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"Out Of The Mouth Of Hell": Civil War Prisons and Escapes

by Casstevens, Frances H.
Publisher: McFarland & Company
Retail Price: $55.00, hardcover
Issue: Fall 2005
ISBN: 0786420723

Desperate detainees


Escaping prison meant escaping death

After capture, a majority of military prisoners are destined to spend the remainder of the war in detention. Many will hope to escape, some will try, and a few will succeed. Statistics show us that only approximately two percent of the total prisoner population will be successful in their attempt to get away.

Prisoners of war have always had a miserable time. In any conflict, even under the best conditions, being a prisoner of war is a hellish experience. According to nearly all first-hand accounts, it has been terrible in every war including the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Viet Nam. And it continues to be a horrible experience for hostages taken in the war against terrorism being fought in the Mid-East. No wonder, then, the desire to escape becomes foremost in nearly every prisoner's mind, especially when it becomes clear there is no chance of being exchanged, paroled, or in any way released. With each day in captivity, the prisoner realizes they are becoming weaker and drawn closer to death by malnutrition, disease, neglect, or even torture. The hope and possibility of escape often becomes all that keeps a POW alive during their long confinement.

Frances Casstevens presents a well-researched encyclopedic source on the Civil War's 27 principal military prisons. Consisting of 15 Federal and 12 Confederate facilities, the author provides a general summary of each site, including its historical background, description, initial POW arrivals, and a brief synopsis of various well-known events at each. Although none of this information is new, it aptly furnishes a very good alphabetical reference and overall view of the most notable prisons of the Civil War. What makes Out of the Mouth of Hell unique, though, is that Casstevens goes on to concentrate and specialize on the number of escapes from each prison and to provide additional, little known, detail about some of the most notorious or prominent individual POWs at each facility to accompany the entries.

The book has an outstanding eight page bibliography listing not only the usual primary and secondary book sources that one would expect, but also a wide range of available private archive collections, manuscripts, diaries, memoirs, articles, booklets, pamphlets, and online computer sources.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn't address the price of the book. At 55 dollars it is rather steep and perhaps out of range for the average reader. But for those truly interested in the Civil War and its prisons, Out of the Mouth of Hell is a must! It is a beautiful book, with its cover photograph embedded into its hard-case binding instead of printed on a dust-jacket, and it presents a very good assessment of conditions in the 27 different prisons and great details concerning the escapes, detailing the number and most popular methods of breaking out of each. Out of the Mouth of Hell is an enticing work--well written, well researched, and nicely presented.

Lonnie Speer is a regular contributor to Civil War Book Review and has written for a number of historical publications including America's Civil War and Civil War Times Illustrated. He is author of the groundbreaking work Portals to Hell, The Military Prisons of the Civil War (Stackpole Books, 1997) and War of Vengeance, Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs (Stackpole Books, 2002). Currently, Speer has two more books in various stages of publication and Portals to Hell is being published in paperback under the Bison imprint by the University of Nebraska, available now in their Fall/Winter 2005 catalog.

Speer, Lonnie, review of "Out Of The Mouth Of Hell": Civil War Prisons and Escapes, by Casstevens, Frances H., Civil War Book Review, (Fall 2005).