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.

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

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

–Pat Young, civilwartalk.com