The Yankee Plague: Lorien Foote Discusses Escaped Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

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Image courtesy of Texas A&M University.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Lorien Foote.  Dr. Foote is a Professor of History at Texas A&M University, where she teaches classes in the Civil War and Reconstruction, war and society, and 19th-century American reform movements.  She is the author of The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (NYU Press, 2010), which received honorable mention as finalist for the 2011 Lincoln Prize.  She is also the author of Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-Century Reform (Ohio University Press, 2003).  Dr. Foote is the creator and principal investigator of a project with the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia that is currently mapping the movement of 3000 Federal prisoners of war who escaped from the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Her most recent book, The Yankee Plague: Escaped Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy is forthcoming this October from UNC Press.

CWI:  Which instances of Union prisoner-of-war escapes will you be discussing in your talk?  Who was involved in these escape efforts, and what roles did they play?  What impact did these escapes have on southerners and the Confederate war effort?  What does a study of these escapes tell us about the soldier experience and/or the broader military, political, and cultural history of the war?

FOOTE: My talk will describe the mass escape of 2800 POWs from Confederate prisons in South Carolina between September 1864 and February 1865.  When Confederate officials tried to move prisoners to keep them out of the path of Sherman’s army, bureaucratic problems and chaos created conditions that allowed hundreds of prisoners to escape from trains and from the open fields where they were being held.  Once prisoners escaped, they sought the safety of Union lines on the South Carolina coast or in Knoxville, TN.  Some tried to find Sherman’s army.  These fugitives were aided by slaves and deserters, who provided them with food, guides, information, and shelter.  Slaves created organizations and military companies to help the escaped Yankees which accelerated the collapse of slavery in the state.  Confederate deserters often traveled to Knoxville with the escaped prisoners, and thousands of men traveled through the mountains in the winter. Loyal Confederates faced the threat of these vagrants on their own and refused to help defend their state against Sherman’s forces because they were trying to secure order in their farms and neighborhoods.  Before Sherman’s army invaded, South Carolina’s war effort had collapsed.

CWI:  What types of sources did you use for your research?  What kinds of trends, patterns or discrepancies did you find in comparing and interrogating these various types of sources?  How do those patterns or discrepancies inform our understanding of how the prisoner-of-war experience was represented by both the escapees themselves and by government officials, and why?

FOOTE:  I used a variety of sources for my research: diaries of escaped prisoners, interviews with escapees conducted by the Union provost marshal at Hilton Head after the men had arrived in Union lines, South Carolina adjutant general and state militia records, Confederate prison records, letters and diaries of South Carolinians, and lists of escaped prisoners compiled by federal bureaucrats in Washington.  All of these sources provided testimony to the number of prisoners who escaped, the importance of slaves in aiding fugitives, and the chaos within the South Carolina state and Confederate governments at this time.  Most of the records I consulted were telegrams, dispatches, and interviews produced in the midst of emergencies, so these sources reveals people’s gut and initial reactions to the circumstances they faced.

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Union POWs inside Castle Pinckney, Charleston, SC. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

CWI:  What were the fates of the escapees whom you have studied, as well as the fate of these POW camps in the wake of the war? How have these escapes been remembered (or misremembered) in the years immediately following the war and in American historical memory as a whole?

FOOTE: Most of the escapees successfully reached Union lines.  Because they escaped from open fields rather than established stockades, the exact location of their “prisons” has been lost to history.  Charles Porter Mattock fought in the Appomattox Campaign, went to law school, and had a long and successful life after the war.  J. Madison Drake was ill for months because he traveled from Columbia to Knoxville barefoot.  He kept a diary of his escape and re-worked it in the 1880’s into a narrative that reached a wide audience.  He emphasized the romantic and heroic nature of his exploits.  Escaped prisoners who wrote narratives or who participated in reunions after the war had a clear message that never varied:  Confederates savagely mistreated POWs; African Americans were true friends of the Union who deserved to be protected in their freedom; the true heroes of the war were the Unionist women of the South who helped escaped prisoners at risk of their lives.

CWI:  Please tell us more about your work on the digital mapping project of Union POW escapes.  How might this project inform not only further academic scholarship on Civil War prisoners-of-war, but also the interpretation of the experiences of prisoners of war, POW camps, POW escapes, and their broader significance at public history sites and across “lost” historical landscapes of the Civil War?

FOOTE:  I created a database with information on 3000 escaped prisoners that includes their name, regiment, where captured, where escaped, and where arrived in Union lines.  I hope to use this data to create an animated map of the escapes that shows movement.  By exploring the routes used, it will shed insight into locations of resistance to the Confederate government.  Mapping movement of POWs from points of capture to the various prisons where they were held to points of escape will visually demonstrate that being a prisoner during the Civil War did not mean being static.  Prisoners moved locations multiple times during their prison experience.  It is essential to know more about how prisoners were moved on battlefield and how this affected campaigns; how their movement behind the lines affected logistics; and how their movement across space affected local communities who encountered POWs.  My goal in the book was to integrate the story of POWs into the larger narrative of the war, in my case the collapse of the Confederacy.  Studies have focused on prisons and how prisoners were treated; but prisoner policy was integral to the conduct of the war as a whole and we need more work that connects them.

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Escaped Union officers from the Florence Stockade prison, Florence, SC, 1864. Image courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society.

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