The Greatest Escape
A True American Civil War Adventure
Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2021, 304 pages
Book Review published on: April 29, 2022
In The Greatest Escape: A True American Civil War Adventure, Douglas Miller recounts the story of the 1864 prisoner of war (POW) escape from Libby Prison, a converted tobacco warehouse in Richmond, Virginia, used during the American Civil War as a prison for captured officers of the Union army. Through a narrative based on a compilation of eyewitness memoirs, Miller masterfully weaves empathy, historical contextual factors, and an appreciation for pivotal shaping events into an engrossing anthology of the largest prison escape in U.S. history.
Miller skillfully guides the reader to a broad understanding of conditions for an American Civil War POW in the latter months of 1863, using objective representation of sociocultural and military challenges encountered by both Union and Confederate leaders. Prewar rhetoric and expectations of a quick and decisive victory hindered effective long-term planning for POW operations. In the early stages of conflict, a parole (prisoner exchange) system, based on trust and honor, reduced the overcrowding and sustainment difficulties characterizing POW conditions later in the war. By the fourth year of the American Civil War, large-scale prisoner exchanges ceased, media fostered civilian and political polarization over differences in POW treatment, and widespread sustainment shortages plagued the confederacy. POW treatment varied widely, evoking strong emotional responses from citizens on both sides of the war.
By late 1863, Libby Prison’s inmate population more than doubled the original intended capacity, reaching approximately one thousand. The inmates faced shortages of food, medicine, and lacked access to clean drinking water; these were hardships shared by much of the civilian population of Richmond, Virginia. A small group of inmates contrived an audacious plan to tunnel under the prison grounds and cross fifty miles of enemy-controlled swamp land to reach Union lines during the winter months of 1864. Equipped only with meager rations of food, clothing, and tools they could obtain within the prison, the escapees maneuvered under physical threat from guards authorized to fire upon escaping prisoners. Pursued by a determined and embarrassed enemy, more than one hundred officers passed through the narrow hand-dug tunnel in a bid for freedom.
The Greatest Escape brings the human dimension to the forefront, focused not on suffering, but on ingenuity and determination, self-preservation, and survival, where perseverance and courage overcame severe physical and mental adversity. The memoirs depict cultural ideals later reflected in the code of conduct for members of the Armed Forces of the United States.
Timeless common experience of the professional soldier is key to making this work applicable to the American soldier of any era. Miller describes surprise as the common reaction detailed in each memoir. POW was a potential outcome of military service infrequently examined or anticipated by these unfortunate men. As POW death rates rose when prisoner exchanges ceased, hope emerges as a key ingredient for survival, even amid starvation and disease. Soldiers shared a curiosity over the cultural differences of opposing forces, variation in the ethical treatment of POW. The humanity demonstrated by those sharing a common plight of hardship and a perception of abandonment by their respective governments crossed political boundaries.
Miller seamlessly integrates homage to the network of federal supporters and sympathizers, who risked life, imprisonment, loss of property, and ostracism to aid the escapees. The Greatest Escape reveals the continuity of the human dimension in military operations, as the elements of mission command were necessary for success of the escape operation. After the conflict, the tunnel was dubbed “The Great Yankee Wonder” by Richmond citizens and remained an object of curiosity. The “tunnel” remained a monument to the competence, trust, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance of a few extraordinary American military officers.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Amelia Schroeder, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas