Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-011
8 Feb. 2021
Review by Robert S. McPherson, Utah State University
Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons
By Evan A. Kutzler
Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 195. ISBN 978–1–4696–5378–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 19th Century, US Civil War, POWs Print Version

Of the 400,000 military men who fell captive during the US Civil War, over 56,000 died in Union and Confederate prisons from disease, malnutrition, extreme weather, abuse, and inactivity. Far from the bloody battlefields, these often forgotten men were transported from one holding pen to another, stripped of their dignity and demoted to scrounging like animals without even bare necessities.

In Living by Inches, historian Evan Kutzler[1] (Georgia Southwestern State Univ.) has reconstructed the personal experiences of Civil War POWs from evidence in their war-time diaries, personal letters, and memoirs, as well as newspapers and standard official records.

In exploring Civil War prisons from dark nights to the unbolted cornmeal, Living by Inches recovers how imprisoned men perceived their world. It is not necessarily a book on gender, though it recognizes that the vast majority of prisoners experienced captivity as men and analyzes manhood and honor where applicable; nor is it singularly focused on class, race, or religion, even though first-person Civil War sources skew toward educated white Protestant Christians. Instead, this book is about experience, which means it considers cultural ideas in relation to daily life. Prisoners thought of themselves as soldiers and citizens and men, but they were also individuals in a liminal space between and beyond tidy categories. Learning from and adapting to unfamiliar sensory environments was not an academic exercise. For imprisoned men, it was essential to survival. (15)

The author devotes a chapter to each of the five senses. His chapter on smells gets readers close to the stinking latrines, fetid water, body odor, rotting animal and vegetable matter, and other byproducts of cramped, poorly ventilated housing and prison conditions. Men smoked tobacco less for pleasure than to mask bad smells; a constant pall of smoke enveloped prisoners. Prisons in windy locations were, understandably, more desirable than those sited in a topographical bowl.


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The air also transmitted sounds, one of which—the ringing of a bell—vividly evoked the civilian lives the prisoners had left behind. Before the war, bells had called them to churches and public meetings; they sounded alarms and rang in holidays the men could now only dream about. Bell sounds from towns near the prisons were painful reminders of their peace-time lives.

Time-pieces, too, were highly prized items that connected inmates with their past lives. Besides tracking the endless hours, days, weeks, and months when the world slowed to a crawl, watches could be traded when men were desperate. They were also status symbols, links to a cultural reality now lost to them within their walled enclosures. Even the dreams some prisoners recorded seemed more real than their waking lives.

Initially, the North, with its greater resources, mitigated the terrible conditions of imprisonment by building housing on a grid pattern with good drainage, latrine systems, and indoor ventilation; lime-based paint was used to whitewash surfaces inside and out. But the penal system was soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of prisoners and concomitant lack of finances.

The South simply could not afford to meet even minimal standards of sanitation in its jerry-built facilities for incarcerated men. And, too, the shifting tides of the war forced relocations from one holding area to another, exacerbating shortages of every kind. Combine this with hatred of the foe and one can see why more northerners died in southern prisons than southerners in northern ones.

Civil War prisoners were accosted day and night by conditions that would never have been accepted in normal nineteenth-century society. They had to use open latrines, bathe naked in public, and remove clothing in the eternal hunt for lice. The constant barrage of disagreeable sights and sounds contrasted sharply with the prisoners' prewar past. Reminders of that disparity were constant. Even the scenery beyond the walls seemed never-changing and often stifling. Night brought no real relief. Prisoners lay awake on uncomfortable wooden beds, plagued by vermin eager to "fight and bite." The deafening silence was occasionally broken by the animal noises of bunkmates. The men had to guard constantly their meager possessions against thieves who emerged in the dark.

Food, especially in southern camps, was mostly restricted to a monotonous starvation diet of coarsely ground corn products, salted pork, tasteless soup, and (often impure) water. During prisoner swaps, the Union leadership witnessed the emaciated forms of its returning soldiers. By 1864, the situation had become so bad that the North retaliated by cutting its Confederate prisoners' rations and paying less attention to their needs in general.

Hungry men became so obsessed with food that they even gambled on it without actually possessing it. Card games involved wagers and debts calculated in terms of pies, cakes, or loaves of bread to be paid sometime after the war. This meant that most men "defaulted" before they could make good on their promises. The lucky few who had money could sometimes make purchases through unofficial channels; those less fortunate could sell their services or possessions to those who had the goods. Internal markets at times worked with external supply chains run by sympathetic organizations, women with a cause, or bribed guards. Around holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, there was a flow of charitable contributions unknown at other times of the year. Inmates wrote to family and friends, hoping for their assistance in these bleak conditions.

Improvisation helped ease the lack of supplies. Some men consumed tasty rats to ease hunger pangs; others burnt corn into a pseudo-coffee or tried to make do with cornbread infused with a heavy dose of cob. Bone butter (i.e. marrow) eased the yen for fats, and stray cats and dogs might end up in a cooking pot. Some prisoners took to eating boiled clover as an alternative to unsavory beans, bug-infested rice, tainted meat, and corn in the form of mush, bread, and soup—all of which were in short supply.

Living by Inches has three particular strengths. First, it clarifies the social and cultural traditions of the Civil War on both sides as reflected in their prisons. Wartime shortages, shifting battlefronts, increasing demands on men and equipment, Southern labor losses, ineffective prison leadership, and popular unrest led to conditions that no one wished for. Secondly, it provides a micro-level view of human ingenuity and valor on the one hand and of depravity on the other. Difficult situations and deplorable social conditions brought out the best and worst in man. Finally, the book puts readers in a position to self-evaluate and wonder how they would react in circumstances like those Evan Kutzler describes. At a point when Americans are re-evaluating their history—especially that of the Civil War—they are relearning the costs of freeing slaves, settling the issue of states' rights, and forging a sound union.

[1] His earlier work includes (as editor), Prison Pens: Gender, Memory and Imprisonment in the Writings of Molly Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866 (Athens: U Georgia Pr, 2018).

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