“There seems no necessity of keeping them…”: Foster requests permission to return the “Immortal 600”

For just over a month, Major-General John Foster held 600 Confederate officer prisoners on Morris Island in retaliation for a like number of Federal prisoners held in Charleston.   In mid-October, Foster moved those prisoners to Fort Pulaski. Through the late fall and into the early weeks of winter, the prisoners remained at Fort Pulaski while exchanges took place and Savannah changed hands.

Despite not being under fire, the Confederate prisoners suffered during their stay at Fort Pulaski.  The weather and poor rations sapped the health of the men.  Yet, for what it is worth, Colonel Philip P. Brown, 157th New York and commander at Fort Pulaski, received a reprimand for not reducing the food issued to “retaliation rations” in December.  (If you are following along as Fort Pulaski National Monument as they post diary entries from Henry Clay Dickinson, you might have noticed the change in rations to “sour meal and pickles.” That change was a result of Brown receiving firm orders for these “retaliation rations.”)

But into January 1865, the prisoners became more of a hindrance to Foster and the Federals.  On January 8, 1865, Foster wrote Major-General Henry Halleck, Army Chief of Staff, on the matter:

General: In order to be able to garrison all the posts in this department I find it necessary to make available every soldier I have. For this purpose I would respectfully ask permission to send North the rebel officers, prisoners of war, that were sent to this department for retaliation. These now number about 500, about 100 of them having been exchanged by Colonel Mulford as being sick and unfit for service.

As the rebel authorities have since removed our prisoners from under fire in the city of Charleston, and these rebel officers being accordingly removed from Morris Island to this post and Fort Pulaski, there seems no necessity of keeping them for the original purpose for which they were sent, as General Hardee has stated that it was not the intention to expose our prisoners to the fire on Charleston. The granting of the above request will liberate one of my best regiments from guard duty and make it available for service in the field or garrison. I respectfully request to be informed, if you see fit to grant this request, to what point they are to be shipped.

The request certainly made sense.  With pressing needs to garrison Savannah and provide support for operations into South Carolina, Foster needed every able hand.  But when Halleck received this request on January 15, he deferred the matter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was at that time visiting Savannah by way of Hilton Head.  Halleck presumed he had “decided all questions asked in your communications.”  A month later, Foster’s successor would pose the same inquiry, for the same reasons.  The story, and suffering, of the Immortal 600 (though by that time diminished to 500) would continue through the winter.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 27 and 57.)

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