“There are many thousands confined at southern points”: Messages from the prisoners in Charleston

On July 1, 1864, Major-General Samuel Jones, commanding Confederate forces across South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, forwarded a pair of letters to his Federal counterpart, Major-General John Foster, through the lines at Hilton Head, South Carolina.  Theses were forwarded messages from the five generals being held in Charleston at that time.  The first of these messages, signed by Brigadier-Generals Henry W. Wessells, Truman Seymour, Eliakim P. Scammon, Charles A. Heckman, and Alexander Shaller and addressed to the Adjutant-General of the US Army in Washington, read:

We desire respectfully to represent through you to our authorities our firm belief that a prompt exchange of prisoners of war in the hands of the Southern Confederacy, if exchanges are to be made, is called for by every consideration of humanity. There are many thousands confined at southern points of the Confederacy, in a climate to which they are unaccustomed, deprived of much of the food, clothing, and shelter they have habitually received, and it is not surprising that from these and other causes that need not be enumerated here much suffering, sickness, and death should ensue. In this matter the statements of our own officers are confirmed by Southern journals. And while we cheerfully submit to any policy that may be decided upon by our Government, we would urge that the great evils that must result from any delay that is not desired should be obviated by the designation of some point in this vicinity at which exchanges might be made–a course, we are induced to believe, that would be acceded to by the Confederate authorities.

Initially, Jones placed these men in Charleston specifically to deter further bombardment of the city by the Federals.  Foster’s response was, simply put, Charleston was a legitimate target.  And the Federal response was not to stop sending shells into Charleston, but to place a like number of Confederates under the guns on Morris Island.  The Federal response now prompted a secondary objective to the foreground – an opportunity to resume prisoner exchanges.

And, while I don’t have the space on this post to explore the reasons for the breakdown of prisoner exchanges in 1864, let me mention briefly the root causes – Confederate handling of USCT prisoners and Confederate practices regarding parolees.  It’s not the “row I work” normally for this blog, but if the readers would like, I’ll spin up an open post to discuss the topic more.  But I’d ask that before commenting, folks consider  the report of Major-General Ethan Hitchock (OR, Series III, Vol. 8, Serial 121, pages 799-809) and the eight volumes from the ORs on the subject.

The second, signed also by the five generals, addressed to Foster:

The journals of this morning inform us, for the first time, that 5 general officers of the Confederate service have arrived at Hilton Head, with a view to their being subjected to the same treatment that we are receiving here. We think it is just to ask for these officers every kindness and courtesy that you can extend to them, in acknowledgment of the fact that we, at this time, are as pleasantly and comfortably situated as is possible for prisoners of war, receiving from the Confederate authorities every privilege that we could desire or expect, nor are we unnecessarily exposed to fire.

Jones endorsed these two letters, adding:

I fully concur in opinion with the officers who have signed the letter that there should be an exchange of prisoners of war, and, although I am not instructed by my Government to enter into negotiations for that purpose, I have no doubt that it is willing and desirous now, as it has ever been, to exchange prisoners of war with your Government on just and honorable plans. Our difficulty in the way of carrying out the cartel of exchange agreed on between the two Governments would not exist, that I am aware of, if the exchange was conducted between you and myself. If, therefore, you think proper to communicate on the subject with your Government I will, without delay, communicate with mine, and it may be that we can enter into an agreement, subject to the approval of our respective Governments, by which the prisoners of war now languishing in confinement may be released.

Jones did not reiterate a call to cease the bombardment of Charleston.  He dropped that objective, seeking resumption of the prisoner exchanges.

Foster dutifully forwarded all these messages to Washington, while at the same time crafting his own response.  In the short term, Foster acknowledged receipt of the messages and requested more information from Jones:

I would respectfully request information as to what portion of the city these officers are now confined. If this question cannot be answered for military reasons, will you inform me of the degree of exposure to which they are subjected; whether in the part of the city most, or in that least, exposed, or that exposed in a medium degree. I would also request you to allow one general officer and one field officer of the said prisoners to subscribe to and send me a statement giving me the kind and quantity of food dealt out to them, also the comforts afforded them in the way of beds, bedding, blankets, &c. The object of these requests is simply to ascertain the exact manner in which these officers are treated, that I may treat in the same manner a like number of your officers of equal rank that are now placed in my hands by the Government.

Softening the response, slightly, Foster followed that request with another indicating he also desired an exchange of prisoners…. But Foster demanded that first all Federal prisoners be withdrawn from Charleston.  And it should be known that Foster had not yet, at that time, placed any Confederates under the guns on Morris Island.  Those fifty men were still relatively safe on board a transport, pending the construction of holding areas on Morris Island.

The question about the propriety (not to mention legality) of bombarding Charleston was, as of July 1, 1864, thrown out.  The pressing question became, “can we swap prisoners?”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 161-4.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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