December 4 to 17, 1864: Cease fire for Prisoner exchanges at Charleston

My focus on the Savannah Campaign brought a neglect to “on this day 150 years ago” blogging relative to Charleston and other points.  As Major-General William T. Sherman’s operations were at a lull for the closing weeks of 1864, that pause allows me time to “catch up.”  The important news out of Charleston during the first weeks of December was not more bombardments, but the limited firings due to a truce for prisoner exchanges.

These exchanges tie into the March to the Sea storyline at several points.  In November 1864, Lieutenant-Colonel John E. Mulford administered a cartel of exchanges taking place upstream of Fort Pulaski.  These exchanges ceased as Sherman’s troops neared, then overran, Camp Lawton.  Confederate authorities relocated the officers held there to prisons in South Carolina, while most of the enlisted went to Florida (and there is indication many were sent back to Andersonville by that route).    But Mulford was not satisfied with just a few thousand exchanged, and looked to resume activity in spite of the changing military situation.  When informed by representatives from Lieutenant-General William Hardee that exchanges on the Savannah River would cease, Mulford “made proposition for the continuance of the business in Charleston Harbor.” Receiving consent from Hardee, Mulford addressed Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, who likewise agreed.

I accordingly on Sunday, 4th instant, had an interview with the enemy and arranged that firing on the city and works in and about the harbor should be suspended for a limited period for the transferring prisoners of war to my vessels. It is provided in the agreement that no labor shall be performed by either party on works, forts, batteries, or military defenses embraced within the limits of this agreement. It is also provided that this truce shall in no way affect the blockade of the port of Charleston, S.C., by the United States. Our military and naval forces are in no degree restricted from attacking, capturing, or destroying any vessels or boats entering or leaving the enemy’s lines.

By December 7, Mulford could claim 1,000 men exchanged.  And as with previous exchanges, these were primarily invalided prisoners – those sick or lame who were in need of attention beyond the meager medical facilities in the prisons (north or south).

These exchanges took place daily between that time and December 17.   The results were widely reported through the north (in addition to the normal “beat” reporters at Charleston, there were many in the theater anticipating Sherman’s arrival).  Readers in the north saw illustrations such as this:

Notice the date from Harper’s Weekly – December 10, 1864 – and recall at the same time the nation was still in the dark as to Sherman’s progress… or fate.  The illustration itself depicts exchanges on November 18.  I would point out that the dispatch boat Eliza Hancox, the setting for the illustration, was not long for the world.  On the same day this illustration ran in Harper’s Weekly, she floundered and sank while passing between Port Royal and Charleston.

Another, image, also running in that issue likewise depicted the exchanged prisoners in a pitiful state:


The accompanying news article lead,

No more touching scene has occurred during the war than that which glorified the deck of the Eliza Hancox, Colonel Mulford’s dispatch boat, on Friday, November 18…. On that day we began to receive from the rebel authorities those of our exchanged prisoners who were in the best condition for removal. Shouting and cheering, they step on deck under the protection of the old flag. To these few the prison pens of Andersonville have become only a remembrance except in so far as the terrible record of the life there lived is written in their gaunt faces, scurvied limbs, and exhausted strength.

Images and stories of the like, covering the horrible conditions in the Confederate prison camps, were circulating through the north at the same time news of Sherman’s arrival at Savannah hit the front page.  And that should be considered in context (hold that thought for the moment).

Among those exchanged was staff officer Robert Knox Sneden, who was received on December 11.  By way of his sketchbook Sneden left a remarkable visual record of his time as a prisoner in the south:



Any why Federal singled out dogs for retribution during their marches?  Or that Camp Lawton was high on Sherman’s list of objectives?

Sneden recorded several images of Charleston harbor at the time of the exchanges:



On December 16, Mulford informed commanders on Morris Island that he would discontinue the exchanges.  At 10 a.m. the following day, the cease-fire agreement lapsed.  At that time Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig, who’d returned from leave to resume command outside Charleston, indicated he was ready to resume the bombardment of points around the harbor.

The timing of these stories from the prisons is important.  I’ve already mentioned the hardening of northern opinions of the war, as news stories of atrocities from Missouri made rounds.  At the same time word of Sherman’s march passed from speculative to actual news, the audience in the north was weighing these images and stories of prisoners.  Consider again, the stories of Sherman’s army foraging through a land abundant with supplies, while nearby prisoners had suffered for lack of food.  Any concern over the behavior of Sherman’s bummers would be balanced by outrage over these prisoners.

(Citation from OR, Series II, Volume 7, Serial 120, page 1203; Illustrations from Library of Congress Collection, “Son of the South” collection of Harper’s Weekly, and Virginia Historical Society’s online collection of Sneden’s sketchbooks.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

One thought on “December 4 to 17, 1864: Cease fire for Prisoner exchanges at Charleston

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: