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BOOK REVIEW: Prison life endured by ‘captives in gray’
Question of the Day
CAPTIVES IN GRAY:
THE CIVIL WAR PRISONS
OF THE UNION
By Roger Pickenpaugh
University of Alabama Press
400 pages, $29.95
REVIEWED BY GORDON BERG
Not many writers on Civil War topics can garner a dust-jacket endorsement from a former president of the United States, but Jimmy Carter calls Roger Pickenpaugh's "Captives in Gray: The Civil War Prisons of the Union""a vivid description of conditions and events rarely described."
Even though eight volumes of the Official Records, War of the Rebellion are devoted to Civil War prisoners, it was not until 1930 that professor William Hesseltine wrote a serious scholarly monograph based primarily on those records. More than 60 years would then pass before investigators, using material gleaned from other sources, began to focus on conditions at individual prison camps in the North and the South.
Now Mr. Pickenpaugh, who previously wrote a detailed study of Camp Chase in Ohio, has gathered reminiscences from numerous letters, diaries and memoirs written by captured soldiers in an attempt to separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of partisan rancor surrounding this contentious subject.
He examines the Union's overall treatment of its prisoners and analyzes variations between conditions at specific camps as well as overall Federal prison policy. Mr. Pickenpaugh's aim is to determine what life was like in the admittedly overcrowded, undersupplied and often poorly administered camps. He also attempts to identify which conditions resulted from official government policy and which were the product of individual camp commanders reacting to local situations.
Rather than producing a camp-by-camp analysis, Mr. Pickenpaugh employs a thematic approach. After examining the Union's initial hesitant steps to address the possibility of having to confine significant numbers of captured Confederates, he describes the ad hoc measures employed to deal with the first wave of prisoners that arrived in the North after Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Donelson in February 1862.
"It is much less job to take them than to keep them," Grant wrote to his theater commander, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. "I fear they will prove an elephant."
Probably no government official did more to control that elephant than did Lt. Col. William Hoffman, commissary general of prisoners. With meager resources, he remodeled many recruiting and training camps into relatively secure facilities and supervised the acquisition and building of new camps to house thousands of detainees.
The cartel established in 1862-63 between Federal and Confederate governments to parole and exchange prisoners meant, for many Rebels, a shortened stay in the North. But when that system broke down over the Confederate treatment of captured black soldiers and their white officers, existing facilities became overcrowded, and new ones, such as Point Lookout in Maryland and Hart's Island in Long Island Sound, had to be built.
Mr. Pickenpaugh's engaging narrative style acquaints the reader with the many activities prisoners used to while away the long hours of captivity, the daily routines of their often inadequately trained guards, the constant lethargy of the prison bureaucracy to provide barely sufficient food and medical treatment, and the often ingenious attempts to escape. He puts the mortality rate among the 214,865 Confederates confined in Union prisons at a little more than 12 percent.
Mr. Pickenpaugh is at work on a companion volume about Confederate prisons, and, taken together, these should enable scholars to fairly compare the treatment received by these unwilling guests of the two nations.
• Gordon Berg is past president of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia.
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