150 years ago, today: A prisoner exchange at Charleston

There is an oft repeated over simplification in regard to prisoner handling during the later stages of the Civil War.  I’m sure you’ve heard or read that the Federals, specifically Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant, ceased all prisoner exchanges (which thus, in some jaded eyes, lead directly to the horrors of Andersonville).  However, it is not the case that no exchanges took place.  As any student of the war will quickly realize, exchange activity continued through the war.  Some limited exchanges, such as the “original fifty” at Charleston.  In other cases, the exchanges were larger in scope, such as that between Generals Sherman and Hood after the fall of Atlanta.

However, a significant difference emerged through 1864 on this matter.  More and more the discussion of exchanges, as well as prisoner handling in general, became an instrument of war into itself.  Today, we might call this “Strategic Communication” while other generations would identify elements of propaganda.  No matter how you label it, both sides used the prisoners as a token at play on the chess board.  The status of prisoners, be that at Charleston, Andersonville, or Fort Delaware, was offered to the general public to solidify support while disparaging the other side (North or South).

Appearing somewhat anachronistic in that light, the military authorities continued to rely upon regulations and policies for prisoner handling.  The discussion was tense, but practice had to comply with conventions.  Such was the case on September 23, 1864.  Earlier in the month, Confederates had released several Federal surgeons, medical personnel, and chaplains under the conventions of the time for non-combatants.   Upon receiving the list of those to be exchanged, Major-General John Foster identified some of these men properly as combatants who’s status was mistaken (by no part of deception on anyone’s part).  To demonstrate good faith, Foster suggested his Confederate counterpart, Major-General Samuel Jones, accept five privates as part of the exchange.

The Confederate commander agreed, but when Foster insisted on the exchange take place on the Savannah River (upstream from Fort Pulaski), Jones insisted on Charleston as the location. In a letter to Jones on September 19, Foster consented and scheduled the exchange for the 23rd at 10 a.m. (which I’m timing the release of this post to!).  While passing the Confederate privates, Foster would receive certain families, mostly foreigners who had petitioned to be allowed to leave the south, into Federal lines.  Also, the Federals would transfer boxes containing “articles as clothing, writing paper, smoking material, and books” for the Federal prisoners held in Charleston.  So this was more than a simple transfer of five privates.

The Charleston Mercury covered this exchange with a front page article the following day (note the lead in):

Siege of Charleston

Four-hundred and forty-third day.

A flag of truce communication for the release of about eighteen additional Yankee surgeons and Chaplains in our hands, and able for the passage through the lines of a number of families going North, took place in the harbor off Fort Sumter, about half-past ten o’clock Friday morning.

The flag of truce steamer Celt, Captain Wm. McNaulty, with the white flag flying the fore, bearing Col. Jno. F. Lay, Commander of Exchange on the part of Gen. Jones, and a number of officers and civilians, left Chisolm’s Mill wharf shortly after eight o’clock Friday morning, and proceeded down the harbor to the usual anchorage ground outside of Fort Sumter.

About ten o’clock the Yankee army steamer Delaware, Captain Tilton, came steaming up and ranged alongside the Celt.  Col. Lay was invited on board the Delaware by Col. Woodford and Col. Bennett, Commissioners to conduct proceedings on the part of General Foster. The interview which was held on board the Delaware lasted about an hour and resulted in the complete success of Col. Lay’s negotiations for the future exchange of prisoners, and with satisfaction to both parties. The released Surgeons and Chaplains, with Mr. F.A. Sawyer and family, and a number of women and children, were received on board the Delaware by Cols. Woodford and Bennett.

One passenger, the Rev. P.J. Kerby, a Catholic Clergyman, of Savannah, and five privates of the Florida cavalry captured in Florida, were received on board the Celt. About one hundred and fifty boxes and barrels of sanitary stores and clothing for the Yankee prisoners here and at Andersonville, Ga., and other places, forwarded by the New York Sanitary Commission from the Women’s Central Relief Association, were also taken on board and brought to the city.  An exchange of papers was made through Mr. Oscar J. Sawyer, of the New York Herald and Mr. Geo. W. Johnson of the New York Times.  Yankee papers to the 19th inst., brought by the steamer Fulton, to Port Royal, were received….

We learn that, in all probability, the flag of truce for the exchange of naval prisoners and also for some special exchange, will take place on Saturday, the first of October.

Our returned prisoners, who arrived yesterday, report a considerable increase of the Yankee troops at Hilton Head.

An increase of about four hundred Confederate prisoners to the Yankee pen on Morris Island was made Friday afternoon. They were landed from a steamer which came into Lighthouse Inlet from the North, and were marched down to the stockade about five o’clock in the afternoon, guarded by a strong force of both foot and mounted soldiers….

We often read about similar exchanges under a flag of truce.  The article here offers some of the particulars of how these were conducted.  Notice how the newspapers were exchanged, by the newspapermen.  That exchange lead to a flurry of articles in the Mercury with the leader – “From Northern newspapers…”

And as for other news on the siege:

Twenty-five shots were fired at the city Thursday night and five shots about five o’clock Friday, after the cessation of the flag of truce.

Working parties of the enemy were busy below Wagner yesterday. The enemy’s wagons and carts were again engaged all day hauling ammunition to Batteries Gregg and Wagner.

There was no material change in the fleet.

So a pause for the exchanges, then right back to war.

Consider the wording used in the Mercury’s account of these events with my “strategic communications” premise in mind.  For the Confederates, these exchanges had to take place, if for nothing else to demonstrate some hope of improving the war situation existed.  To hear “in all probability” more such exchanges were planned sent a message to the readers.  So long as those were projected and scheduled, then the outlook for the war remained at least “status quo”… and emboldened the readers to continue enduring the shots fired into the city.

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