Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Booknotes: Thirteen Months in Dixie

New Arrival:
Thirteen Months in Dixie, or, the Adventures of a Federal Prisoner in Texas: Including the Red River Campaign, Imprisonment at Camp Ford, and Escape Overland to Liberated Shreveport, 1864-1865 by W.F. Oscar Federhen, edited by Jeaninne Surette Honstein & Steven A. Knowlton (Savas Beatie, 2022).

As Lorien Foote recently wrote about in her excellent 2016 study The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy, Union POW escape narratives were popular reading in the decades following the end of the war. Though unpublished until now, the story of Oscar Federhen is "a rollicking tale of adventure, captivity, hardship, and heroism" that would have fit the zeitgeist.

Oscar Federhen was a late-war replacement destined to never fight in a battle with his unit, the 13th Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery. Misfortune struck "when he shipped out to Louisiana in the spring of 1864 to participate in the Red River Campaign. Not long after his arrival at the front, a combination of ill-luck and bad timing led to his capture. Federhen was marched overland to Tyler, Texas, where he was held as a prisoner of war in Camp Ford, the largest POW camp west of the Mississippi River." After numerous captures and escapes, the apparently quite resourceful Federhen finally was able to join his battery in the final days of the war.

More from the description: "Federhen wrote his recollections in lively engaging style not long after the war (according to the preface, most likely around 1877), "but they sat unpublished until Jeaninne Surette Honstein and Steven Knowlton carefully transcribed and annotated his incredible manuscript. Numerous illustrations grace the pages, including two from Federhen’s own pen." Historian Knowlton provides footnotes that both offer context to Federhen's sometimes fanciful memoir and assess its veracity. The result of Honstein and Knowlton's work is Thirteen Months in Dixie, or, the Adventures of a Federal Prisoner in Texas: Including the Red River Campaign, Imprisonment at Camp Ford, and Escape Overland to Liberated Shreveport, 1864-1865.

Thirteen Months in Dixie "recounts Federhen’s always thrilling and occasionally horrifying ordeals as a starving prisoner. The captured artillerist tried his hand at escaping several times and faced sadistic guards and vicious hounds before finally succeeding. But his ordeal was just beginning. The young soldier faced a series of challenges as he made his way cross-country through northeast Texas to reach Union lines. Federhen had to dodge regular Confederates, brigands, and even Comanches in his effort to get home. He rode for a time with Rebel irregular cavalry (a Yankee of German descent usually finding himself on the other end of a Quantrill Raider's pistol barrel), "during which he witnessed robberies and even cold-blooded murder. When he was recaptured and thought to be a potential deserter, he escaped yet again and continued his bid for freedom."

This is the first volume of publisher Savas Beatie's new Battles & Leaders series. As noted on the series page, topics to be covered are pretty open-ended. Those coming up are more 'battles and leaders'-y, with the next two covering the first Battle of Jackson, MS and the Johnson-Gilmor cavalry raid. There's also a Tupelo volume that hasn't been formally announced yet.

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