The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy

The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy

The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy

The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy


During the winter of 1864, more than 3,000 Federal prisoners of war escaped from Confederate prison camps into South Carolina and North Carolina, often with the aid of local slaves. Their flight created, in the words of contemporary observers, a "Yankee plague," heralding a grim end to the Confederate cause. In this fascinating look at Union soldiers' flight for freedom in the last months of the Civil War, Lorien Foote reveals new connections between the collapse of the Confederate prison system, the large-scale escape of Union soldiers, and the full unraveling of the Confederate States of America. By this point in the war, the Confederacy was reeling from prison overpopulation, a crumbling military, violence from internal enemies, and slavery's breakdown. The fugitive Federals moving across the countryside in mass numbers, Foote argues, accelerated the collapse as slaves and deserters decided the presence of these men presented an opportune moment for escalated resistance.

Blending rich analysis with an engaging narrative, Foote uses these ragged Union escapees as a lens with which to assess the dying Confederate States, providing a new window into the South's ultimate defeat.


The Yankees spread across the South Carolina and North Carolina countryside like a plague of biblical proportions, according to one observer. They dug sweet potatoes out of farmers’ fields, broke into barns, and burrowed into haylofts. Their bodies were infested with millions of lice and they carried these vermin to every place they stopped for the night. Every day one of the pestilential Yankees accosted an unsuspecting white or black southerner going about his or her daily business. In Caldwell County, North Carolina, the Reverend Isaac Oxford discovered a Yankee napping underneath his fodder. The Federal awoke and attacked Oxford, who finally subdued the man after a brutal fistfight. Oxford later captured three others that he encountered while squirrel hunting. In the same county, near Lenoir, the wife of the local doctor used her watchdog to subdue a Yankee trying to slip past the fence on her property. Slaves who lived near the road between Columbia and Spartanburg in South Carolina awoke to find a Yankee who had entered their cabins looming over their beds. He wanted food and a guide.

“They seem to be everywhere,” a local South Carolina newspaper lamented. “They actually cover the land like the locusts of Egypt.” The Yankees swarming the interior of the Carolinas were not armed soldiers marching with Major General William Tecumseh Sherman on his campaign. They were unarmed and ravenous escaped prisoners of war on a desperate quest to escape the Confederacy and return to Union lines. And there were more than 2,800 of them on the loose in the winter of 1864 and 1865.

Confederate Officials unwittingly unleashed the Yankee plague when they relocated prisoners of war from Georgia to South Carolina in September 1864 and placed them in open fields rather than enclosed stockades. Nine hundred Federal prisoners escaped: 400 enlisted men from Florence and 500 officers from Charleston, Columbia, and points in between. These Yankees spread out in one of three directions in their quest to find the safety of Union military lines. Some chose an arduous journey through the piedmont region of South Carolina, across the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, to reach Knoxville, Tennessee.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.