James Pike – Soldier and POW? Or Sabatour and spy?

At the end of the Civil War, James Pike, of the 4th Ohio Cavalry, wrote an account of his exploits, titled “The Scout and Ranger: Being the Personal Adventures of Corporal Pike.” The front piece plug is perhaps the best argument for adding this to your reading list:

As a Texan ranger, in the Indian wars, delineating western adventure; afterwards a scout and spy, in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, under General Mitchell, Rosecrans, Stanley, Sheridan, Lytle, Thomas, Crook, and Sherman. Fully illustrating the secret service.

Lots of names dropped… and secret service!  But caution is always the approach with post-war accounts.  As any Civil War enthusiast knows, there’s enough post-war accounts of the Civil War to make up a couple of wars.  And not all of it squaring up nicely.

Where the Pike story gets my attention is his time as a prisoner in Charleston, 150 years ago from the summer of 1864.  He appears in correspondence between Major-General John Foster and Major-General Samuel Jones as they exchanged messages about the larger prisoner issue.  Some have tried to isolate specific portions of the POW dialog.  But I tend to group these as one important issue – how prisoners were handled in 1864 going into 1865 – policies and actions included.  The nature of Pike’s time as a prisoner is just part of a larger context.

Let me provide the short version of events leading to Pike’s capture (and I would point out, this was Pike’s second such capture!). Late in the spring of 1864, Pike and Private Charles Gray, of the 5th Iowa Cavalry, ventured into South Carolina opposite Augusta, Georgia.  Their aim was to burn the railroad bridge there. But they found it well guarded.  On the return to Federal lines they were discovered, chased, and captured (on or about June 5, if my math is correct) near Edgefield, South Carolina.  Dressed in civilian clothes, Pike and Gray confessed to being “scouts.”  Under the conventions of the war, they were, however, suspected of being spies.  The two spent 57 days confined in Augusta during which they “were so starved as to be mere shadows.”

In the first week of August, Confederates transferred the two men to Charleston where they would be some of the many prisoners then under Federal fire there.  These two men, however, were held in the tower of the Charleston Jail under close confinement and limited rations.  A month later, their case caught the attention of Foster, raising the subject in a September 5 letter to Jones:

I am informed by an officer recently arrived from Charleston that James Pike, of the Fourth Ohio Cavalry, and Charles R. Gray, of Fifth Iowa Cavalry, are held by you in close confinement at the jail tower in Charleston, and kept upon a prison diet of mush and water.  Also that these men have been informed that they are held and are to be tried as spies.  I further learn that they were captured on or about June 5 last, near the Hiwassee River, in Southwestern Tennessee or the northwestern part of South Carolina, and that, when taken, they were wearing our uniform and had arms in their hands.  If their claim in this respect is true, they are entitled to be treated as prisoners of war. I respectfully ask you to have their case investigated and extend to them the treatment usually accorded to prisoners of war among civilized nations.

Granted, the story related to Foster appeared to be incorrect in regard details of the capture. But the notion was set – the Confederates were not correctly handling prisoners of war.  That idea had ground to take root given the Confederate treatment of captured USCT.

Jones responded on September 10:

In reply to your letter of the 5th instant in regard to James Pike and Charles R. Gray, I have to say that they were arrested in Edgefield District of this State.  They were not in U.S. uniform when captured, and had about their persons certain papers which warranted the belief that they were spies.  They are confined, as usual in such cases, and will be accorded a fair trial.

Foster received this note a few days later, countering on September 13,

These statements are ad variance with information in my hands. I desire to acknowledge your assurance that they shall have a fair trial, and have the honor to request that when they are tried you will furnish me with a copy of the proceedings, and also of their sentence in case they are convicted.

Perhaps Foster had another “tit-for-tat” retaliation in mind.  Certainly the Federals had plenty of “spies” and other irregulars in hand.  And that seemed very likely as events played out into the fall.

In November, recently exchanged Acting Ensign Thomas Stokes (he’d been captured the previous spring at Plymouth, North Carolina) brought more information about the prisoners.  Stokes wrote to Pike’s father and to Major-General George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland.  Thomas responded in a tone very similar to Foster’s in regard to other prisoner issues at Charleston:

Respectfully referred to the Commissary-General of Prisoners, with request that two rebel prisoners of war be selected as hostages for the within-named men, viz, Corpl. James Pike, Company A, Fourth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, and Private Charles R. Gray, Company D, Fifth Iowa Cavalry, two scouts sent by me into the country occupied by the rebel army in May last. I would also request that the rebel authorities be informed that hostages have been selected and will be subjected to the same treatment as they inflict upon the two soldiers named.

The War Department approved this request.

Eventually, Pike would gain his freedom (otherwise how would we have the book?).  When the Confederates evacuated Charleston in February, he and other prisoners were removed inland to Columbia, South Carolina and then forwarded to North Carolina.  Along the way, Pike managed to get away.

In relation to the prisoner-related affairs at Charleston, Pike’s experience is worthy of note. The Federals were willing to match “an eye for an eye.”  Even if where the offenses were perceived more than actual fact.  And this attitude was not restricted to Foster at Charleston… nor to abolitionist-leaning officers.  Three years of war has a way of hardening one’s sentiments.

Perhaps the last word on this should be from Pike himself, describing the conditions he survived:

But why add more relative to the horrors of this filthy pen?  He who has never experienced the torture of a Southern prison-house can form no idea of the wretchedness inclosed; while the tens of thousands who have been incarcerated therein, but who have been fortunate enough to escape death, need no words that they may appreciate the cruelties inflicted.

(Citations, other than Pike’s, from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 271, 278, and 286; Series II, Volume 7, Serial 120, pages 1043-4.)