Book Review Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered by Michael P. Gray (2018)

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Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered by Michael P. Gray (Editor) published by Kent State University Press (2018) 256 pages. $45.00 Hardcover, $29.05 Kindle
This is a brand-new collection of essays by scholar on the sometimes-neglected subject of Civil War prisons. Among my regular readers a few may ask "Hey Pat, didn't you just review this book?" Good question, shows you have been following my reviews! The answer is no, with an explanation.

This book has the subtitle "Civil War Prisons Reconsidered." This book is a reconsideration of the subject of the book I reviewed last week, Civil War Prisons, edited by the pioneering historian William Hesseltine. The 1960 book was a collection of mini-histories of the prison camps. This new book uses entirely different approaches to the study of the camps and the men who were held in them. Since the essays are written by different authors using different approaches, the effect for the reader is exciting, bringing a sense that there is something new to learn about the camps which closed more than 153 years ago.

Note: Because of its length, this review will appear in installments.
 

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Part 2:

Michael Gray, who edited this new book, opens the volume with a historiography of Civil War prisons. Before 1930, while there was a post-war stream of memoirs on the Civil War prisons, there really was a lack of scholarship on the subject. That changed with the publication that year of William Hesseltine's Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology. Gray writes that the book, published in 1930, is "a trailblazing analysis that has had a lasting impact for scholars. The book is a balanced argument, based on impartial sources, that maintains neither the North nor the South purposely maltreated its captives; rather, each side was unprepared for them, while imprisoned soldiers were further doomed by the reliance on an irreconcilable exchange system. Moreover, a “war psychosis” developed on home fronts, spurred by propaganda, thereby increasing tensions and, consequently, retribution. Hesseltine’s book not only ushered the first scholarly treatment of prisons by a trained historian, but it also followed a quagmire of biased work from the Civil War generation, battling in blame. Shoddy research and writing continued well into the new century, made worse by fictionalized accounts. Civil War Prisons, on the other hand, was considered by many to be the first analysis to set the historical record straight on prisons..."

The publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Andersonville by Mackinlay Kantor pushed Hesseltine three decades later to step back into the public arena to argue for scholarship over polemnic in examining Civil War prisons. Hesseltine wrote that Kantor's novel was "uninfluenced by any critical scholarship…. It has excessive length, excessive exposition of the unimportant fornifications of uninteresting people, and an excessive cast of conventional characters. In all of this, the author is perpetuating the myth of Andersonville, capitalizing on the official propaganda and proceeding without benefit of scholarship.”

The novel stirred Hesseltine to battle and it increased his potential readership by expanding public awareness of the forgotten Union and Confederate prisons. It also prompted him to put together the essays that became "Civil War Prisons."
 

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Part 3:

In 1960 Hesseltine began work on the collection of essays that would become "Civil War Prisons." In 1962m the second year of the Centennial, the collection was published in the journal Civil War History. Gray writes that

The collaborative effort was unique, distinguished by contributors who were professional historians in academia and others from the public sector, prompting one evaluator to comment that it “marked the first time a group of historians had meaningfully considered the camps.”

As a book , it sold a remarkable 22,000 copies. It is currently in its seventh printing.

The 1962 essays established that while prison commandants were not set on murdering their wards, certain factors created an implicit bias in how prisoners were treated. For example, the social class and education of a detainee played a big role in his survival. Privates died at a significantly higher rate than officers.

The micro-histories that made up the book excited scholarship, but also pointed out the need for macro-histories to explore larger themes of imprisonment. The new volume has essays that do not confine themselves to one prison.
 
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Part 4:

In Battle Cry of Freedom, published in 1988, James McPherson observed that while amatuer authors had begun publishing on Civil War prisons, there was still far less scholarly interest in the subject than would have been expected given the large number of men incarcerated and the large number of deaths involved.

Nearly a decade later, Michael B. Chesson’s observed that “Prisoners of war continue to be neglected by military historians (having been removed from the battlefield) and by social historians (as being too closely related to military history), just as they were neglected, and sometimes seemingly forgotten, by their respective governments and captors.” Gary Gallagher noted that while the prisons were among the most controversial aspects of the war, they were among the least studied.

About 20 years ago, new scholarship began to appear regularly about Civil War prisons. Books and jouranl articles explored new themes and uncovered new sources. Previously neglected prisons like Camp Lawton became the subjects of serious study. Archeologists took up the exploration of prison camps in unprecedented numbers.
 
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Part 5:

The creation of macro-histories has been difficult. With at least 150 different prisons, camps, and jails used for holding prisoners of war, and with many of them lacking micro-histories, There are some doubts about whether generalizations can even be drawn even on discrete areas of study.

This new volume of essays aims to bring together some of the seemingly divergent strands of modern scholarship. There are essays here on the environment created by mass internment, the religious aspects of imprisonment, the expereinces of black guards and slaveowning prisoners, and the tourist industry that spand up around some Northern prisons.

In all honesty some of the essays are on topics that I would not have even thought of as fields of study. Yet, all of them are good, and a few are excellent.
 
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Part 6:

The first substantive essay is by Evan Kutzler and it focuses on the prisons, the prisoners, and the natural environment. I had not read much "environmental history" until last year. I have to admit that I was skeptical about environmental approaches to the Civil War. It sounded like a flavor of the month that was a refuge for those historians who were uncomfortable doing "military" and "social" history. In my reading of essays on "environmental history" I was convinced that my misgivings were wrong. The environmental history of an historical event or process can add to our understanding in ways that I would not have predicted.

Evan Kutzler begins his essay with an oft heard request of National Park staff at Andersonville. The staff like to say that while visitors should not disturb any relics, they are welcome to take some of the park's copious collection of gnats home with them. Summer vistors heading out of the reception center immediately encounter another aspect of Andersonville's particular environment; its heat. The fact that a tourist may be more aware of these two facts of visitation should make the importance of environment all too obvious.

Kutzler says that the obvious does not always make it into the history books. He writes:

Environmental approaches to the Civil War have only recently begun to attract attention. Part of this delay has been attributed to the seemingly obvious fact that much of the Civil War occurred outdoors.1 Nature was almost too pervasive a factor in the conflict to be isolated as a field of discrete study. For this reason, environmental considerations have long been a secondary factor for scholars who study the operational or social experiences of prisons. While present in many works, nature often appears as background to a more important human drama. In his 1968 history of Andersonville, Ovid Futch, for example, describes Andersonville’s landscape as it appeared at the time, but largely ignores the Civil War–era environment.

Certainly at the time of the Civil War, the United States Sanitary Commission was very aware of the ways the environment fostered the health or sickliness of the prisoner population. They saw how death rates rose with unsanitary conditions and how stoves, while providing life-saving heat, also spread sooty smoke through camps that compromised men's respiratory systems.

The Sanitary Commission men were progressive and scientific. They did not want Confederates to die. They made significant efforts to provide better ventilation, drainage, and sanitary facilities. However, when these projects failed, they were likely to blame the Confederates themselves.

In the South, civilians worried that bad smells from urban jails for Unionists were harbingers of disease outbreaks. The concern that Unionists might be destroying the urban environment led to demands that the prisoners be moved further South to rural areas.

This essay was a great way to open the main part of the book. It pushed me to think of the prison experience in ways I had not done before.
 

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Part 7:

Michael Gray also writes about a subject which would have been unusual just a couple of decades ago; Dark Tourism. We know that civilians visited battlefields like Gettysburg as what we would now call tourists just weeks after the battle ended. They also visited prisons for entertainment and fun while the prisons were still occupied with the unfortunate captives from the enemy army.

While this tourism existed in both the North and South, it was turned into a commercial money-maker in the northern states.
 

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Part 8:

Dark tourism made windfall profits for some entrepreneurs. It allowed civilians to see the sensational scenes of humans kept inside of the most degraded zoos imaginable. It also allowed them to mock the captives and to fight bloodless battles against a tragically disadvantaged enemy.

One of the first prisons to experience commercialized dark tourism was Johnson's Island on Lake Erie. Tour boats carried crowds of sightseers close by the Lake Erie island from nearby Sandusky and far-away Buffalo. The same boats that brought captured Confederates to Johnson's Island on Monday carried tourists to view the island on Sunday!

Women on the pleasure boats could do their part for the war effort by lining the rails of the vessels and singing Unionist songs within the hearing of the Confederates. Some of the boats had almost as many tourists on them as there were Confederates in the camp.
 

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Part 9:

Camp Douglas in Chicago saw an observation tower built outside the prison camp by an enterprising English immigrant. Not only did people come by the drove to stand for an hour or more watching the Confederates suffer, enough stayed overnight to fuel a boarding house industry in the neighborhood.

When the Elmira camp opened in 1864, an observatory went up there as well. It was so successful that a second observatory was erected by a competitor. The railroad saw increased numbers of passengers heading to Elmira from New York City, Buffalo, Binghamton, and Rochester and the omnibus line from downtown Elmira to the prison on the westside was overcrowded when tourists were in town.

Locals sold intoxicants to the dark tourists and sex workers made the spree in Elmira into a party. It was a bonus if the dark tourists saw men collapse and die in front of the amused eyes of the well dressed men and women.
 

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Part 10:

Gray notes that allowing the Confederate prisoners to be viewed as objects of amusements may have violated the Lieber Code's codification of the laws of war. The code prohibits the intentional infliction of "disgrace" on captives.
 

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Part 11:

The next essay, Catholics in Captivity Priests, Prisoners, and the Living Faith in Civil War Military Prisons by Angela M. Zombek piqued my interest because it dealt with a topic I often wondered about in my prior reading on prison camps. Authors often note the more frequent presence of Catholic priests in the camps, relative to numbers, than of Protestant clergy.

In part, this may have been due to the splits in many Protestant churches. The ministers who came to serve the spiritual needs of the prisoners held in the Confederacy came from the Confederacy. The soldiers they ministered to were Union soldiers. So, because of the ecliastical schisms over slavery, Southern Baptists were preaching to Northern Baptists. These two groups were enemies even before the war broke out.

Catholicism, as an international religion administered from Rome, never split in two in the United States. A Catholic priest in Charleston would consider Catholic Union soldiers held in the jail there to be his co-religionists. Since the Catholic Mass consisted mainly of the recitation of an ancient liturgy and reading a selection from the Bible that had been foreordained in Rome years earlier, there was little room for contemporary politics to be inserted into the Mass. So, while Southern Protestants attending services in Elmira often walked out when the preacher began talking about treason and abolition, Southern Catholics were unlikely to find any references to anything other than the "timeless truths of the Church."

This apparent apoliticism allowed soldiers North and South to find comfort and meaning during the cruel days of their imprisonment.
 

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Part 12:

At the time of the Civil War, there were three million Catholics living in the United States, roughly 10% of the population. While Catholics lived in every state, they were concentrated in the Northern states and Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Most of the Catholics who performed military service were in the Union forces, but thousands served in the Confederate army as well.

According to the essay:

The Catholic clergy responded to the Civil War’s crisis of imprisonment by exercising their vocation inside prisons to save souls and comfort the dying. Prisoners, including Protestants, received the Catholic clergy warmly, and these men and women helped mitigate religious tensions. Chaplains taken as prisoners of war were usually allowed to go free—but, paradoxically, Catholic priests in both the North and the South clamored to get into prisons to provide a spiritual bulwark against despair, dispense sacraments, and administer last rites to Catholic inmates who perished as victims of circumstance or suffered execution for malfeasance. Overall, an examination of Catholicism in military prisons illustrates that Catholicism functioned as a means to personal salvation, as a mechanism to galvanize loyalty, and as a polarizing force that either bridged or underscored religious differences.
 

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Part 13:

Catholicism required, in addition to belief in God and adherence to moral principles, participation, where possible, in a number of sacrements and rituals. Protestant guards and prisoners, who had often been raised with a mistrust of Catholics, were often impressed by the devotion of Catholic priests to the administration of the sacrements to Catholic prisoners. The jailed Catholic soldiers welcomed the comforts of religious observance and the reassurance that they were not forgotten by their church.

The good example that priests set led, according to Zombek, to the mitigation of religious differences between Protestant and Catholic prisoners. Protestants who would never have set foot in a Catholic church in their home towns, might drop in on a Catholic Mass to lessen the boredom of prison life. There they could see that the common anti-Catholic tropes of the day were largely false.
 

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Part 14:

Catholic clergy ministered to multinational congregations in the prisons. For example, Fr. Clavreul of Andersonville in just one month worked with 326 men from these countries: Ireland, Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Strasbourg, Bavaria, Belgium, Baden, Savoy, Prussia, Spain, Nova Scotia, and Holland, and the United States.

Although the priests did not engage in evangelization crusades, they did make converts. Fr. J. Murphy of Camp Douglas in Chicago reported baptizing approximately 250 men. Nuns also worked with the prisoners, setting a high standard for self-sacrifice regardless of the color of the prisoner's uniform.

The fact that many Catholic priests offered prayers for peace rather than for victory led some Northern Protestant officers to suspect the men in black of disloyalty. Although a sixth of the Union army was believed to be Catholic, old prejudices died hard for some.
 

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Part 15:

The next essay is “The Sternest Feature of War” Prisoners of War and the Practice of Retaliation by Lorien Foote. The author looks at the use of prisoners by both sides as pawns in relations between the Union and Confederate governments. While the abuse of prisoners as an act of revenge was prohibited under the laws of war, retaliation was practiced against prisoners when one side or the other perceived its opponent to have committed an illegal act.

The Lieber Code said that all “civilized nations acknowledge retaliation as the sternest feature of war. A reckless enemy often leaves to his opponent no other means of securing himself against the repetition of a barbarous outrage.” The code also outlawed acts of revenge. Hence commanders on both sides tended to cast their questionable actions as retaliation. Foote writes;

retaliation was the method available to a civilized combatant to respond to barbarous behavior or atrocities and to force his enemy to comply with standards of civilized warfare. It was the card played when one side wanted to negotiate what civilized warfare should look like in practice or wanted to proclaim before the world the savage nature of the enemy. Prisoners of war became critical tools that each side used to enforce acceptance of their military policies and to shape the conduct of military campaigns. Because Union and Confederate officials agreed that those who did not conform to the standards of civilized warfare were not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war if captured, struggles over policy and conduct between the two sides during active military operations inevitably spilled over into decisions about the status of captured prisoners.
 

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Part 16:

Foote uses the killing of some of Sherman's men as an example of the use of retaliation. During the March Through Georgia, 21 of Sherman's foragers were found with their throats cut. They had apparently been captured and then summarily executed. Sherman wrote to the Confederate general Wade Hampton warning that Sherman was prepared to take retaliatory action against the thousand Confederates that he held. Hampton disclaimed knowledge of the killings, but claimed disengenuously that the dead men were not foragers (lawful under the Lieber Code) but house burners.

Both sides indicated that they were prepared to take retaliatory action. Neither side did. Foote argues that the language of retaliation allowed both commanders to set forth strong objections to the acts of the enemy, while at the same time confining their acts to the range of options open to an officer observing the laws of war. Sherman told his subordinates to keep closer control over their foragers to avoid house burnings and Hampton disavowed further extralegal executions of prisoners. Yet both men were willing to contemplate the killing of innocent men to compel compliance with the laws of war by his opponent. Foote observes:

Both U.S. and Confederate authorities were willing to sacrifice the lives of prisoners of war in order to exorcise the horrifying specter that loomed over them. To modern eyes, executing innocent prisoners in retaliation might seem an atrocious example of the escalating violence of the conflict. But within the nineteenth-century military and cultural context, retaliation was the logical result of warfare between two combatants who claimed a place in civilization.
 

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Part 17:

Loathsome Diseases and Principles: Conceptualizing Race and Slavery in Civil War Prisons by Christopher Barr is the next essay. This is the first of two that look at the role of race in the prison camps. The issues presented by race were varied.

Early in the war many Southern whites brought a slave with them to the war. When the slaveholding Confederate was captured, so too might be the slave. Some Union commanders treated the slaves as the continued property of their owners, essentially keeping them in slavery within Union prison camps. Others freed the blacks. The diversity in their treatment confused blacks who might want to cooperate with the advancing Union forces, as you might imagine.

The Union dilema on the issue of black captives paled in comparison with the choices the Confederate leadership confronted after Emancipation. When men of the Black 54th Mass. were captured, the Confederates decided that they would not be treated under the laws of war, but as slaves participating in an insurrection. There were legal problems involved in this decision. Could a court in South Carolina try a black man who had never been a slave in the state for insurrection?
 

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Part 18:

The abuse of Black troops captured at Morris Island and Fort Wagner in 1863 and of USCT in subsequent months led to a breakdown in the prisoner exchange system that had earlier led to short-term imprisonment and a constant turnover of those held at prison camps. The exhange cartel had made no mention of race and the Lieber Code barred discrimination in the treatment of prisoners based on their race.

Lincoln issued a declaration protecting captured African Americans:

“The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave any one because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession.”

Unfortunately, when mistreatment of Blacks continued, the Federal response was spotty, with Lincoln unwilling to inflict the same conditions on white Southerners as Confederates imposed on captured Blacks. In fact, Grant offered the surrendering Confederates at Vicksburg release from captivity on parole while Confederates were promising to reenslave captured Blacks and to execute their white officers!

Months later, the Union finally tried to protect captured blacks by suspending most prisoner exchanges. The author uses letters from Confederate prisoners showing a willingness by some to stay in captivity rather than be exchanged for a Black man. Private Grant Taylor of the 40th Alabama wrote that “gone during the war for Lincoln says he will not exchange any more prisoners unless the Confederates will exchange negroes for white men which I am sure they will never do. If we are to depend on the slaves for our freedom it is gone anyway.” Other prisoners believed that the very idea of exchanging one USCT for one white Confederate was a violation of the "honor" of white men.
 

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Part 19:

Imprisoned Confederate Anthony Keiley claimed to have had a conversation with Gen. Benjamin Butler in which Butler tried to convince him that the Confederate refusal to exchange him for a Black Union soldier signified that the Confederacy values the Black man higher than the white. Keiley says that he responded that “My government … takes no such absurd position—she merely contends that the right of property in a slave is no more affected by his running away to your army, than by his flying to your States,—least of all by your kidnapping.”
 


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