850s, Fort Delaware began holding Confederate prisoners of war in July 1861. As months turned into years, the number of men imprisoned there grew from dozens to hundreds and, ultimately, thousands.3 In mid-1863, when Handy arrived at Fort Delaware, he encountered an assortment of men: young and old, enlisted men and officers, educated and barely literate, political prisoners and war captives, and northerners who fought for the Confederacy. They lived in crowded barracks, while “‘blue coated sentries’” walked along “‘the parapet or fence’” monitoring them. There were gentlemen, like Handy, but also “roughs,” who gambled, drank, and brawled. Some men kept to themselves; others became friends. As in camp, a sense of community pervaded the prison.4 Isaac Handy helped shape this community. He led worship services, preached, tended the sick, performed baptisms, counseled hopeless captives, and helped found a religious society, the Confederate States Christian Association (CSCA). He kept a record of prison life in a diary, which ultimately numbered twenty-eight manuscript volumes. “It was written to preserve the memory of events,” he later wrote, “chiefly for my own satisfaction, and the information of my children.” But his efforts to preserve memories did not stop with his diary. When he began to anticipate his release, he circulated an autograph album in which fellow prisoners not only signed their names but also wrote poetry, letters, and reminiscences. He also solicited personal recollections from friends, who returned pages of memories in response. A decade after his October 1864 release, Turnbull Brothers of Baltimore published his diary as United States Bonds; or, Duress by Federal [End Page 254] Authority. It is the most detailed published diary from a Confederate prisoner of war, yet it is scarcely cited in scholarship on Confederate prisoners and veterans or in southern intellectual history.5
Perhaps the diary has been overlooked because Isaac Handy never fired a shot or even stepped foot on a battlefield, or because his published diary competed with the memoirs of famous Confederate leaders. Yet his experiences, and those of many other Confederate prisoners at Fort Delaware and beyond, reveal two new dimensions of southern intellectual history during the Civil War. First, they illustrate the creative processes at work among a unique subset of white southerners during wartime. Faced with pervasive filth, noxious smells, nauseous food, and discomfiting surveillance, Confederate prisoners responded to captivity in both visceral and cerebral ways.6 Not all of them recorded their responses in twenty-eight separate volumes as Handy did, but they...