“A World Unto Itself” Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis During the American Civil War

Courier Review by Katy Berman

No federal prison system existed in antebellum America. There were instead a number of state penitentiaries, products of Enlightenment notions about humane punishment and reform.

Historian Angela M. Zombeck, in Penitentiaries, Punishments, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis During the Civil War, examines the mission and efficacy of antebellum penitentiaries and links them to Federal and Confederate military prisons in the District of Columbia, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia which arose out of necessity during the Civil War.

Ms. Zombeck, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, describes the Civil War as a “crisis of imprisonment.”

Beginning in April, 1861, decisions had to be made quickly, but neither North nor South were prepared structurally or theoretically to handle prisoners of war. Newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln turned to Francis Lieber who had written extensively about the proper modes of imprisonment; he had himself experienced captivity as a political prisoner at Kopenik, Germany in 1820. Lieber advocated “moderate, humane punishment,” with “no other intentional suffering or indignity.” He also felt, as did many, that prisoners should be required to work in order to help pay for the costs of their imprisonment.

Questions arose over whether state or national governments had jurisdiction over military prisoners. Initially, there was no choice but to inter them in state penitentiaries, leading to inevitable conflicts over who was in charge. Further disagreements occurred over the status of POWs; should they be housed with criminals? Were they, in fact, criminals? Penology was in its infant stage of development, and federal or Confederate officers appointed as prison wardens had little to no experience running prisons. At Camp Chase, Ohio, for example, Governor David Tod appointed Colonel (and Methodist minister) Granville Moody as penitentiary commander on the basis of his previous visits to the prison. Col. Moody came under sharp criticism for allowing Confederate prisoners to retain their slaves and permitting them, on parole, to stroll through city streets with their side-arms. Moody lasted only four months, but the problem of administering Camp Chase remained.

Officials on both sides of the conflict hoped their military prisons would generate enough income to be self-sufficient. The Georgia Penitentiary had succeeded at this goal in 1860, and even scheduled improvements such as a new chapel, hospital and workshops. Elsewhere during the war, Union prisoners worked in North Carolina coal mines; others rebuilt the Rapidan Bridge which had been destroyed by their confederates. At Camp Chase, Confederate prisoners performed work that would be to their benefit such digging wells or mending shoes. However, when prison officials started requiring a loyalty oath in order to continue working, many inmates refused.

As the war progressed, overcrowding led to greater difficulties in supervising work details, and idleness became the dispiriting condition of prison life. Letters and journals convey “the irksome, dull, almost unbearable” lives of inmates. They also reveal that POWs were susceptible to the same stigma of imprisonment as regular inmates. Many POWs focused on escape, tunneling, charging unsuspecting guards en masse, or setting fires as a distraction to enable escape. Prof. Zombeck describes the celebrated escape of Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan from Camp Chase. Morgan and his men were treated like common criminals, a humiliation they could not endure. On November 20, 1863, Morgan and six of his men escaped through a tunnel beneath their quarters. Prison warden Nathaniel Merion declared that the escape would not have happened if the prison had “remained under civil (or state) authority.”

There were few female prisoners during the antebellum years and they were considered irredeemable. At the Ohio Penitentiary, they routinely, “fought, scratched, pulled each other’s hair, cursed,” and used knives on each other when they could get them. By 1855, prison regulations required the employment of a prison matron to give religious instruction to female inmates and teach them decorum.

With the advent of hostilities, other types of women were incarcerated. As foodstuffs grew scarcer, property crimes increased. Southern women such as Belle Boyd and Mary Johnson were arrested for spying and smuggling. Southerner Loretta Janeta Velasquez donned male garb and took the name Lt. Harry T. Buford; she was arrested as a spy first by Union troops and then, mistakenly, by Confederates. Southern journalists praised her daring patriotism, but she was chastised by the Castle Thunder warden, George Alexander for her unfeminine attire. He was willing to enlist her in his “secret service corps,” but only if she put on a dress.

When peace came, military prisons gradually released their POWs and government officials considered what could be done with the vacant facilities. In 1867, Congress issued an order that Camp Chase materials be given to the newly formed National Asylum for Disabled Soldiers. The sixteen acres housing Salisbury Prison were auctioned off for the benefit of the Freedmen’s Bureaus. Other prisons also attempted to create a positive legacy out of a sorrowful past.

Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons is an admirable piece of scholarship, but not one to carry along with you to the beach. (More personal anecdotes might have placed it in that category.) Zombeck’s research makes it impossible to ignore that the most of the challenges confronting nineteenth century prison reformers are still with us today. For centuries now, Americans have wanted their prisons to offer inmates the opportunity to change their ways and become law-abiding, productive citizens. The best way of accomplishing that remains undiscovered.

Title: Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis During the American Civil War

Author: Angela M. Zombeck

Publisher: Kent State University Press, 2018

Pages: 287

Price: $38.35