“I am confident that the city can be destroyed”: Foster’s report of October 13, 1864

Major-General John Foster provided his weekly report to Washington on October 13, 1864.  Activity throughout the Department of the South slowed to an ebb. And the report reflected the inactivity.

Foster had just returned from an inspection tour of Florida when writing his report.  He expressed confidence in the arrangements there, finding “General Hatch has diligently applied himself to the improvement of the defenses of Jacksonville, Magnolia, Picolata, and Yellow Bluff, so that in a short time those places will be impregnable to any attack short of a siege.”  For Fort Clinch, Foster offered more details in regard to proposed improvements.  Foster also noted the capture of a Confederate colonel and 29 men from the local militia.

As for the front at Charleston:

The reports from the other districts are satisfactory. In the Northern District the usual amount of firing between our own and the enemy’s batteries continues. The firing on the city continues and has improved, so that our shells fall into the extreme upper part of the city with so much accuracy that the people who had formerly moved there for safety are now moving back toward the burnt district. I am confident that the city can be destroyed entirely by the fire of a large number of 100 and 200 pounder Parrott rifles–say twenty in number.

To be clear, Foster was not directly proposing to level Charleston at this point in the war.  Rather he was relating what was possible, should the need arise.  In the fall of 1864, with a stalemate outside Richmond and Confederate offensive operations in other theaters, more resources were not going to Foster in order to wrestle over Charleston – again.

Foster then turned to the subject of prisoners:

Information received through Capt. D. W. Fox, of the Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers, who escaped from Charleston in the disguise of a rebel soldier on the 5th, represents the yellow fever as still prevailing at Charleston, and on the increase. The officers and men of our army recently prisoners of war in that city have all been removed, except the negro soldiers, to Columbia and other places in the northern part of the State. I have made no change in the disposition of the rebel officers in my hands, for the reason that our officers were a long time under fire before these men were placed in a corresponding position; that the negro soldiers are still under fire, and I am not officially informed of the removal of the white officers and soldiers. Captain Fox confirms the report of many of our men taking the oath of allegiance to the rebel Government, but states that he believes them to be mostly those men whose terms of service have expired.

The burden of keeping Federal prisoners in Charleston far outweighed any benefit gained.  Though at first Major-General Samuel Jones linked the prisoners to a demand to stop the bombardment of Charleston, that demand fell by the wayside with efforts to force open the exchange system.

Some writers of recent history have seized upon this particular report as evidence of Foster’s vengeful and hateful approach to the war.  He proposed leveling the city in one paragraph and then later insisted on keeping the rebel prisoners on Morris Island after the Confederates had removed prisoners from Charleston.  Yes, Foster had reason to be cool towards the Confederates.  But he also had solid justifications for keeping the Confederate prisoners on Morris Island, which he stated clearly in this report.  The most important of which, as I look back at the report from 150 years, was the negro prisoners “still under fire.”

In Charleston, leading the third column, on the first page of the Charleston Mercury for October 13, 1864 was the headline:

Siege of Charleston

Four Hundred and Sixty-second Day.

Since our last the enemy’s fire upon the city has fallen considerably. Eighty-three shots were fired during the twenty-four hours closing at six P.M., Wednesday evening.

Though a secondary theater in the minds of those in Richmond and Washington, Charleston was still very much an active front of the war in the fall of 1864.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 25-6.)

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