Sunday, July 5, 2009

Gillispie: "Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners"

[Andersonvilles Of The North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners by James M. Gillispie (University of North Texas Press, 2008) Hardcover, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 296 Pages. ISBN:9781574412550 $24.95]

Controversies over Civil War prisons still generate much heat. Sadly, all too many arguments are of the 'our prisons may have been bad, but yours were worse [or deliberately worse]' quality, as if some great moral superiority is gained from running least terrible facilities. Fortunately for open minded readers, in recent years a number of well researched POW camp studies have emerged to help interested students sort through competing claims. James M. Gillispie's Andersonvilles Of The North is just such a work. It is a dual-focused one, studying both the historical memory (an often inaccurate picture, flavored by post-war animosity and defensiveness about their own prisons) and the realities as gleaned from a variety of primary source materials written during the war. The author also makes good use of the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.

Gillispie's well researched study begins with a survey of each "side" of the debate, before delving into general POW policies of the U.S. government. From there, the book moves on to survey the more specific practices of major facilities located across the North [Alton, Camp Chase, Camp Douglas, Camp Morton, Elmira, Ft. Delaware, Johnston's Island, Rock Island, and Pt. Lookout].

A pair of appendices were included. The first, a comparative examination of nine major Union prison hospitals with the large Confederate facility at Chimborazo, found comparable patient recovery rates (except for Elmira). The other appendix sifts through leading factors (the top three for each camp) that resulted in Confederate POW deaths, as well as disease mortality rates.

The author concludes that there is little evidence of deliberate mistreatment (at least on a mass scale), with most deaths the result of inexperience at prison administration, prisoner crowding [with its concomitant poor sanitation and disease], and an increasingly poor physical condition among incoming Confederate prisoners. It is doubtful that Gillispie's brief, but thoughtful and very well articulated, study could be considered a last word on the subject, but this up-to-date corrective history represents an important contribution to the growing base of modern scholarly literature dealing with Civil War prisons. Highly recommended.

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Other CWBA reviews of Univ. of North Texas Press titles:
* The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas During the Civil War
* Texas Civil War Artifacts: A Photographic Guide to the Physical Culture of Texas Civil War Soldiers
* Spartan Band: Burnett’s 13th Texas Cavalry in the Civil War

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Brett Schulte at the TOCWOC blog reviewed this title earlier in the year (link).


  1. Drew,

    Not sure I'm ready yet to believe all of Gillespie's conclusions as you state them but maybe he can convince me. I'd suffice it to say prisons in both the north and south were bad places to end up. Was any reason for Elmira not being included in the comparison you mention? Just wondering. Anyway, I am looking forward to picking up this one and getting a chance to read it. It's always good to examine both sides.

  2. Robert,
    Elmira was included. By the word 'except' I mean its qualification as an outlier, not that it was excluded from his comparison.

  3. Thanks for clarifying Drew. Looking forward to reading this one.


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