Fugitive Federals

A Digital Humanities Investigation of Escaped Union Prisoners

What is Fugitive Federals?

In the winter of 1864 and 1865, over 3,000 Union prisoners of war (POWs) escaped the clutches of the Confederacy and swarmed over the southern countryside “like the locusts of Egypt.” Their routes to freedom (or recapture) played out like some sick American version of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring: bloodhounds trained for generations to track and mutilate escaped slaves dogged their trails, the frozen earth and air relentlessly numbed their appendages and tested their resolve, the swamps and mountains teamed with vermin and briars that cut them open and made them sick, starvation sapped more energy every moment, and every human encounter could extend their survival or turn deadly in an instant. Every decision they made—where to go, who could hide them, guide them, or provide sustenance—carried the risk of violence and continued imprisonment. How do human beings make life-or-death decisions under such stressed environments and conditions?

Using traditional historical research methods, Fugitive Federals seeks to answer that question. The written records left behind by these POWs, their aiders and abettors, and their predators—thousands of diaries, memoirs, letters, biographical sketches, newspapers articles, military orders and correspondence, and provost marshal records— grant valuable insight into the thought processes of these men and broaden the extent to which we understand the internal collapse of the Confederacy. These fugitives trusted networks of black guides, Confederate deserters who organized to avoid conscription, and disloyal whites who worked to undermine their government from the inside by helping POWs escape. Their unique perspective of the southern landscape and the ideologies of the people who live within it are invaluable, painting a vivid picture that the writings of an invading soldier could not.

This photo of nine escaped Union officers and their three guides was taken in Knoxville on January 1st, 1865. This party, like many others, navigated the treacherous Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina to reach the safety of Union lines. This photo will be explored in depth in an upcoming book, "Captured Freedom", by Steve Procko. This image was taken from the Library of Congress.

Contending with the rigorous standards of cross checking primary evidence and engaging with the wider body of literature proved difficult, and initially narrowed the scope of the project to only around fifty soldiers—far from the nearly 3,000 names found within the written records. To remedy this issue, two methodological adaptations ensued. First, the project was brought into university classrooms, serving as a framework to train students in historical research methodology. Students have compiled information on over 240 additional soldiers, multiplying the project's repository of data and helping to confirm several of the research’s arguments. Second, all of the data collected for the project was georeferenced and mapped utilizing ArcGIS. The resulting maps revealed thousands of additional areas to test the project’s conclusions, and helped to uncover local variations in escaped fugitive’s decision making. The maps even opened up the possibility to map the escape routes that POWs took to reach the safety of Union lines. While these maps may tell us where a POW’s decisions led them, there is still a long way to go before the points help us to understand the process behind those decisions.

This website serves as a repository for the data collected so far. Each tab provides valuable insight into the stories of these fugitive Federals, highlighting the routes they took, the dangers they faced, and the help they found along the way. Additionally, educational materials and outside resources are provided for any researcher looking to incorporate this information into their own classrooms and projects. Fugitive Federals is a massive undertaking, and educators are invited to contribute to this innovative project.