Thursday, September 9, 2021

Review - "Hell Comes to Southern Maryland: The Story of Point Lookout Prison and Hammond General Hospital" by Gottfried & Gottfried

[Hell Comes to Southern Maryland: The Story of Point Lookout Prison and Hammond General Hospital by Bradley M. Gottfried & Linda I. Gottfried (Turning Point Pub, 2018). Paperback, photos, illustration, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:115/136. ISBN:978-0-0692128640. $13]

Its coastal breezes thought to have been healthful for the recovery of sick and wounded patients, Point Lookout, Maryland was confidently selected by US Army medical authorities for construction of a massive military hospital complex early in the Civil War. The first patients arrived in August 1862, and the facilities began to take Confederate wounded as well the following year. However, Point Lookout soon became more than just a hospital. After the exchange system broke down new POW camps were needed and construction of what would become the military prison at Point Lookout was ordered in summer 1863. Unfortunately, the location on a narrow spit of land where the Potomac River meets Chesapeake Bay proved to be less than ideal for housing military prisoners in tents and taking care of hospital patients in open-air structures. Summer and winter temperature extremes caused suffering for prisoner and patient alike, but particularly for the former group. It also didn't help that nearby wetlands were perfect breeding grounds for disease-vector mosquito populations.

The topic of Civil War POW camps and the multitude of issues surrounding the responsibility for the high death tolls and preventable suffering within both Union and Confederate facilities remain hotly debated today. Though major studies of Point Lookout already exist, Bradley and Linda Gottfried's concise Hell Comes to Southern Maryland: The Story of Point Lookout Prison and Hammond General Hospital is remarkable for its comprehensive range of topics addressed as well as its evenhanded tone and nature. Much of the general hospital material is concentrated in the first chapter, with most of the balance of the book focused on the POW camp. Even though the main narrative runs little over one hundred pages in length, its scope encompasses camp leadership; food, shelter, and medical treatment quality; prison discipline and punishments; prisoner living conditions; camp defenses and associated military actions; the effects of overcrowding and disease on prisoner health; differing conclusions regarding the prison death toll; camp remembrance and preservation; and more. As is the case with many works intended for a popular audience, attribution is not fully realized. While specific sources of their information are commonly disclosed in the main text, the authors did not footnote their material. Additionally, the volume's bibliography is more of a collection of recommended reading and not a complete list of sources consulted.

In their discussions of the many topics referred to above, the authors provide multiple firsthand perspectives from all sides of each issue (ex. from prison authorities, a US Sanitary Commission report, and the prisoners themselves). Of particular focus in the book, due to its detail, is the highly critical November 1863 report composed by Dr. William Swalm of the US Sanitary Commission, presumably an impartial critique of the conditions present at the camp that was nevertheless harshly repudiated by Union prison authorities. The authors perceptively raise an important point regarding the dangers of globally describing or condemning the living conditions at Point Lookout by simply pointing to the situation there at a single point in time. The truth was that practices and regulations were always in flux, and shortages, abuses, and policies noted at one time by observers were not necessarily present at another. Retaliatory measures in Union prisons created in response to reports of abuses in southern prisons as well as prisoner-friendly policies (ex. the ability to receive packages from family members) were always coming and going. Though logistical problems sometimes interfered with prison management at Point Lookout, the frugality of prison bureau administration officials (ex. in issuing condemned army tents to prisoners and severely limiting blanket and wood supplies even in winter) also had a profound effect on the supply side of prisoner food, clothing, fuel, and shelter provisions.

As the Gottfrieds frequently demonstrate in their book, conditions at Point Lookout often pointed toward problems endemic to the prison camp system as a whole. A general lack of consistency was a hallmark of prisons. For example, the authors clearly would agree with the conclusion of David Keller's recent Civil War prisons study that a major mismanagement factor common to nearly all POW camps was constant turnover in leadership and guard units. Camp commandants and guard regiments were barely acclimated to their required duties (and the prisoners themselves used to their expectations) at Point Lookout before they were transferred elsewhere and replacements brought it to begin anew the steep learning curve process of doing a difficult job no one was trained to perform. The result was a notable lack of continuity in the areas of prison management, camp improvements, and overall prisoner treatment and care.

Well cognizant of the degree to which the widespread death and suffering present in Civil War POW camps still evokes strong emotions in readers and writers alike, the authors succeed in their mission of creating an introductory history of Point Lookout that is also dispassionate in nature, though the value of their work could have been improved through proper and more thorough source citations. While the result is a measured evaluation of the genesis and nature of prisoner suffering as well as the degree of official responsibility for deficiencies and neglect involved in managing the overcrowded prison there, the higher conclusion that nearly every aspect of the prison system could have, and should have, been handled better is something to which everyone can agree.

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