Prison Camps In The Civil War, by Douglas J. Savage
It would be easy to fault a short book like this one for not being as detailed as one would wish, but as a book that seeks to convey the brutal, even savage, conditions of Civil War prisons to a young audience, this book deserves considerable praise. This book operates from the author’s contention that the conditions in prison camps both North and South during the Civil War can only be compared to the brutality of concentration camps of World War II and similar prison systems, and that seems a reasonable if harsh position to take. Although this book could certainly have been much more detailed, even on its own it is not for the squeamish or for those who want to think highly of the behavior of either the Union or the Confederacy with regards to the ways that prisoners were cared for. Although I do not know how many young people will read a book like this one, those who do will likely be guided and helped along to a more lengthy and unpleasant study of prisons and the role of prison camps as well as the deadly toll of such camps and the reality that the North took far more prisoners than the South, for whatever reason.
This short book of barely more than 50 pages is divided into a few chapters that are thematically constructed. The author begins with maps and a chronology of the war and discusses how the prison camps of both North and South were the result of political issues (1). While the author emphasizes the racial politics of the Confederacy’s refusal to exchange black prisoners of war, but does not emphasize the dishonorable refusal to obey parole terms that also led Grant to increasingly oppose exchanges. After that the author provides a chapter each for the prisoners of the Yankees (2) and Confederates (3), examining the various sites where prison camps were located, the amount of prisoners that were their, their conditions, and the statistics involving deaths and sickness, all of which were pretty horrific. The author then closes the book with a discussion of death by rope and fire (4) that were associated with the prison camps and their aftermath, while also providing a glossary, suggestions of books and websites for further reading, and an index. Although the book is modest sized it manages to accomplish its author’s purposes.
I must admit that I was rather surprised to find that this particular book was aimed at young reader, perhaps Middle School or High School students of American history who wanted to better understand the conditions of Civil War prisons. The author does not demonize either side of the Civil War when it comes to the problem, but points out that the struggle over freedom and dignity that was involved in the Civil War led to consequences that would involve a great deal of human suffering. Given that the South had such rudimentary logistical capabilities anyway, it is little surprise that prisoners starved in an area where even civilians had to struggle with food shortages and where even soldiers faced great hunger. A would-be nation that cannot feed its soldiers or its civilians is not going to feed its prisoners of war. Likewise, the fact that Southern prisoners in the North suffered from the cold is not too surprising either given the low priority that prisoners had when it came to heating. Given the harsh conditions of warfare for everyone, it is no surprise that prisoners suffered even harsher than that of others who suffered enough even as soldiers. Overall, the prison camps of the Civil War are not something either side could be proud of.