Removed to Fort Pulaski: The Immortal 600 depart Morris Island

On October 20, 1864, Major-General John Foster reported a change with the 600 prisoners held on Morris Island:

I have the honor to report that since my communication of the 13th instant nothing of note has transpired in this department except the removal of the rebel prisoners of war from Morris Island, S.C., to Fort Pulaski, Ga., of which I have given full particulars in another communication.

Removed from the open stockade on Morris Island, the “Immortal 600” would spend the winter in the casemates of Fort Pulaski.  Recall this was long planned by Foster, but he held off implementation to make a point to the Confederate command.

Fort Pulaski 5 May 10 224

Concurrent with the move, the Federals lifted the “Andersonville rations” imposed on the Confederates.  However several logistical issues meant the food provided would improve very little.  By early December the prisoners exhibited symptoms of scurvy.  Arguably, the open air of Morris Island was healthier – even if the things flying through the air made life dangerous – than the stuffy casemates of Fort Pulaski.  Although only three died on Morris Island, thirteen would die at Fort Pulaski through March 1865.  Another 25 died after the prisoners returned north to Fort Delaware.  Such figures point to a gradual breakdown in the health of the prisoners, more so than the relative danger of each locality.

I wouldn’t say we should “close” the story of the Immortal 600 at Fort Pulaski.  Indeed, not until the end of the war did their story come full circle.  And, as I said in a presentation given on the subject last week for a Roundtable, the story the Immortal 600 is in many ways just the “well known” episode representing several similar incidents during the war.  For instance, around this same time, Major-General Benjamin Butler was holding Confederate prisoners at Dutch Gap for reasons similar to Foster’s.

Beyond just the “tit-for-tat” retaliations that used prisoners as pawns, the story of the 600 prisoners is also representative of the overall problems with prisoner handling in the Civil War.  To really come to grips with the issues, we have to step beyond our 21st and 20th century opinions about how prisoners are handled to examine the 19th century conventions… or lack thereof.  And at the same time, we have to look closely at the decisions which lead to a breakdown with the exchange system.  In that light, I content the prisoner issues of 1864 are partly, if not completely, a by-product of the Emancipation Proclamation.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 26.)

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