- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

SO FAR FROM DIXIE: CONFEDERATES IN YANKEE PRISONS

By Philip Burnham

Taylor Trade Publishing. 320 pages. $25

During the four years of the American Civil War, more than 674,000 soldiers were captured by enemy forces. Early in the war, most were released upon signing a parole, or promise not to return to active service until officially exchanged for one of the other side’s prisoners.

When the exchange system broke down later in the war, however, more than 400,000 men were confined in prisoner-of-war camps for periods ranging from a few days to more than a year. Because of a lack of preparation in the areas of holding facilities, medical care and logistics, both sides quickly found themselves overwhelmed and unable to provide adequate care for captured enemy soldiers.

As a result, more than 56,000 prisoners died, and many more were in extremely poor health when released.

The treatment of prisoners by both Union and Confederate authorities became the subject of controversy and bitter recrimination that culminated in the execution of Maj. Henry Wirz, commander of the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia, for his reported deliberate mistreatment of Union enlisted men.

The story of Andersonville has been told well in dozens of memoirs written by its survivors, in newspaper accounts of the time and in books and oft-told legends; yet Andersonville was only one of more than 150 military prisons established throughout the country by both Union and Confederate military authorities. Much less has been recorded about the camps established in the North, where Confederate prisoners often suffered a higher death rate than their Union counterparts endured in the South’s most infamous stockades.

In “So Far From Dixie,” Philip Burnham sets out to correct what he calls the country’s “collective amnesia” about the treatment of Confederate prisoners in Northern POW camps. “Captive Johnny Reb,” he says, “has been three times cursed in our memory: he was captured in battle, he fought on the losing side of the war, and he defended a slave regime regarded as morally repugnant.”

Almost immediately, however, he abandons the lofty goal set by his title to tell the story of “Confederates in Yankee Prisons” and instead limits his narrative almost exclusively to a consideration of “the battle for survival inElmira, the infamous Yankee prison in upstate New York.”

As an introduction to the experience of a few individuals imprisoned first at Point Lookout, Md., and then Elmira, the book is adequate.

As a serious consideration of the collective experience of Confederate prisoners of war, it falls short, relying, as it does, on the anecdotal reminiscences of such men as Berry Benson, a South Carolinian much better known for his abilities as a storyteller than for historical accuracy, and Anthony Michael Keiley, a Petersburg, Va., politico whose experiences in captivity can hardly be said to have been typical of those of the run-of-the-mill Southern enlisted man.

Unfortunately, Mr. Burnham chose to ignore a wealth of material available in “The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” and in postwar investigations of both the theory and practice of prisoner exchange cartels. The result is a work of questionable objectivity that does more to excite neo-Confederate passions than to bring to light the tragedy of needless POW deaths on both sides of the battle lines. The book’s usefulness as a historic treatise is further weakened by the fact that its 30 pages of endnotes are referenced only to chapters and not to specific passages in the text.

In the final analysis, “So Far From Dixie” is a disappointment, a book filled with promises it fails to satisfy and with prose burdened by unnecessary homilies and platitudes. Much better and more scholarly treatments of this volatile subject are available for the serious student of the war.

Steve Meserve is a historian in Northern Virginia.


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