July 13, 1864: Foster’s demands “an unnecessary obstacle” towards prisoner exchanges

Around all the activity on James and John’s Islands for the first weeks of July, 1864, fifty Federal officers remained as prisoners in Charleston.   And preparations continued to place fifty Confederate officers, of similar rank, on Morris Island in retaliation.  With operations in the field slacking, on July 13, 1864, Major-General Samuel Jones sent three letters to his Federal counterpart, Major-General John Foster, in regard to prisoners.

One of these letters specifically addressed the status of Dr. William T. Robinson, 104th Pennsylvania.  Confederates captured the doctor on John’s Island early in July.  Foster requested he be returned under, “well-established custom of releasing medical officers of both armies.”  Jones pondered that Dr. Robinson had been engaged in military reconnoitering and thus wanted to fully investigate the matter before agreeing to any release.  Jones would take his time investigating, but the good doctor was eventually released in August.

The second letter responded to Foster’s request for information about the conditions of Federal prisoners in Charleston.  Jones left no doubt the officers were exposed to the same dangers as Confederate soldiers and civilians alike in Charleston:

I cannot well be more minute without pointing out the very houses in which they are confined, and for reasons very easily understood I am sure that this will not be expected. If the statements in my letter of the 22d ultimo are insufficient, the letter of the 5 general officers, dated the 1st instant, in which they assure you that they “are as pleasantly and comfortably situated as is possible for prisoners of war, receiving from the Confederate authorities every privilege that we (they) could desire or expect, nor are we (they) unnecessarily exposed to fire, gives you all the information in regard to their treatment that you can reasonably desire.

In his third letter of the day, Jones got to larger matters.  Jones, responding to Foster’s second note of July 4, in which the Federal commander alluded to an exchange of prisoners.  This, Jones agreed, was a desirable outcome:

I am pleased to know that you reciprocate my desire for an exchange of prisoners, but regret that you should require as a condition precedent to any negotiation for this end that I should remove from their present location the U.S. prisoners of war now in this city. Such a course on my part would be an implied admission that those officers are unduly exposed and treated with unnecessary rigor, which they have themselves assured you in their letter of the 1st instant is not the case. I regard the exchange of prisoners as demanded alike by the rules of civilized warfare and the dictates of common humanity, and to require a change of location which you have every reason to know the prisoners do not themselves desire is to throw an unnecessary obstacle in the way of accomplishing this end, and thus to retain prisoners of war in irksome confinement. The change I most prefer would be to send them to your headquarters, and this may yet be done, unless defeated by obstacles interposed by yourself or your Government.

Notice the absence of any counter claims about the bombardment of Charleston, which had been the original Confederate justification.  Instead, Jones would insist on keeping the prisoners in Charleston as leverage until any “obstacles interposed” were removed.

The “human shields” employed at Charleston were no longer there to deter further bombardments of the city, rather to entice the Federals into re-opening broad prisoner exchanges.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Serial 66, pages 174-5.)


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