Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory

Article excerpt

Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory. By Benjamin G. Cloyd. Making the Modern South. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 251; $37.50, doth.)

As the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, historical remembrances of the war can be as important and interesting a story as the war itself. In Haunted by Atrocity, Benjamin Cloyd examines not only the ways Civil War prisons have been remembered and written about, but also how their memories have been used to serve the purposes of historians.

Cloyd, who is a history instructor at Hinds Community College, first looks at the controversies surrounding prisoners of war during the conflict and provides an explanation for why the conditions were so horrific and the death tolls so high. He shows that neither side was prepared for the large numbers of captives, a problem exasperated by the North's refusal to exchange prisoners. Here, Cloyd casts doubt upon the North's motives. He contends that the South's treatment of captured African American regiments had little to do with the refusal to exchange. While it is hard to argue against the author's position, especially in light of General Ulysses S. Grant's admission that exchange only aided the enemy, it is unfair to question Grant's reasons, which were to end the war and, hence, the killing. This, however, is not the purpose of Cloyd's work, and the reader who wants to know more about the history of Civil War prisons has many other options. Cloyd has instead written a unique history of the history and thus makes an extremely valuable addition to the rather limited literature on the subject.

Haunted by Atrocity shows how northerners and southerners differed in their views of Civil War prison history and how this issue stood in the way of national reconciliation. According to Cloyd, Confederate treatment of prisoners of war was used by the Republican Party to remind voters of the Democratic Party's role in the Civil War. By "waving the bloody shirt," Republicans were able to dominate elections for two decades after the war (p. 45).

Cloyd writes that as the years passed and sectional wounds healed, the North and the South came together to form a broader narrative of the Civil War that was agreeable to both sides. Prison camps remained a point of division, however. The South refused to accept the argument that they had been particularly brutal or cruel to their prisoners. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans insisted that the conditions in Confederate prisons were due to the Union's refusal to exchange prisoners along with shortages of provisions throughout the South.

The major obstacle to achieving a narrative that was acceptable above as well as below the Mason-Dixon line were the Union prisoners themselves. These men would not go along with any version that portrayed the North and the South as equally culpable of abuses in their wartime prisons. …