August 18, 1864: Foster’s evaluation of the POW issue – It’s all about the exchanges

Major-General John Foster’s report of August 18, 1864 to Major-General Henry Halleck might have opened with discussion of troop transfers.  But the next subject Foster touched upon was the prisoner of war issue which had developed at Charleston through the summer.  With 600 Federals held as prisoners in Charleston, Foster was preparing facilities to house 600 Confederates on Morris Island in response.  Considering all the information at his disposal, Foster evaluated the issue:

About the exchanges I have sent on full documents. The rebels are anxious to exchange. They say that their desire is that two old regular officers like Jones and myself may have charge of the matter, so that it may be fairly done without any political jars and interruptions. They desire to have all exchanged, both officers (1,800) and men (37,000). Although the men are not now in General Jones’ command, he can have them sent forward at any time. Jones seems well disposed, so our released prisoners say.

It was all about facilitating more exchanges.

[Jones] sent an apology to General Wessells for placing the 600 officers under fire in Charleston. He stated that he did not place them there to be under fire, but that they were merely en route. The truth is they are so short of men as guards that they have no place to put their prisoners in except Charleston and Savannah.

So, here we see another aspect of the manpower shortage for the Confederates.  Foster closed this portion of his report by stating his preferences as the prisoner issue continued:

If an exchange is authorized I shall specify that those in Charleston be first exchanged, and that no others be placed there. As far as injury to them goes there can be none, for I know their exact position and direct the shells accordingly. As soon as the rebel officers arrive I shall place them immediately on Morris Island between Wagner and Gregg.

There was one other prisoner-related subject, which Foster did not mention in this report of August 18.  Concerned with reports from Andersonville, Foster inquired with his opposite number on the Confederate side, Major-General Samuel Jones, in regard to sanitary and other supplies needed by the prisoners.  Foster offered to provide supplies to the prisoners, but for obvious reasons insisted a Federal officer in the camps be in charge of distribution.  That inquiry floated about until a response came later in the month.  Foster’s proposal is of note – particularly when considering the retaliatory measures taken later against the 600 Confederate prisoners confined at both Morris Island and Fort Pulaski.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 247.)


More troops sent north by Foster: Reinforcements for Virginia

Early in the Civil War, it was possible for commanders in the far flung theaters of war to operate with some degree of separation from the advances or setbacks in other sectors.  By the summer of 1864, that was simply not possible.  Partly by way of Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant’s approach to the war, the theaters of war were connected as resources shifted in accordance with priorities.  In August 1864, the pressing priority was not Charleston, or Savannah.  Rather, due to the actions of Confederate Major-General Jubal Early, top on the list was the Shenandoah Valley.

As such, orders came from Washington for Major-General John Foster to forward any troops that might be spared from the Department of the South.  On August 15, Foster wrote to Major-General Henry Halleck acknowledging the orders, noting he had already sent a brigade under Brigadier-General William Birney:

I had already sent Brigadier-General Birney’s brigade, which I thought was all that I could safely spare, but being desirous to carry out my orders to the very letter, and to meet the wishes of the commanding general, I have so arranged, since the receipt of your telegram, as to send three or four white regiments in addition. Although this will leave me too weak in some points, especially as I have to provide for the security of the prisoners of war that are to be sent here, yet I believe I can so arrange, by the rapid transfer of troops from one point to another in case of attack, as to meet any emergency that is likely to occur. I trust it will not be longer than the return of cold weather before a sufficient force can be given me to enable me to operate successfully against the enemy in this department.

On August 18, Foster reported progress in the transfers and identified specific regiments going north:

I am sending every man that can possibly be spared. This will leave me very weak, but I can take care of the department with what remains, and if the rebels attack us, which I consider out of the question, I will show them a revised edition of Little Washington. I have thought it my duty to send good and tried regiments. Those sent in this second brigade are all whites and old, well-tried troops, most of them veterans. I hope my active efforts to meet General Grant’s wishes at this time may be effective in securing me, as soon as cold and healthy weather sets in, a sufficient force to take Charleston and Savannah. I am sure that this can be done at any time that the Government orders it.

The regiments sent now–four in number–report as follows, very nearly, viz:

  • 41st New York Volunteers – 400 men, 300 effectives.
  • 103d New York Volunteers – 500 men, 370 effectives.
  • 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers – 500 men, 350 effectives.
  • White regiment from Florida – ?

Later the 104th Pennsylvania became the “to be determined” regiment from Florida.  This effectively stripped the Department of any offensive capability by land, short of a risky reallocation of defenses.  The “Little Washington” alluded to was of course a reference to Fort Stevens and the fight there in July of that year.  Foster did not believe the Confederates could muster more than a demonstration.   The three identified regiments were on transports heading north that day, as Foster noted in a follow up report:

I sent this day, per steamers Arago and Cosmopolitan, two old regiments, the One hundred and third New York Volunteers and the Seventy-fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers, with orders to the commanding officers to stop at Fort Monroe, Va., and telegraph from that place their arrival en route to Washington. These regiments number in the aggregate some 1,100 men, but in the effective about 680. Still they are old and well-seasoned troops and well officered. I feel confident that they will accomplish as much as new regiments of much larger size. The Forty-first New York Volunteers left here last night in steamer John Rice, with orders similar to those given to Colonel Heine.

Important to note, Foster was sending units that, while veteran, had significant numbers near to mustering out.  To some degree this was a practical matter, as those men would have been shipped north anyway.  For example, the 74th Pennsylvania lost nearly half of its number as veterans mustered out later in September.   Later, with reenlistments and recruits, the regiment garrisoned West Virginia to the close of the war.  What remained of the 41st New York and the 103rd New York, along with a battalion from the 104th Pennsylvania, were part of Colonel J. Howard Kitching’s provisional brigade, and would see active service with the Army of the Shenandoah that fall and later on the siege lines in front of Richmond-Petersburg.  So we cannot simply dismiss these units as “nearly end of service.”  Clearly enough men were available at roll-call to matter.

Foster continued to remind Washington that Charleston and Savannah were practical objectives, for what it was worth.  And indeed sixth months would prove him correct… though from a direction not foreseen in the summer of 1864.

The second half of Foster’s August 18 report to Halleck concerns the prisoner of war situation.   I will look at those details in the next post.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 234-5, 247, and 248.)