Over the winter of 1864-65, several thousand Union prisoners of war took advantage of a rapidly failing Confederate military and home front security infrastructure and escaped into the Carolinas countryside. Their daring stories, who helped them, and how both groups bore witness to and even contributed to the collapse of enemy resistance lie at the heart of Lorien Foote's excellent new book The Yankee Plague.
In the beginning, Foote describes very well the Confederate administrative chaos that ensued once it became clear that their POW camps in Georgia and the Carolinas were no longer safe from Union forces and that thousands of enemy prisoners needed to be moved using already overtaxed transport capacity. Due to poor planning, scarce resources, command confusion, and sheer incompetence, prisoners were foisted en masse upon unsuspecting, and increasingly harried, military officials. With guard details badly understrength and frequently indifferent to their duties, the open fields and other unenclosed locations that often served as new temporary camps made prisoner escape relatively easy. Far more difficult was eluding recapture and reaching friendly lines. Even with organized internal security basically non-existent at this point in the war, local citizens were able to round up many, if not most, of the unarmed and weakened fugitives. Even so, the book raises the intriguing point that the mere presence of swarms of Union prisoners must have demoralized the southern home front even further. A government that could neither prevent mass escape of military prisoners nor protect civilians from their depredations was surely on its last legs.
Once the Yankee prisoners made their initial escape, they generally had one of three options: head back toward William T. Sherman's advancing army, strike out to the coast to meet up with the navy, or take the less well guarded but still dangerous and much longer journey west to Union lines in East Tennessee. Throughout much of its length, Foote's narrative follows individuals and small groups utilizing each of the three main routes to safety [these treks can also be easily traced by the reader using the book's fine set of maps], documenting their failures and triumphs. In addition to providing personalized stories for readers to identify with, these dramatic odyssey tales very effectively serve as representative case studies of the many themes explored in the book.
One of the study's most important themes revolves around the accelerated destruction of slavery in the Carolinas and how newly assertive blacks tasked themselves with the mutually beneficial job of providing vital assistance to escaped prisoners. Federal invasion combined with civil and military disintegration at both state and Confederate levels meant that slaves could feed, shelter, supply, and guide fugitive prisoners with much less fear from traditional internal security measures like local militia and slave patrols. Slaves were already intimately familiar with the local landscape, but they also increased their usefulness as guides by using their newfound freedom of movement to pinpoint the locations of the nearest Union and Confederate outposts. As Foote shows, some slaves even banded together to coordinate picket lines of their own to direct prisoner traffic and screen the escapees from harm. In these ways, slave help was frequently essential if prisoners were to successfully negotiate neighborhood dangers of all kinds and reach ultimate safety.
One of the more intriguing sources of aid to escaped federals were the white army deserters of the South Carolina upcountry. According to Foote, written sources on these men are very scarce, but evidence supports the conclusion that hundreds of escapees were sheltered by South Carolina deserter families, who in many cases also guided and escorted federal soldiers to Union lines in East Tennessee. Exploring their motivations is difficult given the few written sources available, but the fact that these families still aided Yankees who freely professed a desire to reenter the war meant their betrayal of the Confederate cause was without qualification (at least in some cases). Given the myth of near universal support of the Confederacy in South Carolina, this dissenting group is worthy of further study. Aid provided by white Unionist families, especially women in the absence of male heads of household, in western North Carolina is also explored at length in the book.
Foote's study also makes a significant contribution to the more recent scholarly discussions of Civil War borderlands. The picture she paints of the lawless common border zone shared by East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and the western reaches of the Carolinas is a freshly vivid one. Before they could reach the safety of Union lines, escaped federal army prisoners had to navigate an often frightening web of wary Unionists, Confederates, Cherokee Indians, outlaws, army deserters, guerrillas, and cavalry raiders. Trusted guides that could negotiate these dangers were invaluable friends.
The Confederacy's fading military situation, and how federal fugitives took advantage of and perhaps contributed to it, is another major theme. In late 1864 and early 1865, military events proved too rapid and too powerful for weakened Confederate authorities to handle. As mentioned earlier, localized administrative mismanagement made mass escape comparatively easy, but army chain of command confusion at all levels contributed heavily to the ability of escapees to reach friendly lines. In the book, this is best illustrated in a fine section describing Confederate district and department disarray in lower Appalachia during 1864-65. With Confederate military leaders uncertain of their own boundaries of responsibility and often operating at cross purposes with their colleagues in neighboring districts, hundreds of escaped POWs were able to take advantage of this lack of enemy coordination and reach friendly Union lines in East Tennessee. Free ranging federal raiders largely composed of Union men from Tennessee and North Carolina were also able to find and conduct fugitives to safety. Foote asserts that Union POWs directly hampered Confederate military operations by using up scarce rolling stock needed for the Confederate army's own transport needs, but it is also noted that Union advances (especially those army columns moving inland from the North Carolina coast) were similarly hindered by the supply needs of the mass influx of returning prisoners. How much the prisoner affect favored one side over the other during the end-stage campaign in the Carolinas is open to debate.
Foote also carries over her topic into the post-war years, documenting not only the celebrated status of many of the prisoners but also the physical and psychological challenges that lingered from their extended sufferings. The publication of escape narratives (several of them providing source material integral to this book) is discussed on multiple levels. In the context of literary analysis, remarkable parallels can be found between POW escape narratives and slave flight narratives, with real and metaphorical similarities cited both then and now. The escape narratives also greatly fueled the popular Won Cause mythology surrounding the deliberate and systematic abuse of prisoners by Confederate authorities.
At scarcely more than 150 pages of narrative, The Yankee Plague is a thin volume that nevertheless packs a very powerful scholarly punch. The author's far reaching research into diaries, letters, and memoirs, as well as census, tax, marriage, death, and military records, is impressive [this prodigious research effort also led to the compilation of a prisoner database of 2,826 individuals that should prove to be of lasting value], as is her analysis. Foote seems to operate on firmer ground when she presents Union prisoner-of-war escapees as symptoms and beneficiaries of impending Confederate collapse rather than significant contributors to the process, but that doesn't diminish the originality of her scholarship or detract from the many different and fascinating directions it takes. The Yankee Plague definitely merits award consideration and will likely earn a spot on many of this year's 'Best Of' lists.
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