Monday, August 27, 2018

Booknotes: Confederate Prisoners at Fort Delaware

New Arrival:
Confederate Prisoners at Fort Delaware: The Legend of Mistreatment Reexamined
  by Joel D. Citron (McFarland, 2018).

It's a certainty that Civil War POW camps were not pleasant places to pass the time until release through either exchange or war's end, and ever since accusations have flown back and forth over whose prisons were worse in their treatment of those held there. Books often take extreme positions, either positing deliberate systemic abuse or dismissing alleged mistreatment as grounded in unreliable sources. In the preface to his new book Confederate Prisoners at Fort Delaware: The Legend of Mistreatment Reexamined, Joel Citron cites works from William Hesseltine and Charles Sanders as representative of the former and James Gillispie for the latter. Basing his own work on contemporary primary sources, the author aims to avoid propagating legends based on emotions rather than evidence or accounts written long after the war ended.

Citron, a chemist by training and long-time Fort Delaware volunteer interpreter by avocation, seeks the truth behind whether the camp was as bad as many believe it to have been. He adopts Fort Delaware as a case study because of his intimate familiarity with the place and its prominence as a major holding facility for Confederate POWs at the time of the breakdown of the exchange system. A significant resource in Citron's investigation is the twenty prisoner diaries that exist. In addition to examining official papers, the author claims also to have discovered many previously unused documents in the National Archives that materially contribute to his study.

The book's chapters are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Among the topics examined are topography & weather; prison structure, personnel & management; security; food rations; shelter & clothing; water supply & sanitation; medical care; and death rates. In support of the text's analyses and conclusions are a very large number of data charts and tables. In the end, Citron finds little evidence of "excess" suffering imposed upon the Confederate POWs held at Ft. Delaware, with no statistically significant change in death rates (in comparison to the previous twelve months) during the alleged retaliation period that followed Union authorities' discovery of conditions in southern camps like Andersonville. It looks like a very worthwhile book for those deeply interested in the study of Civil War prisons.

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