Friday, October 29, 2021

Booknotes: Escape!

New Arrival:
Escape!: The Story of the Confederacy's Infamous Libby Prison and the Civil War's Largest Jail Break by Robert P. Watson (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Established in early 1862 in a repurposed tobacco factory complex, Richmond's Libby Prison mostly held captured Union officers. Though it earned an enduring reputation as one of the Civil War's most notorious POW facilities, it is chiefly remembered today for the 'great escape' that occurred there in February 1864. After secretly excavating an escape tunnel over several weeks, 109 prisoners made a bold bid for freedom on the night of February 9. With help, a total of 59 reached Union lines, and their tale of overcrowding and privation helped prompt a large cavalry raid (the failed Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid) of which rescuing Union prisoners held in the city was a chief goal.

The story has been told before (as recently as this year), but Robert Watson's Escape!: The Story of the Confederacy's Infamous Libby Prison and the Civil War's Largest Jail Break stakes a claim for being regarded as "the definitive account of the Confederacy’s infamous Libby Prison, site of the Civil War’s largest prison break. Libby Prison housed Union officers, high-profile foes of the Confederacy, and political prisoners. Watson captures the wretched conditions, cruel guards, and the story of the daring prison break, called “the most remarkable in American history.”"

There's not enough of a publisher description or information contained in the book's own prologue to get a sense of how much this detailed historical account differs from those that came before it. The bibliography is more extensive than the other Libby prison break study released this year (Douglas Miller's The Greatest Escape), and its history of events is also presented in a much more conventional narrative format. Given their differences, the two seem more complementary than competing.

Watson's author website also has some more descriptive text: "This is the story of one of the worst and deadliest prisons in American history, one where senior Union officers suffered and died in alarming numbers. Located in the heart of the Confederacy’s capital—Richmond—the infamous prison was used for propaganda purposes by southern leaders and took on symbolic significance far beyond that of just a prison. However, it was also the site of a bold and daring prison break by a group of high-ranking Union officers, an event that captivated the nation, outraged the South, and sparked one of the largest manhunts in American history."

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