Monday, March 29, 2021

Booknotes: The Greatest Escape

New Arrival:
The Greatest Escape: A True American Civil War Adventure by Douglas Miller (Lyons Press, 2021).

As historian Lorien Foote documented in her excellent book The Yankee Plague, the collapse of the western theater's fighting front in late 1864 and early 1865 made previously secure POW camps located there suddenly vulnerable to Union liberation, and thousands of Union prisoners escaped into the countryside from temporary holding areas or during disorganized transfers. However, the largest and most famous single breakout event from an established operating Civil War prison facility remains the mass escape of Union officers from Libby Prison in February 1864. The latest book to address that topic is Douglas Miller's The Greatest Escape: A True American Civil War Adventure.

From the description: The Greatest Escape "tells the story of the largest prison breakout in U.S. history. It took place during the Civil War, when more than 1200 Yankee officers were jammed into Libby, a special prison considered escape-proof, in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia. A small group of men, obsessed with escape, mapped out an elaborate plan and one cold and clear night, 109 men dug their way to freedom. Freezing, starving, clad in rags, they had to still travel 40 miles to Yankee lines and safety. They were pursued by all the white people in the area, but every Black person they encountered was their friend. In every instance, slaves risked their lives to help these Yankees, and their journey was aided by a female-led Union spy network."

Of course, innumerable books and articles have added to the historical documentation of the Libby Prison escape. Indeed, there is another book-length account scheduled for publication later this summer, Robert Watson's Escape!: The Story of the Confederacy's Infamous Libby Prison and the Civil War's Largest Jail Break (Rowman & Littlefield, Aug '21). However, Miller's book does advance a claim to uniqueness. More from the description: "Since all the escapees were officers, they all could read and write well. Over 50 of them would publish riveting accounts of their adventures. This is the first book to weave together these contemporary accounts into a true-to-life narrative."

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