Thursday, July 8, 2021

Booknotes: Military Prisons of the Civil War

New Arrival:
Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study by David L. Keller (Westholme, 2021).

That the American Civil War military prisoner population was the largest in history up to its time is not something that I had previously considered. It might be true, though one can imagine that the Napoleonic Wars, the many participants of which also detained surrendered combatants in large numbers for extended periods of time, could have exceeded even the ACW's massive figure as that earlier continental conflict was fought over a much longer period of time and witnessed a great many mass capitulations. Anyway, getting back to the matter at hand, that is the claim made in David Keller's new book Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study, which offers "a fresh analysis of the first large-scale imprisonment of soldiers in wartime and its failures."

From the description: "Over the course of the American Civil War, more than four hundred thousand prisoners were taken by the North and South combined—the largest number in any conflict up to that time, and nearly fifty-eight thousand of these men died while incarcerated or soon after being released. Neither side expected to take so many prisoners in the wake of battles and neither had any experience on how to deal with such large numbers." Of course, dealing with such a burden had a learning curve that already overtaxed Union and Confederate governments and militaries had to very swiftly address, and accusations of abuse and incompetence abounded on both sides. "Prison camps were quickly established, and as the war progressed, reports of sickness, starvation, mistreatment by guards, and other horrors circulated in the press. After the war, recriminations were leveled on both sides, and much of the immediate ill-will between the North and South dealt with prisoners and their treatment."

Using "official records, newspaper reports, first-person accounts from prisoners, and other primary source material," Keller seeks to "understand why imprisonment during the Civil War failed on both sides. His research identifies five factors shared among both Union and Confederate prisons that led to so many deaths, including the lack of a strategic plan on either side for handling prisoners, inadequate plans for holding prisoners for long periods of time, and poor selection and training of camp command and guards."

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