Monday, August 16, 2021

Review - "Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study" by David Keller

[Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study by David L. Keller (Westholme Publishing, 2021). Hardcover, map, photos, tables, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xix,116/183. ISBN:978-1-59416-357-9. $32]

Rather than contributing anew to the mostly unproductive debates regarding whose American Civil War POW camps were worse given the attitudes and priorities adopted and the relative resources available, David Keller's Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study instead frames itself around the larger truth that the camps of both sides were all too often terrible places to be confined within. A product of research in both primary and secondary sources that was sponsored by grants from the Andersonville National Site POW Research Program, Keller's lean study identifies and illuminates what the author's investigation has determined to have been the five most significant problems that both sides commonly addressed poorly.

Keller begins by explaining that confining large numbers of captured men for long periods of time was not a routine part of western warfare as adapted to the North American continent (with the exception of the infamous prison hulks of the American Revolution) until the Civil War, when hundreds of thousands of officers and men on both sides spent significant time in prisons. Dealing with that unprecedented situation made a certain amount of teething problems inevitable. The author also provides a good introductory summary of living conditions commonly present in the POW camps of the American Civil War. That section includes coverage of prison facilities and prisoner demographics along with brief discussions of essential issues related to shelter, clothing, food, medical care, sanitation, prisoner abuse, and more.

Getting back to the central theme of the book, upon close examination of dozens of Union and Confederate prison camps spread across the eastern and western theaters [Camp Ford, Texas is the only Trans-Mississippi facility examined. See Appendix II for the full list and data table] Keller has identified five major commonalities that led, to some degree or another, to needless suffering and mortality among confined persons. As first outlined in Chapter 2, these are (1) "Lack of a strategic plan for handling prisoners," (2) "Inadequate plans for long-term incarceration," (3) "Poor selection and training of camp command," (4) "Lack of training of guards," and finally (5) "Failure to provide soldiers with information on how to behave as a prisoner."

In addressing each of these points, Keller applies realistic expectations that do not hinge on the perfect hindsight available to today's critical observers. In discussing the lack of a truly comprehensive strategic plan for processing, transporting, and housing prisoners as well as similarly flawed planning when it came to holding and caring for those prisoners long term, the author points to the reasonable assumption made by Union and Confederate authorities that the parole and exchange system successfully implemented during the first half of the war would continue. Clearly the need to quickly mobilize mass national volunteer armies, of which no one had prior experience at that scale, drowned out other concerns, but there remains at least some room for criticizing the lack of contingency planning for POW camp development and expansion for 1862 onward. Because of that omission, the Union camp system was vastly underdeveloped when confronted all at once with mass incarceration upon suspension of the Dix-Hill Cartel, and the equally pressed Confederacy had the added burden of needing to constantly move facilities due to the approach of enemy armies. The author's suggestion that modern advances in transportation technology (i.e. railroads and steamships) and logistics should have made the leaders of both sides recognize earlier that parole would become an increasingly dispensable option for handling prisoners, and that those changes would make mass incarceration inevitable, is interesting to contemplate if perhaps a bit overcritical. The author does not dismiss the possibility of intentional neglect on either side, though his contention that if the South could feed its fighting men adequately it could also have fed its prisoners equally well seems an overly simplistic, and in some ways logically unconvincing, appraisal of a complex problem.

Similar expectations regarding prisoner exchange led to camp commanders having no training for the complicated task of leading and managing large POW facilities. Keller credits Union authorities for assigning higher-ranking officers as camp commandants but observes, as others have, that the priority of parsimony over prisoner care diminished many of the possible benefits of having a greater sphere of authority. With expediency being the primary selective factor on both sides and high turnover in the role, there was diminished chance of consistent enhancements in prisoner care even if training, however rudimentary, was applied. What is not discussed is how both sides should have selected camp commanders, what list of qualifications should have been viewed as essential, and where the desired training would have been best found or developed.

Just as camp commanders lacked training and preparation, camp guards (those with the most close and frequent contact with prisoners) generally lacked any kind of specialized direction. This deficiency was worsened by both sides commonly assigning guards that did not possess even the rudiments of military training, weapons handling instruction, and discipline to watch over prisoners. Casual brutality and other forms of inhumane treatment that ensued were never truly addressed by either side, although the author credits Union use of Veteran Reserve Corps soldiers and USCT units as camp guards as going some distance toward rectifying those issues (although employing the latter had obvious additional complications).

Finally, neither side ever codified or provided general guidelines about prisoner behavior once they were incarcerated. As explained at length in Kathryn Shively Meier's 2013 study Nature's Civil War, soldiers addressed the challenges of their environment in camp and in the field through a combination of army regulations and self care, but Keller points out that the US Army did not issue formal regulations for POWs to follow until the mid-twentieth century. In support of his findings that this lack of training led to avoidable suffering on a large scale, Keller refers us to the greatly reduced mortality present among the more internally regimented officer prisons of the Civil War, though that contrast could also be attributed to a number of other factors including better physical condition at initial incarceration and better overall treatment due to rank. Even so, it does seem more than likely that prisoner training, if for nothing else than in health and sanitation, might have significantly lessened overall mortality.

The final two chapters of the book contain the author's summaries of each Union and Confederate camp's performance in relation to the five factors that negatively impacted all Civil War prisons. The appendix section contains a number of relevant tables and documents. Perhaps of particular interest to readers is the one (Appendix VII) that weighs, for each camp, the relative impact (numerically scored from one, least important, to five, most important) of the five factors referenced throughout the book, and provides a ranked total. It will come as no surprise that Andersonville, Georgia and Elmira, New York—the two Civil War prisons with the most infamous reputations—lie at the top of the list.

Over recent decades, the scholarly and popular literature of Civil War prisons and prisoners has considerably enhanced our knowledge of the subject (as well as cut through much of the enduring mythology), and one clear conclusion is that the military bureaucracies that operated the facilities of both sides were deeply flawed in ways that could, and should, have been far better managed. Detailed explanation of how those shortcomings could have been realistically addressed is mostly beyond the scope of the book, but David Keller's Military Prisons of the Civil War certainly does identify and critically assess in a useful manner key failings common to the military prison systems of both belligerents.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you wish to comment, please sign your name. Otherwise, your submission may be rejected, at the moderator's discretion. Comments containing outside promotions and/or links will be deleted.