Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Booknotes: Captured Freedom

New Arrival:

Captured Freedom: The Thrilling True Story of POWs Escaping the Grasp of the Rebels by Steve Procko (Author - There's History Around Every Bend, 2023).

Chance encounters often serve as the inspiration behind interesting history book projects. That is certainly the case with Steve Procko's second Civil War-related endeavor, which began life after a neighbor showed him an old studio photograph consisting of the man's ancestor, eight other Union officers, and three Southern Unionist guides. Curiosity about the identities of the rather 'worse for wear'-looking collection of men and their stories sparked what would become Procko's Captured Freedom: The Thrilling True Story of POWs Escaping the Grasp of the Rebels.

From the description: Captured Freedom "is the epic true story of nine Union prisoners-of-war who escaped from a Confederate Prison known as Camp Sorghum in Columbia, South Carolina in November 1864. They scrambled north on foot in rags that had once been uniforms of blue. Traveling in brutal winter conditions more than 300 miles with search parties and bloodhounds hot on their trail. On the difficult journey they relied on the help of enslaved men and women, as well as Southerners who sympathized with the North, before finally reaching Union lines on New Years Day 1865." As noted by the author at the beginning of the book, the men did not all escape together (and one actually came not from the POW camp but the county jail), but they did eventually meet together in western North Carolina for the final leg of the journey.

The text provides information about the men's military service, the circumstances of their captures, their POW experiences, day-by-day accounts of their escape flights, and their postwar lives. Near the end of the book can be found an extensive look at the "archeology of a photograph and its photographer," Prussian immigrant Theodore Schleier. In it, the author addresses past misidentifications of the photograph and its different versions, six of which are discussed at length.

As several recent books, among them Lorien Foote's Yankee Plague, have reminded us, Civil War prisoner escape narratives were popular reading and writing subjects during and after the war. However, this particular story may have become lost in the shuffle had the men not chosen to commemorate their trek with an evocative photograph. More from the description: "After arriving in Knoxville, Tennessee, and checking in with Union authorities, one of the men had a wonderful idea. The nine officers and their three mountain guides found a local photographer, hoping to commemorate what they had accomplished by posing together for a photograph. The instant, frozen in time, showed twelve ragged men with determination strong on their faces. It was a Civil War selfie."

The officers hailed from states east and west (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Iowa). As Procko relates in the book, their remarkable winter trek to freedom, an estimated 350 miles in all, took them from the South Carolina capital to Union-held East Tennessee. Along the way, the men successfully evaded dedicated search parties as well as enemy guerrillas and local home guards. POW escape lore is full of tall tales, but Procko, while framing the story in popular fashion, backs up his telling with extensive research in primary and secondary sources, among them government documents, "never-before-published original diaries," letters, memoirs, and newspaper articles.

For more information, visit the book's website

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