“I have up to the present time received over 3,000 of our men”: Prisoner exchanges in November 1864 upriver from Fort Pulaski

One of the long standing myths associated with the Civil War is that Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant stopped exchanges mid-way through the war.  This normally offered as a blanket statement.  And the lack of exchanges is then cited as causing the swelling prison population.  As I’ve discussed at length during the sesquicentennial, the Federals curtailed exchanges mostly due to the Confederates not affording POW status to captured US Colored Troops.  Such was a policy Grant inherited as commander, and one he stuck to.  But to say there were no exchanges is not a true statement.  The exchange of fifty senior officers at Charleston is one example.  Generals Sherman and Hood exchanged prisoners at the close of the Atlanta Campaign.  There were also non-combatant and smaller exchanges that took place during the summer and fall of 1864.

Well into the fall, efforts by both sides were thawing the cold stance made by both sides in regard to prisoners. Lieutenant-Colonel John E. Mulford (Federal) and Judge Robert Ould (Confederate) opened a dialog that led to an exchange of supplies to reduce the suffering of prisoners.  The particulars are too lengthy to replete here, but included the trade of cotton in order to secure blankets for Confederate prisoners.  Shortly after that agreement, an idea floated by several authorities finally took hold – an exchange of invalid prisoners.

LTC (later COL and BG) John E. Mulford

On October 31, Mulford received a very lengthy order from Major-General Benjamin Butler, assigning the task of overseeing just such an exchange:

Having, in obedience to orders by telegraph, received on board the fleet of vessels which Colonel Webster, chief quartermaster, has been ordered to place at your disposal all invalid Confederate prisoners of war, as certified to me by Colonel Hoffman, in the Eastern camps held by us, you will proceed to Fort Pulaski with your prisoners and there tender them for exchange according to the agreement made between the commissioner of exchange on the part of the United States and the agent of exchange for the Confederate authorities, and there receive on board all the prisoners belonging to the United States which shall be given you by the Confederate authorities. You will also inform the Confederate authorities that there are from 2,500 to 3,000 invalid prisoners within the agreement ready for delivery on the Mississippi River as soon as the point shall be designated. These are in the Western camps. As this matter of the exchange of prisoners is managed in behalf of the military authorities of the Confederates through the agent of exchange and the commissioner of exchange on the part of this Government, you will take no directions upon the subject except from the commissioner of exchange or the Secretary of War. This direction is given you because, as your business at Fort Pulaski will bring you within the department of General Foster, it is desirable to save all possible conflict of authority.

The orders went on for several pages to detail logistical and administrative matters that needed attention. But the gist of this was simple – Mulford would proceed to Hilton Head, where he would coordinate an exchange of prisoners at a point up river from Fort Pulaski.  Mulford departed on November 6.  And on November 11, Major-General John Foster gave notice to Lieutenant-General William Hardee:

I have the honor to inform you that several large steamers, bearing between 3,000 and 4,000 sick and wounded Confederate soldiers, have arrived in this harbor. Others are to follow, bringing, in all, 10,000 men.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mulfold, agent for exchange, is here and is prepared to enter upon an exchange of these prisoners for our own sick and wounded in your hands at once. He will ascend the Savannah River to-day, and meeting your flag-of-truce boat will make proper arrangements with Colonel Ould, or such agent of exchange as may be designated, to facilitate the exchange.

On the Confederate side, prisoners shifted from Andersonville to Camp Lawton, outside Millen, Georgia to facilitate this exchange.  There was even some rumor among the Immortal 600 that they would also be exchanged during the process.

The exchanges began on or about November 15 and continued through out the remainder of the month.  The place of exchange was a point on the Savannah River just above Fort Pulaski named Venus Point (location of a battery used to isolate Fort Pulaski in 1862). But there was some delay due to the method by which the two sides conducted truces in the Department of the South, as Mulford related in a report to Butler on November 21:

I have the honor to inform you that I have up to the present time received over 3,000 of our men. Their physical condition is rather better than I expected, but their personal is worse than anything I have ever seen–filth and rags. It is a great labor to cleanse and clothe them, but I am fairly at work and will progress as rapidly as possible. I have much to say, but have little time for writing now. I have got off two vessels to-day and will try and get off two to-morrow, and so on. Matters have been rather queerly managed here in the mode of conducting truce business. I have nothing whatever to do with the old matters, or the business of this department.

By the second of December, Federal troops had overrun Millen (finding the prisoners evacuated). And the siege of Savannah eventually put an end to the exchanges there.  On December 7, Mulford reported he had coordinated to move the exchanges to Charleston.  Though Mulford did not provide a total number of men exchanged at Venus Point, the last figure offered on November 29 was 4,000.

One of those 4,000 was a Private W.D. Baker of the 48th Alabama.

Page 11

Here’s a close up of the paragraph at the bottom:

WDBakerPage 11

Baker was among 3,023 Confederate soldiers exchanged for at least 4,000 Federals there.  You might recall my interest in Baker is from a home town connection.  Prior to looking into Baker’s military records, I had but a passing notation about the prisoner exchanges at Venus Point, relating to some of the lesser known activity associated with Fort Pulaski.  I’d probably not even rated it worth a blog post.  And likely none of you would be reading of the 150th anniversary of those exchanges.  Funny, the trails research can take us.

(Citations from OR, Series II, Volume 7, Serial 120, pages 1070, 1120, and 1149.)

5 thoughts on ““I have up to the present time received over 3,000 of our men”: Prisoner exchanges in November 1864 upriver from Fort Pulaski

  1. Going over one South Carolina regiment in particular recently, I was struck by how many men were exchanged in the last year of the war but before the end of the conflict. These were almost certainly troops who were in poor physical condition, but, as you noted, such action goes against the widely held belief that prisoner exchanges were stopped as the conflict dragged on. It shows perhaps how quickly men could be struck down by illness, that so many others died before they could be exchanged.

  2. This is very helpful. I’m researching a soldier who was paroled at Savannah in November 1864 (and was in a Maryland hospital a week later) and this is good background information for me and for the story.

  3. My 3rd great uncle, Sgt. William R. Bosley of Co. B, 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, was part of this exchange. He was wounded at 3rd Winchester on 19 October 1864 and had the good fortune to be selected with little time spent as a POW. I’d love to find accounts of what took place on the voyage down and then what happened in Savannah after he was back in Southern hands. Was he sent back up to Virginia to rejoin his unit or was he kept in the area to help the local defense forces deal with the approach of Sherman? His service record is silent on this.

    • Most of the prisoners exchanged (both sides) were considered invalids and thus placed on something akin to “convalescent leave”, as we might call it today. I would suspect, given the records for SGT Bosley, that he had not recovered from the wound to his left leg/ankle by November 1864. Given that, I seriously doubt he was involved in any other field operations during the war. Of the ten Confederate exchanges that I’ve traced through the records, all appear to have returned home or were moved to a hospital upon exchange.

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