Lorien Foote's The Yankee Plague is a prime example of the very best of current Civil War history. The focus of The Yankee Plague—a series of otherwise understudied escapes by thousands of Union prisoners in 1864 and 1865—lends itself to a remarkable tale. By applying the analytical power of social history and razor-sharp military and political analysis, Foote constructs a new paradigm for understanding the war in which the most potent invading armies run away from the enemy, slaves hold the key to freedom, and women are the most domineering commanders. Foote's research is well structured and thorough. She incorporates sources derived from a range of perspectives: military records—The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1901) and less well-known collections in the National Archives such as Record Group 249—newspapers, legal records, correspondence, and diaries. A handful of postwar memoirs written by escaped prisoners provide a narrative voice. Around these diaries and recollections Foote places the other sources, buttressing her already-strong arguments. Of the many contributions that Foote makes to our understanding of the war, one in particular challenges an old assumption; she argues that “the collapse of South Carolina … was effected before [Gen. William T.] Sherman's army entered the state,” and the hoard of escaped prisoners played a role in that collapse (p. 63). At the end of 1864, South Carolina was both preparing to defend itself from a Union army probing at its borders and trying to protect its citizens from Union prisoners who were breaking out of poorly guarded (and sometimes completely unguarded) prisons. With few Confederate soldiers to help, old men and boys were left to guard the Union prisoners and defend their communities from the prisoners who escaped. By the time Sherman entered the state, the white people of South Carolina and the Confederacy could do little to stop him. Just below the surface of The Yankee Plague's main arguments is a more nuanced observation that the Southern war effort, not unlike antebellum life in the South, was built upon increasingly problematic contradictions. Foote demonstrates her most powerful race and gender analysis here. By illustrating that slaves were great allies to the escaped Yankees—feeding them, hiding them, and otherwise assisting them—she demonstrates that enslaved men and women were far from content with their lives in bondage. Furthermore, Foote shows that race-based slavery was not merely a fragile institution, but that slavery was a war between slaves and slaveholders. Women were also important friends to prisoners on the run. With their husbands deserting the war effort and hiding out in the brush, some Southern women of South Carolina and North Carolina became the commanders of their households. They took on traditional male roles without missing a beat, facilitating the escape of Union men over the mountains and sometimes leading the escapees themselves. The Yankee Plague is a revelation, taking us closer to a new vision of the war that transcends the self-imposed limitations and false boundaries that historians construct around their varied genres and subfields. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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