Curran on Gray, 'Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered'

Michael P. Gray, ed.
Thomas F. Curran

Michael P. Gray, ed. Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2018. 256 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-341-7.

Reviewed by Thomas F. Curran (Cor Jesu Academy) Published on H-CivWar (April, 2019) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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In a 1997 essay, Reid Mitchell astutely observed that “prisons are now one of the least studied subjects relating to the Civil War.”[1] Since Mitchell made this comment, numerous studies on Civil War prisons have appeared. If Michael P. Gray’s recent volume of essays on the topic is any measure, there is still new and exciting research on the subject being produced. In Crossing the Deadlines, Gray has gathered essays from nine academic and public historians featuring fresh work on the topic and suggesting new directions for study. Several themes and issues reoccur in the volume, including the political meaning of taking prisoners during a civil war, the evolution of policy concerning taking and treating prisoners, race and the prison experience for captives and captors, and the remembrance of prisons and prisoners in the postwar years.

Gray begins the volume with an introduction that provides a valuable historiographical overview of the field. He starts by acknowledging the significance of the contributions of William Best Hesseltine to the study of prisons, specifically his seminal work Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology, published in 1930, and the 1962 special issue of Civil War History that he edited. He then traces the scholarship that has appeared, especially in the last three decades, before providing brief introductions to the essays included here. Indeed, the comprehensive nature of Gray’s introduction will prove invaluable to many future researchers.

Gray divides the book into three sections, each containing three essays. The first and most disparate section begins with Evan A. Kutzler’s offering of an environmental and “sensory” approach to the study of prisons. Kutzler argues that this analysis provides a clearer understanding of the nineteenth-century notions of environment, disease, and sanitation that shaped prison officials’ concerns and priorities, and how landscape, topography, and environmental improvements affected their efforts to engineer prison spaces. He then investigates how prisoners interacted with and gave meaning to nature in their often exposed condition, ranging from their listening to birds to their battles with lice. Next, Michael Gray explores the exploitative side of prisons as “dark tourist” sites and the commercialization of prisoners, a phenomenon that occurred primarily in the North. Curious civilians sought to get a glimpse of prisoners, and entrepreneurs proved quite willing to cater to them for a price. Methods included towers with observation platforms built to overlook prison stockade walls at Camp Douglas in Illinois and Elmira in New York, and steamboat excursions that passed within range of Johnson’s Island Prison on Lake Erie. The section’s third essay, by Angela M. Zombek, discusses the interaction between prisoners and Catholic priests in the camps. Priests, who often were not allowed by their bishops to enter the military as chaplains, proved quite eager to minister to Catholics in confinement when they could.

The next three essays focus more specifically on the experiences of prisoners. Lorien Foote surveys the use of prisoners in the military practice of retaliation. She clarifies that retaliation was not meant to be a method of revenge, but rather a way of defusing situations before they became too savage. In this way, prisoners of war served as pawns as each side sought to define the course and conduct of the war. Christopher Barr next looks at how race and the presence of African Americans among the armies, whether as soldiers as in the case of the Union army or servants as in the Confederate, complicated the practice of keeping prisoners of war. Barr revisits the impact of enlisting African Americans by the Union army on the Dix-Hill Cartel, and he uncovers that many white Southern prisoners supported the suspension of the prisoner exchange for fear that exchanging a white man for a black man would imply equality between the two. For Northern soldiers, imprisonment allowed them to interact with enslaved Southerners, providing the prisoners with a more concrete understanding of slavery and those in bondage. Northern prisoners and the slaves they encountered learned that they shared an enemy, which motivated them to resist together. Complementing Barr’s essay, Kelly D. Mezurek investigates the use of African American soldiers as prison guards by the Union army. Mezurek posits that African American soldiers were not used as guards because they were deemed incapable of other responsibilities. Rather, she states, “the ability to place black men in positions that demanded unquestionable authority over Southern prisoners of war provided the Union army with an advantage that the use of white guards could never achieve” (p. 126). White Southern prisoners responded with bitterness at the humiliation of being held captive by those they believed should be enslaved.

The last section covers material culture and memory. Archaeologist David R. Bush reports on the findings of a project investigating the one-time latrines of the Johnson’s Island Prison. Latrines regularly served as depositories for a wide variety of refuse, and these sites have provided a treasure trove of relics. Bush and his fellow researchers have been able to connect patterns of refuse with events in the prisons such as inspections and smallpox outbreaks. Keeping with the theme of prison camps, John K. Derden resurrects the story of the short-lived Camp Lawton, near Millen, Georgia. Operating for only six weeks, the massive prison came into existence when Confederate authorities attempted to consolidate several other prisons in the last months of 1864, but with the threat of the approach of William Sherman’s march across Georgia, the effort was abandoned. Long forgotten after the war, local civic leaders unsuccessfully attempted to get the site designated as a national park. It later became a state park dedicated to recreation, while the federal government erected a fish hatchery on part of the land. Only in the twenty-first century has the historical significance of the location gained appreciation. Benjamin G. Cloyd’s contribution considers the uncomfortable place the prisoner-of-war experience holds in the memory of the Civil War. The bitterness engendered by the prison experience served as a hindrance to reconciliation in the postwar years. Much of the scholarship on memory and the war that has appeared in recent years has focused on race. Cloyd reminds us that “the prisons existed because of a war fought, fundamentally, over the future of slavery,” and that “all prisoners of war, regardless of race, were imprisoned because only the winning of the war could resolve the question of race that sparked the war to begin with” (p. 213).

While much has been added to the literature concerning Civil War prisons since Reid Mitchell lamented its dearth, Crossing the Deadlines shows that there is still new scholarship on the issue appearing. Certainly, other subjects for investigation also exist. For example, a study on the incarceration of civilian prisoners, comparing their experience to that of soldiers in custody, might prove fruitful. Furthermore, there is much to be learned about the arrest and imprisonment of women during the war. My forthcoming study will shed light on the subject, though it certainly will not be the final word on it. In addition, more collaboration with scholars outside the history profession offers other avenues of exploration. For instance, archaeologists like David Bush might consider teaming with scientists working in the field of proteomics, the study of proteins, to analyze the artifacts uncovered at Civil War prison sites. Such a collaboration between archaeologists, historians, and scientists might reveal a deeper understanding of the environmental conditions and the health status of prisoners.


[1]. Reid Mitchell, “‘Our Prison System, Supposing We Had Any’: The Confederate and Union Prison Systems,” On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, ed. Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 566.

Citation: Thomas F. Curran. Review of Gray, Michael P., ed., Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL:

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