Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



The memory of Civil War prisons has always been contested. Since 1861, generations of Americans struggled with the questions raised by the deaths of approximately 56,000 prisoners of war, almost one-tenth of all Civil War fatalities. During the war, throughout Reconstruction, and well into the twentieth century, a sectional debate raged over the responsibility for the prison casualties. Republican politicians invoked the savage cruelty of Confederate prisons as they waved the bloody shirt, while hundreds of former prisoners published narratives that blamed various prison officials and promoted sectional bitterness. The animosity reflected a need to identify individuals responsible for the tragedy as well as the stakes involved-how history would remember the Union and Confederate prisons. In the 1920s and 1930s, when the prison controversy finally bowed to the influence of sectional reconciliation, Americans began exploring the legacy of Civil War prisons against the backdrop of the First and Second World Wars and their even more terrible atrocities. Historians and writers, inspired by the pursuit of objectivity, probed the legacy of Civil War prisons, no longer to blame individual Union or Confederate officials, but instead out of a desire to understand how such horrors could be possible in a supposedly modern society. In recent decades, a trend developed towards commemorating and commercializing the tragedy of Civil War prisons, culminating in the 1998 opening of the National POW Museum at Andersonville, Georgia, site of the most infamous Civil War prison. The museum presented a universal narrative of the POW experience that interpreted Civil War prisons not as a terrible exception, but as the first in a series of modern atrocities. In its message of patriotic appreciation for the sacrifice of all American POWs, however, the museum also glorified their suffering as the inevitable cost of freedom. Throughout the reinterpretation of Civil War prisons, the effort to understand the prison deaths reflected a desire to find meaning in the tragedy. Although satisfactory answers for the prison atrocities of the Civil War remained elusive, the persistence Americans showed in asking the questions testifies to the enduring power of historical memory.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Gaines M. Foster



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History Commons