Review of Foote, Yankee Plague

By C. Wood Newhall / May 25, 2017

Lorien Foote. Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Reviewed by C. Wood Newhall

Prisoners of war and the military prison system during the American Civil War have been subjected to repeated analysis and examination of limited sources. Since William Hesseltine wrote his seminal Civil War Prisons  in 1930, historians largely have followed his example and narrative. Nearly every historian who has approached the subject has focused on official policy and mortality rates in an attempt to determine who or what was to blame for the failure to adequately care for enemy combatants. Some historians focus on individual prisons, such as the infamous Andersonville and Elmira, while others examine individual POWs’ narratives about captivity. Such myopic treatment has marginalized Civil War prisons and POWs within Civil War historiography. With Yankee Plague, Lorien Foote breathes new life into this stunted historiography. Foote uses four Union POWs’ stories of escape and hardship to demonstrate that the Confederacy’s decline was a long process heralded by the collapse of the Confederate prison system. The escape of 2,800 Union POWs from prisons in the Carolinas exposed the Confederacy’s fragility and imminent collapse from within. Southern citizens found themselves on their own and without military or state support as hundreds of Yankee POWs, with significant help from slaves, stole dwindling food and supplies. Foote thus determines that Union POWs aided in critical breakdowns throughout the Carolinas that paved the way for Sherman’s March to the Sea, returning POWs to a central place in the history of the Civil War.

Foote begins her narrative in 1864 to examine the final months of the Confederacy and its failing prison system. In doing so, she manages to avoid any in-depth discussion of how prison policies were developing, the creation of the prisoner exchange system, and the inherent weaknesses and problems of this system. This is a mercy. Nearly every work on Civil War prisons since 1930 has been bogged down by tortuous examinations of the confusing timeline surrounding prison policy, and historians have rarely come to any new conclusions. Foote instead takes a broader view of the prisons and POWs, and their place in the war’s events. By examining the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia as one region, she also provides an eagle-eye view of the destabilization of the Confederate states, while examining the ramifications of its long collapse on a local and personal level. She follows the escape of four Union POWs through their post-war memoirs: J. Madison Drake, Charles Porter  Mattocks,  John  V.  Hadley, and Willard Worcester Glazier. Their narratives allow the reader to see slaves aiding escapees with supplies and as guides, therefore actively undermining their masters and slavery itself. Women took charge at home, upending gender norms to become self-reliant protectors and leaders    as POWs were forced to accept the role of helpless dependent. Young boys and old men, in many cases the sole male figures on the home front, were often incapable of defending their home territory. These encounters reveal the internal weaknesses of bureaucratic and military systems at the Confederate and state levels.

Foote contributes two major interventions to the prison system narrative by examining gender and slavery through POWs’ eyes. While scholars like Benjamin Cloyd have examined POWs’ masculinity and memory, women have rarely figured into the story. Furthermore, although slaves appear as guides and helpers in nearly every Civil War POW’s memoir, they have been discussed in depth by few scholars in the last 20 years. Foote’s examination of southern women consolidates scholarship by historians such as Thavolia Glymph and Stephanie McCurry and applies it to her analysis of the POWs’ narratives. Through these POWs’ own words, Foote reconstructs the struggles that women faced on the home front in controlling their slaves, keeping their families fed, and ensuring the safety of their households. Southern women, viewed as guardian angels exhibiting a “silent and unconscious heroism” by the POWs they aided, thus took on the role of protectors, showing strength and self-reliance that shocked many northern soldiers, who found themselves playing the typically feminine role of the protected and vulnerable if it meant shelter and a meal. Foote thus demonstrates that POWs’ experiences challenged them in unexpected ways, and she uses the reversal of roles to show the impact of interaction along gendered as well as racial lines.

Foote’s strongest chapter discusses slaves who aided Union POWs. These interactions with slaves were informed by the escapees’ prejudices and assumptions, which were developed from a distance and often through the language of sentimental literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To their dismay, Yankee POWs discovered their inability to distinguish white voices from black voices in the darkness because their familiarity with racialized dialect in literature did not reflect reality. Foote’s reading of their narratives is a masterful study of how face-to-face interactions slowly changed Union soldiers’ opinions of black people, while galvanizing their disgust with slavery and the Confederate cause.

These POWs were a very different kind of invading army, one that was unarmed, weak, and vulnerable, and Foote provides  an intimate look at the pathos of the Confederacy’s collapse through their eyes. The brevity of Yankee Plague does, at times, lend to a flattening of certain details surrounding the prison systems and POWs. Undoubtedly Foote recognizes the pitfalls of examining the prisoner exchange system and government policies in detail, and chooses to give brief overviews for  the sake of narrative flow and keeping the focus on ordinary men and women. Yet readers hoping to better understand the Clausewitzian logic of Ulysses S. Grant and Edwin Stanton’s decision to suspend the exchanges will find only brief mention of this choice. Like most historians of Civil War prisons, Foote sees Grant’s logic as driven by a cold calculus to leave hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides to suffer and die. However, when discussing the postwar anger, resentment, and bitterness of former POWs looking to cast blame on someone for their sufferings, Foote claims that Union POWs laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Confederate high command. This is not quite accurate: numerous Union POWs also took umbrage with the Lincoln administration, and Grant in particular, for the suspension of prisoner exchanges. They saw this choice as an unforgivable abandonment of loyal soldiers dying in agony for the sake of an ideological argument over recruiting black soldiers—a significant part of the story that is left unexamined. Given Foote’s main argument regarding POWs’ role in aiding the destabilization of the Carolinas, this is a missed opportunity to explicitly link Union strategy to POWs’ experiences on the ground and the relationships they forged with southern women and slaves.

All in all, Yankee Plague is an important addition to Civil War scholarship. Foote has contributed an entertaining, vivid portrait of POWs’ experiences, and has helped pave the way for future scholars to examine POWs and prisons from new and exciting perspectives. Scholars and casual readers alike will find Foote’s narrative enjoyable and illuminating.