Tag Archives: Benjamin Butler

“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.  Such, as a blanket statement.  Such is then blamed for 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.)

“In anticipation of the crossing of the James…”: Engineers begin preparing for Grant’s move 150 years ago

In the evening of June 11, Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant sent a dispatch to Major-General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Army of the James on the south side of the James River.  In part, that message read:

The movement to transfer [the Army of the Potomac] to the south side of the Jame River will commence after dark to-morrow night.  Colonel Comstock, of my staff, was sent specifically to ascertain what was necessary to make your position secure in the interval … and also to ascertain what point on the river we should reach to effect a crossing…. Colonel Comstock has not yet returned, so that I cannot make instructions as definite as I would wish….

Grant went on to detail the proposed movements, starting with the Eighteenth Corps to move its infantry by boat.   That corps trains and the balance of the army to march across the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, and thence across the James.  Grant had already issued orders to Major-General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.  And Meade already had orders ready for the corps to move.  Keep in mind the intricacy and sensitivity of this move – the Army of the Potomac was to disengage on an active front, march dozens of miles across unsecured ground, cross a major river, and then reform south of the James preparing to give battle.  And all that with the trains trailing along.  A long haul:


But, as Grant indicated, on June 11 there was no point fixed where the bulk of the Army of the Potomac would cross the James.  Details to be worked out, as he instructed Butler:

I wish you to direct the proper staff officers, your chief engineer and chief quartermaster, to commence at once the collection of all the means in their reach for crossing the army on its arrival.  If there is a point below City Point where a pontoon bridge can be thrown, have it laid.

Brigadier-General Godfrey Weitzel was the Chief Engineer of the Army of the James.  Weitzel had just completed a survey of the defenses along the James in the Bermuda Hundred sector, but now shifted his attention to facilitate the planned movement:

June 12, in anticipation of the crossing of the James River by the Army of the Potomac, I sent Lieutenant Michie, U.S. Engineers, to examine the river in the vicinity of Fort Powhatan to get all information on the subject. He reported the width of the river at the three points (A, B, C) to be, respectively, 1,250 feet, 1,570 feet, 1,992 feet; that the two approaches on the east bank at A would be from an old field across a marsh 1,000 yards wide; at B over a marsh about 800 yards wide; from these a spit of sand and gravel bordering the river from the bridgehead, averaging about forty feet wide and easily made into a good roadway sufficient for the passage of two columns of troops.

Lieutenant Peter Michie is no stranger to readers.  The previous summer he supervised construction of the Left Batteries on Morris Island.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore brought Michie north with the Tenth Corps.  (A good selection if I may add.)  The map below demonstrates the four possible crossing points surveyed by Michie and mentioned by Weitzel:


Weitzel went on to describe other preparations to support the crossing:

On the west bank the approaches to the two first were already prepared, leading by gradual ascent to the bluff on which Fort Powhatan is situated. It would require, to make approaches to the third, the clearing away of trees, making a ramp of one-third leading to the field above, the filling up of ruts and gullies and making a roadway to the Petersburg and City Point road. In consequence of these facts, I telegraphed to Lieutenant-Colonel Comstock, senior aide to General Grant, that if the passage was to be made here I would only require, at the farthest, previous notice of thirty-six hours to have the approaches for the bridge ready.

Grant had a crossing point.

Now came the difficult work – getting the army to the crossing point, laying pontoons at the crossing point, building and improving wharves, and improving the road networks.  150 years ago this day, the Federal engineers were coming to the fore… again.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part III, pages 754-5; Volume 40, Part I, page 676.)


“Boyle would have been hung”: The scapegoat for Butler’s failed raid

Yes, the Battle of Morton’s Ford was a diversion … poorly conceived diversion at that.  A diversion from what?

In late January and early February 1864, Major-General Benjamin Butler, commanding the Army of the James on the Virginia Peninsula, gained information that the Confederate garrison of Richmond was weakened to support operations in North Carolina.  And at the same time, Butler learned of Confederate plans to move prisoners of war from Richmond to Andersonville.  So sensing an opportunity, and identifying a waning opportunity, Butler proposed a raid on Richmond.  Butler convinced officials in Washington this was practical, and secured support.  And that support included a demonstration by the Army of the Potomac, which as we’ve seen resulted in fighting at Morton’s Ford.

But, for all practical purposes, this raid never stepped off.  A deserter from the Federal ranks had tipped off the Confederates as to Butler’s intention.  When Brigadier-General Isaac Wistar arrived at Bottom’s Bridge on the early morning of February 7, he found a large force of Confederates commanded by Brigadier-General Eppa Hunton.  So for all practical purposes, the entire operation failed right there.   For everything done at Morton’s Ford, good or bad, there was no net gain.  All was for naught.

On the morning February 8, Butler reported the failure to Washington.  Butler needed a scapegoat, and he was quick to lay blame.  The telegram sent, addressed directly to President Abraham Lincoln, read:

After much preparation I made a raid on Richmond to release our prisoners there. Everything worked precisely as I expected. The troops reached Bottom’s Bridge, 10 miles from Richmond, at 2.30 o’clock on Sunday morning, but we found a force of the enemy posted there to meet us, evidently informed of our intention, none having been there before for two months. They had destroyed the bridge and fallen trees across the road to prevent the passing of the cavalry. Finding the enemy were informed and prepared, we were obliged to retire. The flag-of-truce boat came down from Richmond to-day, bringing a copy of the Examiner, in which it is said that they were prepared for us from information received from a Yankee deserter. Who that deserter was that gave the information you will see by a dispatch just received by me from General Wistar. I send it to you that you may see how your clemency has been misplaced. I desire that you will revoke your order suspending executions in this department. Please answer by telegraph.

The report from Wister, mentioned in the telegram, read (emphasis mine):

Major-General Butler:
Private William Boyle, New York Mounted Rifles, under sentence of death for murder of Lieutenant Disosway, was allowed to escape by Private Abraham, of One hundred and thirty-ninth New York, the sentinel over him, four days previous to my movement. It is said he also told him that large numbers of cavalry and infantry were concentrated here to take Richmond. During my absence the commander here has learned that Boyle reached Richmond, and was arrested and placed in Castle Thunder. Boyle would have been hung long ago but for the President’s order suspending till further orders the execution of capital sentences. Abrams is in close custody. Charges against him went forward a week ago.
I. J. Wistar,

Words from William Boyle unraveled Butler’s plan.  And Butler laid out the chain of events that led up to the debacle, attempting to shift blame.  If only Private Abraham had been more attentive to his responsibilities guarding Boyle.  If only Lincoln had allowed these executions.  If.. If… If.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 144.)