On October 1, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren offered this note to Major-General John Foster in regard to Confederate activity at Charleston, South Carolina:
I send you some deserters from Battery Marshall, who will give you some account of the works there. By their account, some 200 or 300 Union troops are working near Battery Marshall for the sake of getting clothing and shoes to wear, being nearly destitute.
Some of these troops were drawn from the 600 Federal prisoners being held in Charleston. While an important point on the chain of Confederate defenses, Battery Marshall, being on the north end of Sullivan’s Island, was not at a “hot corner.” However, naval force occasionally traded shots with the battery. And standing orders to the blockaders was to disrupt any working parties seen at the works on the Islands.
These prisoners were in effect “working for clothes.” I cannot locate any note of protest from Foster, but this must have brought to mind earlier correspondence with Confederates authorities in regard to supplies for the prisoners. At several times during the month, packages were exchanged and certainly allowances could provide needed clothing.
The practice of using prisoners as a labor force was not new in 1864. However, the selection of tasks placing the prisoners at an exposed section of the line did press the envelope of the practice. And remember, these were tasks the Confederates normally reserved for negroes (either impressed or contracted). Dahlgren’s note does not state if the prisoners were white troops or colored troops.
The USCT POW experience was, to say the least, worse than that of the white troops due to their legal status in Confederate hands. Members of the 54th Massachusetts captured at Battery Wagner after the failed July 18, 1863 were among the first such USCT prisoners which Confederate authorities had to deal with. Just days after their capture, Captain W.H. Peronneau, commanding Castle Pinkney where the prisoners were held, reported:
Negro prisoners are willing to submit to the State laws; they are willing to go to Battery Bee and work.
Another layer to the prisoner of war issue at Charleston. The laws which Peronneau referred were those allowing the state to impress blacks to work. But along with those were laws which allowed authorities to send the men back into bondage, or to try them as inciting a slave revolt. The black prisoners subject to forced labor laws with the threat of the hangman’s noose ever present.
And I reached back to that 1863 report with a mind to illustrate another point. The prisoner issue at Charleston was not one that “developed” simply because the Federals confined 600 Confederates on Morris Island. In its roots, the problem began in the summer of 1863. And it involved, from the start, what the USCT represented in the minds of Confederate authorities.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 307; Series II, Volume 6, Serial 119, page 132.)