“They seem the most worthless and unreliable fellows in their whole lot”: The 600 prisoners on Morris Island

On October 4, 1864, Major-General John Foster provided a routine report to Army Headquarters in Washington, describing events in the Department of the South, but focused on affairs at Charleston, South Carolina.  He began describing continued “skirmishing” with the heavy artillery:

I have the honor to report that nothing of importance has occurred in this department since the date of my last report. In the Northern District the usual firing on the city has been kept up. Sharp firing has at times taken place between our batteries and the enemy’s batteries on James and Sullivan’s Islands. Sufficient fire is kept up to interfere with the landing of supplies at their wharf, situated on the left flank. The work upon the repairs and enlargement of the front batteries on Cumming’s Point is pushed as vigorously as the force will admit. I am surrounding these batteries by a new and strong palisading in the place of the old and flimsy one, so as to effectually secure them against a surprise attack of the enemy in boats. Proper arrangements for close defense and flanking of these batteries are also being made.

Note again the desired target in Charleston, described here by Foster – the wharfs. If the Navy could not stop the blockade runners, then perhaps the Army could stop the transfer of cargo.

Foster acknowledged the arrival of Brigadier-General Eliakim P. Scammon, replacing Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, who’d been the temporary replacement for Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig.  But most of the report focused on the ongoing prisoner issue at Charleston.  First the status of 600 Confederate prisoners held on Morris Island:

The condition of the rebel prisoners in the stockade on Morris Island is generally good. Some of them are sickening on their scant fare, and I has died. I have not yet allowed the 6 rebel officers to take the oath of allegiance, as authorized by the honorable Secretary of War. I am not satisfied that they are worthy of that favor. They seem to be the most worthless and unreliable fellows in the whole lot. If I had known this at the time of forwarding their application I should have disapproved it. The prisoners have made several feeble and ineffectual attempts to escape by tunneling, &c., but against all such attempts on the part of the prisoners or of their friends to rescue them the precautions taken seem to be adequate. I permit the prisoners to receive private stores from their friends in the precise proportion of the stores actually delivered to our officers, prisoners in Charleston.

Foster compared the conditions on Morris Island to what he knew of Federal prisoners in Charleston:

I hear that the private contributions sent to our privates, now prisoners, were of great service, the condition of our men being deplorable. Many of them were naked; many had only a blouse or shirt to cover their nakedness; and still many that had only some rags tied about the middle to serve as a breech clout. I am able to report from positive information that many of the people of Charleston exerted themselves in every way to relieve the necessities of our men, and freely, as far as their means would allow, made contributions of food and clothing. The effect, however, upon our men, as far as their military status is concerned, has been very bad, inasmuch as 389 of them have been induced to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederate States, and to go to work in the shops in Charleston. This is in addition to the number that I reported in my last letter as having gone to work on the fortifications of Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island.

One portion of this story which I’ve never been able to sufficiently document is that 389 number.  We hear about the “Galvanized Yankees” from time to time – Confederates who agreed to serve in the Federal ranks.  But references to Federals who did the opposite are few (someone will remind me, in due course, of “Big Yankee Ames” who rode with Mosby).

Foster continued:

The yellow fever is now prevailing in Charleston, but to what extent I am not informed. I have in consequence instituted a strict quarantine.

Yellow Fever was among the most feared epidemic diseases during the Civil War.  Jim Schmidt mentioned another 150th associated with that disease just the other day.  So even as the temperatures turned cool with the arrival of fall, the threat of yellow fever remained present.  Yet, at that time no authority could pinpoint how the disease was spread.  Such would require decades more research and military necessity during another war.

Foster insisted the fire on Charleston remained effective, claiming, “Our shells reach the arsenal and the whole upper part of the city.” And the health of the men was improving with the cooler weather of fall.  In the previous year, the onset of fall brought expanded military operations.  But now both sides seemed handicapped by resource limits.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 24-5.)


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