“The barbarous treatment by the rebels of our colored troops…”: Hatch suggests retaliations

On May 12, 1864, Brigadier-General John P. Hatch sent this inquiry to War Department headquarters, specifically Major-General Ethan A. Hitchcock, serving as the Commissioner for Prisoner of War Exchanges:

Headquarters Department of the South,
Hilton Head, S.C., May 12, 1864.
Maj. Gen. E. A. Hitchcock, U.S. Army:

Dear General: The barbarous treatment by the rebels of our colored troops demands immediate action on the part of our Government. The following suggestions are submitted to you, and if in your opinion good and practicable, might be laid before the proper authorities:

First. All prisoners of war captured by colored troops to be set aside as a reserved class.

Second. To this class add a portion of all prisoners taken in general engagements, in proportion to the number of colored troops serving with the army engaged.

Third. When selections are made in accordance with paragraph 2, let the larger portion be of officers or of men from influential families.

Fourth. All prisoners of the reserved class to be held for exchange for colored troops only, or for retaliation when such a course is unhappily found necessary.

Fifth. The names of all prisoners of the reserved class to be published in the Northern newspapers, and also issued in such a form as would enable our pickets, advance posts, or raiding parties to distribute them.

I do not know but some better plan has been already adopted. The method of retaliation by death would, I fear, cause foreign nations to interfere with the war.
Should you like the plan proposed by me, I would like a line from you on the subject.

Very truly, yours,
Jno. P. Hatch,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Hatch was relatively new to the Department of the South, and in all reality only a temporary commander.  Hatch and Hichcock were both old regular army officers – veterans of the Mexican War and members of the Aztec Club.   So Hatch wasn’t writing from the perspective of a “John Brown” abolitionist, or that of Major-General David Hunter, who’d commanded the department earlier in the war.  Hatch was an old line officer.

Hatch does not detail specifics about the Confederate treatment of US Colored Troops.  By this stage of the war, there was ample evidence with more mounting with reports from Fort Pillow.  But Hatch seemed to focus on the exchange process.  As a matter of policy, colored troops captured by the Confederates were first assessed as escaped slaves – and not prisoners of war.  Indeed a trial in Charleston involving soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts focused the legal status of some of those prisoners.  All of which, of course, went against military convention and practice. Or to use Hatch’s word – “barbarous.”

I have never located Hichcock’s reply, if any. But Hatch’s suggestion must have landed on some sympathetic ears, as later in the summer one of the more infamous episodes of the Charleston Siege played out using a similar selection process.  I am referring to the 600 prisoners held on the stockade on Morris Island.

Of course the Federal detention of those 600 “reserve class” was not, on the surface, directly related to the USCT POWs (though the stockade was indeed retaliation for a Confederate action, which is often missed by those with an axe to grind).

Also keep in mind, for context and setting, Hatch’s letter goes forward to Hichcock just as the spring 1864 campaigns have hit their second week.  USCT troops are with the Army of the Potomac, but not yet engaged.  While this matter of USCT POWs had thus far been confined to the “backwater” theaters, within a few days it would move front and center.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 90.)


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