Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Best book I've read this year - The Yankee Plague.

It should not come as any surprise, but I read lots of books every year. They are for research, for reviews, even for fun. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Lorien Foote's The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy. This is the best book I have read in 2016.

The Yankee Plague focuses on the last few months of the war - from September 1864 until the end - and documents how escaped Federal prisoners of war, largely from South Carolina, changed the war in both of the Carolinas. No longer was there a home front. The escaped Union POWs, along with those who helped them and hunted them, collectively made the area a new front of a multi-faceted war. Thanks to a bevy of writers, some publishing  their accounts while events were still fresh in their minds, Foote examines men who managed to escape Confederate prisoner camps. Some made their way toward Georgia, trying to link up with elements of Sherman'a army. Others tried to make for the coast, while others still thought the best course was to walk toward the mountains, heading to Knoxville and Federal lines. Foote bounces between different accounts as the men moved in parties, seeking freedom. She also chronicles the people they ran into: slaves wanting to aid the prisoners' plight toward freedom and that third group of people - those who were using the war for their own unjust gains. Toward the end of the tome, she describes how the remaining prisoners from South Carolina held up not only the evacuation of Wilmington and the retreat of Robert F. Hoke's Confederates, but also delayed supplies in reaching Sherman's army as it entered the Tar Heel state.
Foote's narrative is compelling and her prose is clean and fresh. There are numerous primary sources, largely the prisoners' own accounts, coupled with statements from the rarely cited Record Groups 249 and 393 (National Archives).

To me the only draw back is the lack of a mention of Brig. Gen. John W. McElroy, in charge of home guard battalions in western North Carolina. It was his job to coordinate the home guard attempting to coral the prisoners, draft dodgers, and deserters. It might have also been nice to have a little more on the guides these POWs sought out to help them in their quest for freedom.

Overall, this is a fantastic read that greatly increases our understanding of the war in its final months, especially in western North Carolina. 

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