The best books on Civil War P.O.W. camps

Derek D. Maxfield Author Of Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY
By Derek D. Maxfield

Who am I?

The Civil War has been a passion of mine since I was seven years old. This was inflamed by a professor I met at SUNY Cortland—Ellis Johnson, who first told me of the POW camp at Elmira, New York. Even though I grew up just thirty miles from Elmira I was astounded at this revelation. Later I learned that I had a third great-grandfather—William B. Reese—who served in the Veterans Reserve Corps after being wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg and was assigned to the garrison in Elmira, where he may have stood guard over the very prison his great grandson would write about.

I wrote...

Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY

By Derek D. Maxfield,

Book cover of Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY

What is my book about?

Long called the “Andersonville of the North,” the prisoner of war camp in Elmira, New York, is remembered as the most notorious of all Union-run POW camps. It existed for only a year—from the summer of 1864 to July 1865—but in that time it became darkly emblematic of man’s inhumanity to man. 

In Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous POW Camp of the Civil War, Derek Maxfield contextualizes the rise of prison camps during the Civil War, explores the failed exchange of prisoners, and tells the tale of the creation and evolution of the prison camp in Elmira. In the end, Maxfield suggests that it is time to move on from the blame game and see prisoner of war camps—North and South—as a great humanitarian failure.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered

Why did I love this book?

This intriguing collection of essays explores the dark reaches of Civil War prison scholarship from a variety of viewpoints and professions—including historians, anthropologists and public historians. The eclectic mix of topics includes environment, race, material culture, memory, and more. One of the more interesting aspects explored here is the phenomenon of prison camps which became tourist attractions—such as Johnson’s Island off Sandusky, Ohio—where steamboats would ply the waters around the island so guests might be able to spot an actual Rebel officer.

By Michael P. Gray (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Crossing the Deadlines as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The "deadlines" were boundaries prisoners had to stay within or risk being shot. Just as a prisoner would take the daring challenge in "crossing the deadline" to attempt escape, Crossing the Deadlines crosses those boundaries of old scholarship by taking on bold initiatives with new methodologies, filling a void in the current scholarship of Civil War prison historiography, which usually does not go beyond discussing policy, prison history and environmental and social themes. Due to its eclectic mix of contributors-from academic and public historians to anthropologists currently excavating at specific stockade sites-the collection appeals to a variety of scholarly and…

Book cover of Elmira: Death Camp of the North

Why did I love this book?

A native of Elmira, Horigan sought to uncover the grisly story of the Elmira prisoner of war camp and why it was so deadly to its inhabitants. Not only does he reveal the constellation of hardships faced by prisoners, but a story of retribution which he pins on the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the penny-pinching Commissary General of Prisoners William Hoffman. In the end, Horigan lays out a damning indictment, which he carefully enumerates in his conclusion, of the conduct of the War Department and Officers overseeing the Elmira camp who he blames for the great suffering and death along the banks of the Chemung River in 1864-1865.

By Michael Horigan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Elmira as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Civil War prison camp at Elmira, New York, had the highest death rate of any prison camp in the North: almost 25 percent. Comparatively, the overall death rate of all Northern prison camps was just over 11 percent; in the South, the death rate was just over 15 percent. Clearly, something went wrong in Elmira. The culmination of ten years of research, this book traces the story of what happened. Author Michael Horigan also places the prison in the context of the greater Elmira community by describing the town in 1864 and explaining its significance as a military depot…

Book cover of Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War

Why did I love this book?

This authoritative book is the first comprehensive study of all major Civil War prisonsNorth and South. Speer traces the development of the POW facilities the various types used throughout the war from barren ground affairs to the infamous barren stockadeslike Andersonville. We learn about the system of prisoner exchange created in the crisis and how it broke down, including how the taking of African-American prisoners ultimately spelled doom for the cartel. Speer traces the development of the POW facilities and the various types used throughout the war, from barren ground affairs to the infamous barren stockades—like Andersonville. This essential tool helps us categorize prisons by type, years they existed, capacity, escapes, and number of deaths.

By Lonnie R. Speer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Portals to Hell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The holding of prisoners of war has always been both a political and a military enterprise, yet the military prisons of the Civil War, which held more than four hundred thousand soldiers and caused the deaths of fifty-six thousand men, have been nearly forgotten. Now Lonnie R. Speer has brought to life the least-known men in the great struggle between the Union and the Confederacy, using their own words and observations as they endured a true "hell on earth." Drawing on scores of previously unpublished firsthand accounts, Portals to Hell presents the prisoners' experiences in great detail and from an…

Book cover of Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory

Why did I love this book?

One of the hottest fields of scholarship in the last generation is memory and how it shapes historiography. Cloyd’s contribution to the field is the first to focus exclusively on Civil War prisons. This thought-provoking book demonstrates how the passions of the post-war fight over treatment of prisoners have complicated the process of reconciliation. In the present, as the Lost Cause mythology has stubbornly held on, how we want to remember the war extends to the need for both side to cast blame on the other when it comes to prisoners of war.

By Benjamin G. Cloyd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Haunted by Atrocity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the Civil War, approximately 56,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in enemy military prison camps. Even in the midst of the war's shocking violence, the intensity of the prisoners' suffering and the brutal manner of their deaths provoked outrage, and both the Lincoln and Davis administrations manipulated the prison controversy to serve the exigencies of war. As both sides distributed propaganda designed to convince citizens of each section of the relative virtue of their own prison system, in contrast to the cruel inhumanity of the opponent, they etched hardened and divisive memories of the prison controversy into the American…

Book cover of The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison

Why did I love this book?

The definitive work on the Elmira POW Camp, Michael Gray’s book is a captivating account of life inside the pen on the Chemung River. Especially valuable is Gray’s account of Elmira’s management by the post commanders, commandants, Commissary General of Prisoners and its supervision by the War Department. It is a web of intrigue and even conspiracy. Another important aspect of this path-breaking book is the micro-economy that was created by the prisoners, who kept themselves busy by catching and selling rats, making jewelry, and other ornaments, and fostering a marketplace where tobacco was the primary medium of exchange.

By Michael P. Gray,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Business of Captivity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the many controversial issues to emerge from the Civil War was the treatment of prisoners of war. At two stockades, the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, and the Union prison at Elmira, New York, suffering was acute and mortality was high.

During its single year of existence, more money was expended on the Elmira prison than in any of the other Union Stockades. Even with this record spending, a more ignominious figure was attached to Elmira: of the more than 12,000 Confederates imprisoned there, nearly 3,000 die while in captivity - the highest rate among all the Northern…

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