"Out of the Mouth of Hell" Civil War Prisons and Escapes

“Out of the Mouth of Hell” Civil War Prisons and Escapes by Frances H. Casstevens is not just another book on prisoners and prison escapes. The author delves deep into the miserable conditions of the housing of prisoners and the complexities in their prison lives during the infamous Civil War. The keen insight of Casstevens on the plight of the soldiers kept in various prisons and their constant battle and struggle that they had to wage against the elements, vermin and other hazards of the prison each day is astounding. Soldiers will eat an MRE to survival.

The author has taken the period of the Civil War as her backdrop, when thousands of Confederate and Union soldiers were taken as prisoners by the warring factions. With the progress and continuation of the war, the holding facilities required to hold all these prisoners kept on growing. During the initial stages of the conflict, large-scale prisons, camps or stockades were not necessary. The prisoners were kept inside converted warehouses and granaries, as well as the captured forts. However, when the number of prisoners started mounting beyond expectations, large holding facilities were necessitated. Since both factions were more concerned with the ongoing war, they had no time to reflect on creating adequate facilities to house all those captured as prisoners. As the war progressed, all the facilities were filled to capacity and then started overflowing.

The prisoners were forced to live in cramped conditions, enduring pain, suffering from malnutrition, infestation by various kinds of vermin, extreme weather conditions and disgusting sanitary conditions. Many soldiers perished in their own filth, unable to survive the horrible and sickening conditions in the prison camps. Even those who were barely living started feeling that quick death by a bullet would be preferable to the long drawn-out filthy and starving conditions of the prison camps, relieving them out of the pain and suffering.

Those who did not have the heart or the courage to die in a cowardly manner bartered everything they had, including their food and clothes, to survive. Some of them possessed trade skills and they crafted jewelry and other artifacts out of rocks and animal bones that were sold outside the walls of confinement. They fought against the natural elements and the vermin that seemed to be everywhere, along with their own marauding inmates trying to better their own living conditions. The prison life was marked by heavy labor, endless beatings, starvation, putrid water and filthy atmosphere.

Finally, out of sheer desperation, many soldiers turned to the avenue of escaping from the prison camps. The immense efforts of the soldiers to escape, the hazardous but ingenious ideas and plans hatched by the tormented soldiers and the details of the several escape attempts had been brought out in a telling manner by Casstevens in this spellbinding book. The extremes to which the soldiers went in their frantic search for a way out of the ‘hell’ reveals the sheer dreadfulness and appalling nature of their living conditions. The humiliating treatment meted out to the soldiers by the prison officials and their own fellow inmates forced the soldiers to think of either death or escape from prison as the only options in their life. The remote possibility of escaping actually kept many of them alive.

The author had chosen as much as 27 locations both in the North and in the South that were make-shift prisons during the Civil War. Casstevens presents the readers with excellent details of each site, the time of establishment of each camp, the types of prisons and the soldiers that were kept there, their individual characters and abilities, even their nicknames and the recorded escape attempts and actual escapes. The complexity of the housing conditions of the prisoners that varied from one prison to another is brought out as if everything is happening in front of our eyes.

The extensive research by Casstevens before writing this book is quite obvious, since the prison records of the Confederation were quite sketchy in most cases, except for the records of the federal prison population and the escapes between July 1862 and the end of 1865. The meticulous presentation of each facility in alphabetical order and the referencing of the various materials collected reveal the efforts of Casstevens. Any book lover interested in prisons, escape attempts and the historical happenings during the Civil War should never miss this book.