Lorien Foote: Adding Prisoners of War to ‘Free State of Jones’

The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy, by Lorien FooteWe welcome a guest post today from Lorien Foote, author of The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the ConfederacyDuring the winter of 1864, more than 3,000 Federal prisoners of war escaped from Confederate prison camps into South Carolina and North Carolina, often with the aid of local slaves. Their flight created, in the words of contemporary observers, a “Yankee plague,” heralding a grim end to the Confederate cause. In a fascinating look at Union soldiers’ flight for freedom in the last months of the Civil War, Lorien Foote reveals new connections between the collapse of the Confederate prison system, the large-scale escape of Union soldiers, and the full unraveling of the Confederate States of America.

In today’s post, Foote imagines the film Free State of Jones if it had been set in the Carolinas—with thousands of escaped prisoners of war.


When Free State of Jones becomes available on DVD today, potential viewers who visit www.rottentomatoes.com will discover that movie critics generally panned it while the theater audiences generally liked it. The film is based on the true story of Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter who led an inter-racial rebellion against Confederate authority in Jones County, Mississippi. Reviewers criticized the movie for being both simplistic and convoluted; they were dissatisfied with its crude portrayal of race relations and its attempt to cram together the Civil War, Reconstruction, and a 1948 miscegenation trial. Director Gary Ross had a fascinating and complicated story to tell, and if he had difficulty weaving the parts together for a two-hour movie, his problems would have been compounded had he tried to tell the story of the deserters in rebellion against the Confederacy in the Carolinas. Imagine Free State of Jones with nearly 3,000 escaped prisoners of war thrown into the mix.

In September 1864, after Sherman captured Atlanta, the Confederate government sought to move its Yankee prisoners of war out of prisons in Andersonville and Macon, Georgia, in order to keep the Union army from liberating the captives. There was no official in charge of coordinating the movement of prisoners and the Confederacy was suffering from bureaucratic breakdowns across the board as their war effort collapsed. No one notified the military commander in Charleston, South Carolina, that thousands of prisoners were on the way to his department. When they arrived, he sent them to Florence and Columbia and turned them out into open fields without buildings or fences. The result was the escape of more than 900 prisoners in September and October. When the Confederates tried to move the prisoners again in February, another 1900 escaped.

The Yankees fled into a landscape where thousands of deserters ruled the swamps and mountains in many counties of North and South Carolina. They formed armed bands, numbering from 50-500 men, that attacked Confederate military units sent to round them up and raided the farms of people who supported the Confederacy. Women and children kept them supplied with food, clothing, and information. Confederate military officials acknowledged in their correspondence that they had lost control over portions of both states. The deserters formed alliances with African Americans who were engaged in various forms of resistance to the Confederacy, from slowing down work and running away to forming guerrilla companies. In Robeson County, North Carolina, deserters living in a fortified position in the swamps shot wild cattle and exchanged it for meal and salt from slaves who lived nearby.

When escaped Yankee prisoners entered the scene, deserters, slaves, and free blacks cooperated to funnel them toward the safety of Union lines in Knoxville, Tennessee, or Hilton Head, South Carolina. An African American named Henry Martin led three captains from the 101st Pennsylvania to meet a deserter named Ray near the community of Spartanburg, South Carolina, who guided the party to Knoxville. The deputy sheriff of Transylvania County, North Carolina, who secretly remained loyal to the United States, used his position to transport hundreds of escaped Federal prisoners and Confederate deserters out of the Confederacy. He engaged African Americans as guides and utilized a network of houses belonging to deserter families as hiding places.

Escaped prisoners from northern states such as New York, Ohio, and Iowa recorded in their diaries and reported to the Union provost marshals that they had spent nights conversing about politics and praying with slaves in their cabins and had joined deserters in skirmishes against Rebels in their neighborhoods. The substance of these conversations would make for a fascinating movie scene that would contain all the nuance film critics were looking for. But adding Yankees to the already complicated story of deserters and slaves in the Confederacy might further expose the limits of a feature film in depicting the complexities of history.

Lorien Foote is professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy.