Prison Pens - A Review
I was very pleased indeed when my copy of Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson arrived in the mail. As you all know, I've been working a lot these days with the letters of one Henry A. Allen, a Confederate officer and prisoner of war who served his time in a number of northern prisons between July 1863 and June 1865 and wrote frequently to his wife back in Virginia. I was hoping that this volume, edited by historians Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler, would shed a little light on my current understanding of a Confederate officer's experience in prison. Sure enough, things worked out pretty damn well. The prisoner in question..."Wash" Nelson had a very similar prisoner of war experience to Allen, served in the same prisons, and even joined the same veterans' organization after the war: The Immortal 600.
One of the most remarkable features of this volume is that we have access to a two-way correspondence. So often in the archives, only one side of the conversation remains, and it is left to the reader to read between the lines, as it were, and try and figure out what the other party had to say. Fortunately in the case of Civil War era letters, as people would sometimes receive correspondence out of order, those writing in response to a specific letter would frequently reiterate what the other had previously written, as in "yours of the ___ inst. in which you noted ____..." This can certainly clear up a few things in certain collections. But here we have both sets - filling out the narrative from both civilian and prisoner perspective.
There are two things that I found particularly revealing about this exchange. First, there is a clear gender dynamic negotiation beneath the surface. One might suppose that this would be the case, considering that 19th century gender assumptions, especially the power dynamic between men and women, would be in flux if said man were incarcerated. Second, and related to the gender concerns in this volume, Wash is less than forthcoming about the brutal conditions he is withstanding as a prisoner of war. His letters only seldom mention sickness, lack of food or proper shelter, or any of the other privations suffered by prisoners in northern camps. Only after the war does he relate this information, which indeed could serve and inform his status as a member of the Immortal 600.
The book includes a web component, about which I am particularly enthusiastic. The potential here for public contribution and informed debate on the many issues present in these letters in limitless. Whether or not your curiosity takes you to further investigation of this topic, you will certainly benefit from the extraordinarily thorough editing in this collection...every detail is noted: the people, places, and things that fill the lines in Mollie and Wash's letters remind us that ordinary life in minute detail exists in a much greater context.
And just to open the door for a little further investigation...reading these letters reminded me that individuals are complex to be sure. The temptation to reduce a person or persons to one thing or another can be tempting...based on any number of things (Confederate = XXX = XXX, you get the idea...). Comments are certainly welcome, I've been wanting to talk this idea out for a while...