On September 8, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, commanding the Northern District (Morris and Folly Islands), Department of the South, wrote to Major-General John Foster to report the status of recently arrived Confederate prisoners:
I have the honor to report that on yesterday the rebel prisoners were all safely landed and placed in the stockade in front of Fort Strong. I found on my arrival here that General Schimmelfennig had already detailed the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Colonel Hallowell, to guard the prisoners, and as I was expected as far as possible to carry out his plans I have not changed the detail. I believe that no better officer than Colonel Hallowell can be found in whose hands to place their safe-keeping, and thus far the duty has been well performed.
The 54th Massachusetts blazed a path of glory when assaulting Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863. Then just over a year later, they were standing at practically the same ground (now called Fort Strong) guarding Confederate prisoners. Just food for thought….
In addition to the 54th Massachusetts, two Requa batteries stood near the stockade. These “proto-machine guns” were placed “in such a manner that they may be used at once upon the prisoners in case they should be needed.” Again, more food for thought here.
The prisoners’ stockade was located just above Fort Strong, in the Vincent Creek side of the island. This placed the prisoners in open view from the Confederate batteries on James Island… and under their guns.
Captain Luis Emilio described the arrangements in his history of the 54th Massachusetts:
An enclosed camp was made for them just north of Wagner, in full view of the enemy and exposed to his fire. The enclosure was 228 by 304 feet, and formed of palisading of pine posts, ten feet above the ground, supporting a platform from which sentinels could watch the prisoners. The “dead line,” marked by a rope stretched on posts, was twenty feet inside the palisading. Good A tents, each to hold four men, were pitched and arranged, forming eight streets. The ground was clean, dry, quartz sand.
The setup was similar to the quarters for Federal troops on the island at the time. Though without any berms, epaulments, or ramparts facing James Island.
Foster justified the placement of Confederate prisoners in a letter to Major-General Samuel Jones, dated September 4:
In my letter of August 15 ultimo I demanded the removal from under our fire of any prisoners of war who might be held by you in confinement at Charleston. In your reply of the 20th ultimo you admit that you still retain prisoners of war at that point, where they are exposed to fire.
I this day learn from recently released prisoners that our Union officers are still kept by you under the fire of our guns. I have therefore to inform you that your officers, now in my hands, will be placed by me under your fire, as an act of retaliation.
So the presence of the 600 Confederate prisoners – which later received the name “Immortal 600” – was an act of retaliation. The prisoner business turned from bad to worse. And would continue to get worse as 1864 continued.
The question, then, on the table is if this were a justified retaliation? Or acts of war getting out of control?
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 269 and 275; Series II, Volume 7, Serial 120, page 763; Emilio, Luis F. History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 222.)