Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, by Lonnie R. Speer, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, (800) 732-3669, 416 pages, $34.95.
Portals to Hell is a fine book about a sad subject. As a chronicle of the Civil War military prison system, the book reminds us that the conflict’s most shameful tragedy occurred in places such as Camp Douglas, Fort Delaware, and Andersonville. It also reveals that the most heinous villain in this story was the war itself.
When Americans rushed to war after Fort Sumter had fallen, neither the Union nor the Confederacy paid much attention to the issue of prisoners of war. The onslaught of captives began in the summer of 1861, and officials in Washington and Richmond reacted by using any facility that could store men. Expediency governed their decisions, and before long, the number of prisoners overwhelmed the system. The situation would only grow worse.
Numbers indicate the problem’s magnitude. An estimated 674,000 soldiers were captured during the war, and more than 56,000 of them died while in confinement, a death rate of nearly 13 percent–fully twice that of combat. Overcrowded facilities, inadequate food and clothing, the lack of exercise, and the wretched filth of human waste bred death. In some prisons, corpses piled up faster than the bodies could be buried, and the number of men who survived but never recovered from imprisonment can only be surmised.
The worst years were 1863 and 1864, when the two governments ceased the prisoner exchange program, which had been a universal success that virtually emptied prisons in 1862. But then Federal and Rebel officials wrangled over the details until both sides agreed to end it. That decision condemned thousands of soldiers to a living hell.
Portals to Hell is an excellent work, a full and excellent treatment of Civil War prisons. Based on prodigious research in governmental records and manuscript collections, the book offers a judicious and balanced study of a controversial subject. Speer’s writing is thorough, detailed, and unblinking. He spares neither side, offering solid evidence to support his critical assessments.
Speer divides the narrative by years, a good approach to this multifaceted topic. He describes each facility as it came into existence and evolved. Government policies and the situation at the front overlay the descriptions of the prisons, providing context for their deteriorating conditions. And he seldom strays from the human tragedy, identifying guards and commandants, recounting prisoner escapes, and relating the brutalities, hardships, and suffering that comprised the daily reality for prisoners. Speer uses the words of prisoners, guards, and officials to create a narrative rich in detail.
A final chapter on the current state of the prison sites and excellent appendices complete the book. It is as complete a study of prisons as we are likely to have for a long time. The book contains a wealth of information, many human interest stories, and sobering lessons. From the research to the writing, Portals to Hell is good history.
Jeffry D. Wert
Centre Hall, Pennsylvania