The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy by Lorien Foote. University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1469630557. $34.95.
Lorien Foote’s newest work, The Yankee Plague, chronicles the escapes of Union prisoners in the Carolinas from September 1864 to the end of the war. Historians have previously examined how problems in the Confederacy contributed to the high mortality rate in Confederate prisons, and others have investigated the experiences of escaped prisoners. The Yankee Plague, however, ties together the individual experiences of these escapees with the larger events then underway—namely the advance of Sherman’s army, the breakdown of the Confederate prison system, and the demise of the Confederacy.
There were two bursts of breakouts. The first happened when the Confederates had to move prisoners from Georgia to South Carolina in response to Sherman’s March to the Sea. Having no place to accommodate this influx of prisoners, the Confederates put them in open fields guarded by less than stalwart sentinels. The result was this: 400 enlisted men and 500 officers made a run for freedom, heading toward Knoxville, the South Carolina coast, or Augusta, where Sherman’s army was said to lurk. Later, in February of 1865, another round of escapes took place when the Confederates were again moving prisoners to escape Sherman’s army, this time from South Carolina to North Carolina. Some 1,900 Federals escaped during this period, and the Confederate prison authorities found themselves trapped between oncoming Union armies with no place to send their captives.
Foote follows closely the stories of four escaped soldiers and draws on the experiences of fifty other escapees, not only to tell their stories, but also to explain the process by which the Confederacy died. Foote finds that these on-the-run federals encountered all sorts of people in their efforts to make it to Union lines. Slaves, white Unionists, and disaffected Confederates all make their appearances, each contributing in their own way to the escape of these Union prisoners. Nearly always sick, malnourished, and lost, escapees relied on opponents of the Confederacy, black and white, male and female, to provide them with food and shelter, guide them away from local patrols and Confederate forces, and lead them to Union forces and freedom. Without their crucial assistance, it seems unlikely that the prisoners would have made it far at all (even with it, many were recaptured).
The escapees also ran into those who we might term Confederates, although as Foote points out, the Confederacy was crumbling around those who had formerly supported it. The prime evidence for this is the accounts of the escaped federal prisoners. Their experiences reveal that slavery was breaking down and that there were areas where Confederate authority did not extend, especially in the mountain regions. In addition, the local and Confederate governments could no longer enforce their wishes as repeated attempts to gather troops to stop Sherman’s advance were ignored or only half-heartedly answered. The feeble Confederate forces, cobbled together at the last minute and plagued by disorganization and confused chains of command, were no match for Sherman’s well-oiled machine of an army. Neither could the local and Confederate governments corral the escaped Yankees. Instead, it was left to motley collections of old men and beardless boys to form pickets and patrols to capture any cornered Yankees they might happen upon.
As home front and battle front became one and the same and as the government and military fell apart, Foote argues that there was a “general crisis” in South and North Carolina, meaning that these various failures resulted in the dissolution of society in those areas. The most important contribution Foote’s book makes is providing an in-depth view of this collapse of the Confederacy in the Carolinas. Contrary to what many historians believe, Foote argues that it was not Sherman’s army that brought the Confederacy to an end in the Carolinas. Rather, she insists, the critical breakdown preceded his army’s arrival, as indicated by the experiences of the escaped Union prisoners. While Sherman’s men certainly capped the process, she contends that government ceased to function weeks before his soldiers ever entered the Carolinas.
The Yankee Plague makes for an important addition to the literature on Civil War prisoners and the collapse of the Confederacy. It integrates the individual stories of escaped prisoners with larger events, namely the failure of the Confederate prison system and the fall of the Confederacy. The book also reveals the scale of the prisoner escapes, studies a region of the Confederacy that has received less attention, probes what happened to individuals when the Confederate and local governments fell apart, and connects the stories of several states during the war that are generally studied in isolation from one another. Foote’s book also provides a different point of view, relying on escaped Union prisoners rather than soldiers from the conquering Union army. In short, Foote’s book will be of interest to anyone who is interested in the experience of escaped prisoners; the disintegration of slavery; the subversive activities of Southern Unionists, slaves, and Confederate deserters; the collapse of the Confederate army and prison system; and the downfall of the Confederacy.
Adam H. Petty is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Alabama.