Overwhelmed Confederates found it hard to keep fugitive Federal POWs behind bars in the war’s final days.
YANKEES SNEAKED through the South Carolina countryside at night, digging sweet potatoes out of fields, breaking into barns and burrowing into haylofts. Their bodies were infested with lice, vermin they carried every place they stopped for the night. Most every day one of the Yanks would accost a citizen going about his or her daily business, and sometimes violence resulted. One morning after a minister discovered a beneath a Northerner napping pile of fodder, the Federal attacked him, only to be subdued after a fistfight. That same minister later captured three other Union men while squirrel hunting. The wife of a doctor used her watchdog to subdue a Yankee found trying to slip past her fence. Slaves living in a cabin near the road between Columbia and Spartanburg awoke one night to find a Yankee looming over their bed, demanding food—and a guide to safety.
“They seem to be everywhere,” lamented one South Carolina newspaper on November 30, 1864. “They actually cover the land like the locusts of Egypt.” These Yankees were not armed soldiers on the march with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman but prisoners of war, ravenous and desperate, who had escaped from captivity and were trying to find their way back to Union lines. At least 2,500 were on the loose in South Carolina between September 1864 and February 1865.
In some cases citizens mobilized to hunt them down. Loyal Confederates formed pickets on the roads and patrolled paths and byways through wooded areas on horseback. Many who spotted fugitives sent for help, and their neighbors rallied with lanterns and bloodhounds. But some Southerners, white and black alike, organized to assist the Yankees. When the townspeople of Jalapa, S.C., formed a picket to intercept fugitives on the road, slaves in the area formed a counterpicket on the road below, to guide the Yanks around the trap. Both white and black families provided provisions and helped guide fugitives to hiding places and routes to safety. In one case, for example, black guides took a Yankee captain to the home of a county sheriff, who then arranged for his journey into Tennessee.
Where did all those escapees come from? Their story begins when Confederate officials in Richmond shifted the POW population out of Georgia after General Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, worried that the Union commander intended to liberate Yankee captives. But when officials ordered the evacuation of Andersonville and Macon prisons on September 5, there were not adequate shelters in the region to house the Yankees. Nor was there an effective command and control structure over the Confederate prison system. There was no commissary general of prisoners in September 1864; responsibility had instead been divided between Generals John H. Winder and William Gardner, neither of whom was entirely clear about his responsibilities. Winder, who was in charge of the evacuation, decided to send the prisoners to Savannah and Charleston.
Meanwhile no one bothered to notify Confederate departmental military commanders that thousands of prisoners were being transferred to Savannah. Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws was flummoxed when 1,500 Federals arrived in the city on September 8. “There must be some strange misconception as to the force in this district,” he protested. “I have now not a single man in reserve to support any point that may be threatened by the enemy. I have no place stockaded or palisaded or fenced in where the prisoners can be kept.”
Gardner did notify Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones, commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, that prisoners were on the way from Andersonville to Charleston. But he hadn’t consulted Jones about how the transfer of thousands of prisoners might affect his plans to defend a city besieged by ongoing Union military operations. On September 8, Jones frankly threatened the Secretary of War, saying that if Union forces advanced, he would withdraw all guards from the prisoners.
In his scramble to find guards, Jones contacted Brig. Gen. James Chesnut Jr., commander of the forces in South Carolina, who had earlier informed Richmond that his entire force was not sufficient to guard the prisoners from Georgia. On the 10th Chesnut reported he could not get “a single man from the militia” to help and would have to escort the prisoners to Charleston. “I must respectfully at present decline to take charge of prisoners,” he wrote.
After more than 7,400 Union prisoners ended up in Charleston on September 12, a furious Jones again protested that he didn’t have sufficient troops to guard the prisoners and defend the city. To top things off, a few days later medical officials there reported a yellow fever epidemic. Without consulting Richmond, Jones removed the Federals from Charleston between September 12 and 18, sending batches of enlisted men to Florence, where they were herded into a field with 125 guards. The prisoners made a desperate attempt to flee before Maj. F.F. Warley could construct a stockade. More than 400 POWs broke loose, plundering the area in search of food and clothing. They also tried to destroy the railroad.
When Warley telegraphed Charleston that his force had been overpowered and the railroad might be at risk, Jones sent the Waccamaw Light Artillery, a cavalry unit and every infantryman he could spare to Florence. Warley also asked residents to be on the lookout for escaped prisoners. Over the next several days, Jones’ forces and citizen patrols rounded up all but 23 of the fugitives.
Despite the temporary influx of troops from Charleston, Confederate officers in Florence resorted to mobilizing the local population to restore order. The hastily built stockade, although not complete, was ready to receive the prisoners being held in the field on September 30, and an additional 6,000 Federals were on their way from Charleston to join them. Residents of the Florence area assembled at the prison site on the 30th, carrying whatever arms they possessed, to help secure the Yankees inside the new stockade.
Jones’ hastily built enclosure in Florence only partially solved Charleston’s POW crisis. Jones still had more than 1,500 Federal officers on his hands, which he dispatched to Columbia on October 5 and 6—with similar disastrous results. Dozens of Yankees escaped in Charleston on the way to the train station. More than 100 more either jumped off the train when it stopped at a water tank near Branchville or leapt from the slowly moving cars.
WHATEVER FEDERALS had not already escaped arrived in Columbia in two shifts on October 5 and 6. On the POWs’ arrival, the guards simply turned them into a cleared field, with no sheltering structures or fencing. A month of bureaucratic chaos and infighting between officials in Richmond and Columbia left the 1,400 POWs largely without shelter or guards that fall. By December 6, 373 officers had escaped from Columbia. Of the 500 officers who had gotten away during the transfer from Charleston to Columbia, 65 percent of those made it safely to Union lines between October 1864 and January 1865. The most popular destinations were the Union-occupied island of Hilton Head, just off the coast, and Knoxville, Tenn.
Neither the Confederate government nor the state governments had troops in the region to recapture the fugitives. Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, who replaced Jones, had only 11,136 men at the end of October to defend Charleston and Savannah and garrison the prisons at Columbia and Florence, and that total included the Confederate Reserves, made up of youths between 17 and 18 and men between 45 and 50. In the entire state of South Carolina, the Confederate Conscription Bureau had only 219 officers and soldiers on duty; the point of highest concentration for its forces was the 5th Congressional District, with nine officers and 30 soldiers. Every other district had less than 21 soldiers on hand.
When the Federal prisoners arrived in South Carolina, the Confederate Reserves and Southern conscription officials were already battling organized gangs of more than 500 deserters and brigands who regularly victimized residents of the western mountain districts. The Reserve units had to be removed from these districts to guard the Yankee prisoners at Florence and Columbia. Confederate conscription had so decimated the state militia that it had effectively ceased to exist. When South Carolina Governor Andrew G. Magrath mobilized the militia between September and November in order to find prison guards and defend the state from Sherman’s movements in Georgia, only 1,300 men could be found. Officials admitted to each other that the militia was incapable even of local defense.
Locals were mostly left to face the fugitive Yankees on their own. Fifty-five ladies living near Fort Motte, 40 miles southeast of Columbia, asked that their men be returned home at that point, as they were “at the mercy” of “treacherous negroes and heartless Yankees.”
WITH AUTHORITIES providing little security in areas threatened with deserters, unruly slaves and an influx of escaped prisoners, local defense devolved onto the citizens, male and female, young and old. The state had raised 1,300 men for the militia in its mobilization efforts, a figure representing about 20 percent of its paper-strength force. Many men did not respond to the militia call because they were busy defending their own property from these internal threats. One newspaper reported that escaped prisoners were being brought in by “the people at large,” and citizens were “vigilant in arresting” the Yankees.
Individuals acting on their own behalf, usually within the boundaries of their own property, recaptured most of the fugitives in South Carolina who did get caught. Two neighbors, for example, followed footprints in the snow from slave cabins to the woods, tracking down Colonel M.A. Cochran’s party of five escapees. The locals then sent for more neighbors, nine of whom arrived on horseback two hours later to help out.
Near Greenville, Lieutenant Francis Murphy of the 97th New York stumbled upon a white man chopping wood. The local man questioned Murphy about his identity, pretending to buy his story that he was a citizen traveling from Columbia, and invited him to supper. Murphy declined and went back into the woods to locate a traveling companion, after which they both took off running. Then they heard baying dogs in the distance—signaling that the wood chopper had gathered his neighbors to hunt down the fugitive. “Every man in the Confederacy,” Murphy commented, is “authorized to arrest any suspicious persons.”
Because state-sponsored security forces were minuscule or absent, locals made decisions on the ground about what constituted loyalty and what the individual’s obligation was to the state of South Carolina. The Confederate security presence in South Carolina had dissipated in portions of the countryside after September, and women who confronted the enemy tended to assess the immediate threat and balance humanity against loyalty.
On Alexander Taylor’s plantation near Black Creek, about 30 miles southeast of Columbia, dogs alerted Mrs. Taylor that Willard Worcester Glazier and his band of Yankees were hiding on her property. Confronted, Glazier admitted who they were and asked Mrs. Taylor for food. She told Glazier her heart belonged to the Southern people and it would be wrong for her to aid a Yankee. The fugitive then appealed to her sympathy, telling her what they had been through as prisoners and asking her to let them go. Mrs. Taylor supplied them with cornbread, bacon and sweet potatoes, and promised not to betray their presence in the neighborhood.
A widow and her three young daughters found Daniel Langworthy and his party of escapees in the woods on her plantation. The men painted verbal pictures of their wives and sisters waiting for them at home—just as the widow and her daughters waited for their sons and brothers to return. The men conceded to the widow that she was required to report them but asked, “if you have a true mother’s heart, please wait until tomorrow.” The daughters began to cry, but the widow at first stood silent. Finally she said, “Mister, we will not tell on you uns today.”
By the end of December, South Carolinians were desperate. Fugitives were traveling across the countryside, large bands of deserters had robbed citizens with impunity in several districts, and slaves in at least two low-country counties launched organized insurrections. The first of Sherman’s forces had stepped across the state line. State authorities called upon loyal Confederates to defend themselves against deserters, fugitive Federals or Sherman’s forces. L.B. Beckwith wrote in the Daily South Carolinian, “Arm yourselves, fellow citizens, and shoot down every one of these thieves on any provocation…..” Unable to organize an effective militia, Governor Magrath proclaimed that every man should rise up and fight on behalf of the state, saying: “In every quarter of the State, in every district, Village, and Town, let the men stand with their arms in their hands.” The state also asked women to defend themselves, insisting they should give Yankees “resistance unto death.”
AS 1865 BEGAN, the threat of an invasion of South Carolina by Sherman became more imminent. Federal enlisted men remained inside the stockade at Florence, but the officers had been moved to Columbia’s Lunatic Asylum on December 12. When Sherman started moving through the state in early February, his eyes initially on Columbia, Confederate officials tried again to move their captives, only to be confronted with the same conflicting lines of authority and bureaucratic chaos that had marked the prisoners’ arrival in South Carolina a few weeks earlier.
In the first few days of February, Brig. Gen. John Winder, recently appointed as commissary general of prisoners, continued working on moving the POWs at Columbia and Florence to a location in southwest Georgia. No one in Richmond, however, had informed him that Confederate officials were negotiating with the U.S. government on a plan to exchange nearly all the prisoners held in the state. Winder died of a heart attack in Florence on February 6, and his subordinate, Colonel Henry Forno, continued his arrangements to transport the prisoners to Georgia.
On February 12, Forno received a telegram informing him that he was not the commander over prisons in South Carolina, and then on the 13th another telegram informed him that he was in charge after all, and ordered him to remove all prisoners to North Carolina. Because the order neglected to mention that the prisoners were slated for exchange, Forno delayed their departure, seeking to convince authorities in Richmond that Georgia was a more suitable location. Federal disruption of the rail line into Georgia made that point moot, however, so Forno emptied the prisons in Columbia and Florence in two shifts on the 14th and 15th.
The resulting fiasco destroyed the last semblance of Confederate control over Federal prisoners in South Carolina. In Columbia the guards left more than 60 prisoners hiding in the roofs of the asylum’s barracks and hospital, and those Yankees subsequently wandered the streets or found refuge with sympathetic locals while waiting for Sherman’s army to capture the capital a few days later. The paltry number of guards available marched the remaining POWs after dark through streets crowded with panicked citizens, losing another 50 along the way.
A backlog of trains on the single railroad line through Columbia caused further delays, with additional transfers of prisoners back and forth between the asylum and the station, as well as further unauthorized departures. Fifteen officers escaped from the train on the way to Charlotte, where Forno turned the remaining captives into an open field near the city. “It was as futile an attempt at imprisonment as could be devised,” Forno admitted in his report. Two of the guards promptly deserted their post and took 30 prisoners with them. Many Federals left the field at will, but 992 of them stayed due to illness or because they preferred to wait for help. Major Elias Griswold, the post commandant at Columbia, had gone to every boxcar on the train and read the captives his orders to exchange them. Although prison officials had used this as a ruse in the past to keep prisoners from escaping, the fact that Confederate officers made no effort to control the by now totally demoralized guards convinced the Yankees it was true this time. The loss in officers during the transit (193) was nothing compared to the number of enlisted men: 1,410 Yankees escaped or had to be abandoned on the journey between Florence and Goldsboro, N.C.
The story of the war’s end is not just about climactic struggles and the surrenders at Appomattox and Bennett Place; it’s also about how the Confederacy lost control of the Yankees held captive in the South. It’s about the people of South Carolina in the first months after Yankees invaded their state—not armies, but escaped prisoners, desperate men who made backyards and barnyards their battlegrounds, heralding the Confederacy’s last days.
Lorien Foote teaches at Texas A&M University. She is the creator of a project with the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia that is mapping the movement of 3,000 Federal prisoners of war who escaped from the Confederacy (ehistory.org/projects/fugitive-federals.html).
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.