Shells arched over the waters of Charleston Harbor throughout the summer of 1864. Some of the ponderous bombs shrieked into the city, while the deadly trajectory of others ended in Federal fortifications ringing the cradle of secession. For a group of Confederate prisoners living in a stockade built on a wispy spit of sand, the path of those hissing bombs, some so large and slow-moving that they could be followed in flight, was uncomfortably familiar, for their Morris Island prison pen had been deliberately placed in harm’s way. In essence, the beleaguered Rebels baking in the sun were being used as human shields. It was a sad commentary on how nasty the Civil War had become.
The unfortunate situation had its roots in the previous summer. On August 21, 1863, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, the Federal commander in the Charleston area at the time, had sent a message to his Confederate counterpart, General P.G.T. Beauregard, informing him of the Union army’s intention to fire into Charleston. He stated that the city was a military target due to its arsenal, which manufactured artillery shells, and its docks, which received supplies smuggled through the blockade. He informed the Southern general that the shelling would start sometime after midnight, August 22.
Beauregard howled in protest, stating that he did not have adequate time to evacuate the city of its noncombatants. Nevertheless, in the wee hours of the following morning, Federal mortars sent their deadly projectiles into both the residential and business areas of downtown Charleston. Most affluent residents quickly fled the city, but the poorer inhabitants had to remain and face the onslaught.
Gillmore placed an 8-inch Parrott rifle on Morris Island, four miles across the harbor from the south end of the city. The giant cannon, nicknamed the ‘Swamp Angel,’ hammered 16 screaming shells into Charleston before dawn, signaling the beginning of a bombardment that would last 567 days. In the month of January 1864 alone, 1,500 mortar shells were fired into the city. Once-mighty Fort Sumter, the linchpin of the city’s defenses, was being pounded into a pile of rubble.
On April 20, 1864, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones arrived in Charleston to take command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida from Beauregard, who had been reassigned to North Carolina. Jones was a career army officer who had been born on December 17, 1819, in Powhatan County, Va. He attended West Point and ranked 19th out of 52 cadets in the class of 1841. He served on the Maine and Florida frontiers before returning to West Point in 1846 as a mathematics professor and an artillery instructor. Unlike many of the U.S. Army’s young officers at that time, he saw no action in the Mexican War. In 1853 he was promoted to captain and served in Texas until 1858, when he was made assistant judge advocate.
After Virginia seceded from the Union, Jones went with his native state. He resigned from the Army on April 27, 1861, and reported for service with the Confederacy. At the First Battle of Manassas, he commanded the Confederate artillery as a colonel under Beauregard and was shortly afterward promoted to brigadier general. Jones then led a brigade in Virginia, but was sent to Florida at the turn of 1862. He was promoted to major general and spent the rest of that year in various posts in Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Jones had a bad habit of questioning his superiors, and at times refusing their orders. He hated to relinquish troops under his command and usually ran into trouble as a consequence. In the autumn of 1862 he failed to send reinforcements to General Braxton Bragg in Kentucky, and for that misstep he was transferred to command the Department of Western Virginia. Throughout 1863 and early ’64, he maintained the supply routes that fed the Army of Northern Virginia, but fell into disfavor with General Robert E. Lee when he continually argued about the assignment of regiments. In March, Jones was relieved of his Virginia command and ordered to Charleston.
When Jones arrived in Charleston, the battered city had already endured eight months of bombardment. Though deaths from the shelling were few, the Federal artillery had caused irreparable destruction throughout the city, and very few buildings within Union cannon-shot range had escaped damage from shellfire. The streets were pockmarked with craters and littered with the bodies of unburied animals. Only weeds grew in the yards of what had once been lovely homes, and the jewel of Southern antebellum culture had been reduced to the apocalyptic landscape of a scarred battlefield. In a grim attempt at humor, remaining residents called the area most damaged by the Federal guns the ‘Gillmore District.’
Shortly after the Southern change of command, the Union also assigned a new man to Charleston. On May 26, 1864, Maj. Gen. John Gray Foster replaced Gillmore as the head of the Department of the South. Foster was also a West Point graduate, class of 1846. He had seen considerable combat in the Mexican War and was wounded while in command of sappers, miners and pontoniers.
Foster had been stationed at Fort Sumter as a captain when it fell in 1861. After the fort surrendered he returned to Washington, where he was placed in command of a New England brigade that he led to victories at Roanoke Island and New Bern, N.C. In 1863 he was transferred to Tennessee, where he fought at the siege of Knoxville and briefly commanded the Army of the Ohio. Following a fall from an unruly horse, Foster was transferred to the Department of the South to replace Gillmore. The relocation was a homecoming of sorts for the general. But no matter how badly he wanted to avenge Fort Sumter and seize Charleston, Foster realized that he lacked the means to successfully assault or outflank the massive defenses of the harbor town, and settled into continuing the siege by bombardment.
Lacking the manpower and resources to drive Foster’s Yankees away, General Jones looked for immediate ways to alleviate the bombardment. He turned to drastic measures to do so. On June 1, 1864, he requested from Jefferson Davis’ military adviser, General Braxton Bragg, that 50 Federal prisoners be sent to him to be ‘confined in parts of the city still occupied by civilians, but under the enemy’s fire.’ Davis approved his request, and orders were issued to move the unfortunate prisoners from Camp Ogelthorpe in Macon, Ga., to Charleston. On Sunday, June 12, trains arrived from Georgia bearing their unhappy cargo of Union captives.
The event was smugly reported in the local newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, which expressed pleasure at the plight of the endangered Federal officers. ‘For some time it has been known that a batch of Yankee prisoners, comprising the highest in rank now in our hands, were soon to be brought hither to share in the pleasures of the bombardment. These prisoners we understand will be furnished with comfortable quarters in that portion of the city most exposed to enemy fire. The commanding officer on Morris Island will be duly notified of the fact of their presence in the shelled district and if his batteries still continue at their wanton and barbarous work, it will be at the peril of the captive officers.’
The unlucky 50 Yankees, all officers–five of them brigadier generals–were placed in a home converted into a prison in the south end of Charleston. Jones sent a note to Foster the day after their arrival to tell the Federal general of the captives’ arrival and that they had been placed in ‘commodious quarters in a part of the city occupied by non-combatants….I should inform you that it is a part of the city…for many months exposed to the fire of your guns.’ With that action, the Confederate commander set in motion a chain of events that would endanger the lives of helpless prisoners of war and outrage the highest officials of both governments.
Foster was furious and immediately requested that 50 Confederate officer prisoners be sent from the prison at Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, and placed in front of the Union forts on Morris Island in retaliation. He sent a letter to Jones under flag of truce in which he argued that Charleston had munitions factories and wharves for receiving goods run past the blockade. He stated in angry terms that to ‘destroy these means of continuing the war is therefore our object and duty. You seek to defeat this effort, not by honorable means, but by placing unarmed and helpless prisoners under our fire.’
Jones was unshaken by the stern words of the Union general and fired back a letter chastising Foster and the Federal armies for their conduct throughout the war. He complained at length that the Confederate authorities had not been notified, or given time to evacuate the city, before the bombardment began the previous August. He closed his dispatch to the enemy commander with the furious words: ‘Under the foregoing statement of facts, I cannot but regard the desultory firing on this city which you dignify by the name bombardment, from its commencement to this hour, as antichristian, inhuman, and utterly indefensible by any law, human or divine.’ Clearly Jones was in no mood to be chastised by the Yankees, nor was he prone to any sympathy for the captive Union officers he was exposing to danger.
In late June, the war of words began to match the war of guns, as Jones and Foster fired verbal salvos back and forth across Charleston Harbor. Both generals were under pressure to end the siege, but since they were losing troops to the front in Virginia, the stalemate dragged on and the prisoners stayed put.
The captives themselves became involved in the ongoing rhetoric when the five Federal generals among them–Truman Seymour (another Fort Sumter veteran), Henry Wessells, Eliakim P. Scammon, Charles A. Heckman and Alexander Shaler–wrote to Foster requesting an exchange and asking that the Union provide the Confederate prisoners with ‘kindness and courtesy.’ Scammon also requested permission from Jones to be released so he might go north to reason with the U.S. War Department to allow the two groups of prisoners to be exchanged. But the Confederate commander politely refused the request: ‘General, your note of yesterday was handed to me today. I am sorry to hear that your health is so bad, and I would gladly do anything in my power to contribute to your relief, but I have no authority to permit you to leave the Confederate States and go north for the purpose of effecting an exchange. Your government does not grant that privilege to our officers held as prisoners of war, but has, [it] seems to me thrown obstacles in the way of fair exchange.’
Jones was dismayed at the fact that as of April 1863 the Federal government refused to continue the practice of exchanging prisoners. Prior to that date, a formal policy had existed that prescribed how prisoner exchanges were to take place. The new hard-line policy was designed to prevent soldiers from returning to the ranks of the Southern armies, as the Federal Army concluded that the Confederates received the greater benefit from the practice. It also, however, caused a rapid swelling of the numbers of men in Northern and Southern prisons.
President Abraham Lincoln became aware of the situation in Charleston and gave permission to Foster to make an exception to War Department policy and begin making arrangements for an exchange. Thus, on August 3, an agreement was worked out for the 100 officers.
Just when it seemed that the prisoner dispute had been resolved, things took a turn that would place even more captives in harm’s way. Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s campaign in Georgia was getting a bit too close to the overcrowded Southern prison camp at Andersonville, and the Confederate government began to send hundreds of Federal prisoners to Charleston for safekeeping. Jones objected to the situation, arguing to no avail that it was ‘inconvenient and unsafe.’
Upon their arrival in Charleston, most of the Federals were confined to the city jail, a massive octagonal fortress guarded by a 40-foot tower. It was located on Magazine Street, in the southeast part of the city, directly in the line of fire from the mortars across the harbor.
Before long, the inmates included nearly 600 officers, more than 300 enlisted men both black and white, as well as local criminals and deserters from both sides. All were jammed into A-frame tents set up in the courtyard. An officer inmate described the yard as ‘A dirty filthy place unfit for human beings to live in.’ Another Federal, Lieutenant Louis Fortescue, wrote of the ‘intolerable heat’ that he endured in the cramped courtyard, which did not have a’single shade tree.’
The full heat of high summer made the interior of the jail stifling, and yellow fever began to take a frightening toll. General Jones reacted to the outbreak of disease by issuing orders to his provost marshal to remove all of the sick and wounded prisoners who were able to travel and have them sent back to the prison at Andersonville. Furthermore, he ordered that only extreme cases be allowed to enter Roper Hospital in Charleston.Food for the Federals was poor and scarce; sanitation was nearly nonexistent. Most of the men were exposed to the elements all day and night, and the constant crash of artillery was unnerving. Clearly, the Federal prisoners were in a deadly and harrowing position.
Foster became wrathful when he heard of the new prisoner shipments, thinking that they had also been sent to the city to serve as human shields. He wrote Jones that he would place Confederate officers ‘under your fire’ to retaliate. Construction began on a Union stockade in front of Battery Wagner on Morris Island and directly in the path of Southern artillery, and Foster ordered 600 Confederate officers removed from Fort Delaware, telling Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the Union Army’s chief of staff, that ‘as soon as the rebel officers arrive I shall place them on Morris Island.’
On August 20, the Federal steamer Crescent City left Fort Delaware with its cargo of 600 Confederate officers packed into the fetid hold and shipped south in the blistering summer sun. Lieutenant George Finley of the 56th Virginia Infantry remembered sitting in ‘total darkness, without any clothing and drenched with perspiration.’ He ate but a ‘few crackers with a bit of salt beef or bacon’ during the journey. The prisoners remained on Crescent City near Hilton Head while the stockade on Morris Island was completed.
The Confederate War Department, meanwhile, kept sending prisoners to the Charleston area. Jones worried that the number of troops he had on hand was woefully inadequate to guard the captives. The Richmond government casuallydismissed his frantic telegrams for relief, however, stating that the military situation required the prisoners be kept in a secure area, and that no reinforcements could be spared for his command.
Jones was now anxious to make exchanges, and news of a pending deal reached the headquarters of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, Va. The overall Federal commander, Grant had been among the leading advocates of ending exchanges. He fired off a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on August 21 demanding that Foster cease all dialogue with Confederate authorities: ‘Please inform General Foster that under no circumstances will he be authorized to exchange prisoners of war. Exchange simply reinforces the enemy at once, whilst we do not get the benefit of those received for two or three months and lose the majority entirely. I telegraph from just learning that 500 or 600 more prisoners have been sent to Foster.’
Halleck summed up the Federal high command’s attitude toward exchanges in an August 27 letter to Grant: ‘To exchange their healthy men for ours, who are on the brink of the grave from their hellish treatment, of course gives them all the advantages. Nevertheless it seems very cruel to leave our men to be slowly butdeliberately tortured to death. But I suppose there is no remedy at the present.’
The situation in Charleston intensified when General Sherman’s forces captured Atlanta on September 2. The Confederate government was concerned that Sherman would move southward to Andersonville and Macon, freeing tens of thousands of prisoners and allowing them to wreak havoc on virtually undefended central Georgia. Richmond greatly desired to keep as many Federal prisoners as far away from Sherman as possible, and the captured Yankees continued to pour into the Charleston area.
On September 7, the Federal stockade on Morris Island opened and was quickly filled with the Confederate prisoners, numbering a little less than 600 due to deaths from disease. In a purposeful mirroring of the living conditions of their Federal counterparts, the Rebels were housed in A-frame tents and very poorly fed. At night they were subjected to clouds of sand fleas and mosquitoes and drenching thunderstorms, all common to coastal South Carolina. The Federals did not issue blankets, and the men were forced to sleep in the sand. All the while, they were exposed to cannon shells and the scorching summer sun.
To be caught between the opposing cannon fire was truly horrifying for the Rebel inmates. The big Federal guns in Battery Wagner would blast shells over their heads, and occasionally one of the rounds would prematurely burst, scattering the camp with fragments. The outgoing shells could be’seen distinctly’ as they roared overhead, recalled a lieutenant in the 20th Virginia Cavalry.
It was even more terrifying when the Southern gunners replied to the Union salvos and sent inbound projectiles directly over the prisoners’ camp. Henry Dickinson, a captain in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, remembered the huge mortar shells that ‘looked as though they would fall directly on us.’ Dickinson could follow the shells at ‘night by the fuse burning,’ and was very relieved when their ‘parabolic course’ terminated in Battery Wagner.
As for the shells that sometimes burst over the camp, one of the incarcerated Confederates recalled that the inmates could ‘listen at the fragments humming through the air and hear them strike the ground with a dull thud among the tents.’ ‘Just imagine our position,’ one Rebel wrote in his diary. ‘Tied hands and feet as it were without the means of defending ourselves and know not what moment we may be writhing and bleeding under the effects of the bursting of terrible shell….
When shall it end?’
As reports of the arrival of the Confederate officers in the stockade on Morris Island reached Confederate headquarters, Jones suggested that harsh methods of reprisal were necessary. On September 7 he wrote to the Confederate high command in Richmond: ‘If the department thinks it proper to retaliate by placing Yankee officers in Sumter or other batteries, let the order be given, prompt action should be taken. Please instruct me what if any authority I have over prisoners.’
On September 22, the Confederate prisoners were taken out of their stockade and placed once again on Crescent City. They remained in the damp hold of the ship for one storm-tossed evening and, unaware of Grant’s firm dictate to Foster, hoped that they were to be exchanged. They had been transferred, however, so that Federalauthorities could search their camp for unauthorized goods, and the inmates were herded back to their forlorn digs the following day.
Throughout the month of September, the shelling continued, and the Confederate captives remained in their prison pen. Several Union guards outside the stockade were struck by shrapnel, but, almost unbelievably, the prisoners remained unharmed, even though approximately 18 rounds, fortunately all duds, actually landed among their sun-bleached A-tents.
The prisoners’ meager rations often consisted of only two pieces of hardtack a day. On a good day, a prisoner might receive some ‘worm eaten hard tack, a little chunk of bacon one half inch square’ and a bowl of bean soup made, it was rumored, on a formula of ‘three beans to a half quart of water,’ remembered Thomas Pickney, a captain in the 4th South Carolina Cavalry.
General Jones’ threats to put Union prisoners on the ramparts of Fort Sumter never materialized, and on October 8 the Union captives in Charleston were removed to cities farther inland. The Southern captives’ ordeal continued, however, until October 21, when, after 45 days of exposure to shellfire, they were finally taken out of their miserable pen and transferred to Fort Pulaski at Savannah, Ga.
The men spent a miserable cold, dreary winter there, 13 dying of disease. In March, the survivors were shipped back to Fort Delaware, where 25 more succumbed to illness. There they remained until after the war ended. The last man of the group was not released until July 1865.
The harsh and unusual conditions of their imprisonment inspired one of the captives, John O. Murray, to record his experiences in the 1905 book The Immortal Six-Hundred. The name he gave the group stuck, and today they are still referred to as the ‘Immortal 600.’
Samuel Jones was transferred to Florida after Charleston finally fell to Union forces in February 1865. He remained there until war’s end and surrendered at Tallahassee in April 1865. Following the war, Jones returned to Virginia and farmed until 1880, when he took a job in the adjutant general’s office in Washington. He died in 1887.
Foster remained in Charleston until the city surrendered. Then, like Jones, he was sent to Florida to command troops. He served in the U.S. Army after the war and is credited with developing underwater demolition techniques. He died in New Hampshire in 1874 and received a hero’s funeral from the people of the Granite State.
The issue between Jones and Foster over the use of prisoners as deterrents to shelling dramatized Charleston’s symbolic importance during the Civil War. Jones was desperate to save the city, an icon of Southern independence, and its inhabitants from further destruction. Foster, on the other hand, was under pressure to capture the battered but resilient port city that was the cradle of the Confederate States of America, and to recapture Fort Sumter.
Both generals had felt compelled to resort to tactics they knew were against the code of honor they had learned at West Point, yet both felt that under the circumstances they had little choice. Behind their decisions were the emotions of hatred for an enemy they had come to loathe, and the callousness that comes when the sightof destruction and death becomes commonplace.
It is difficult to say who was at fault for the fiasco. Jones was the first to place prisoners under fire. On the other hand, the Federal Army was firing into a city where they were well aware civilians still resided. Grant must also shoulder some blame, for his orders ceased the prisoner exchanges.
No matter who should bear the burden of responsibility, the treatment of the prisoners in Charleston Harbor, particularly that endured by the Immortal 600, remains one of the most controversial incidents of the Civil War. Certainly, the prisoners-as-shields practice constitutes a dark chapter in the greatest of American tragedies.
This article was written by Tim Cunningham and originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of America’s Civil War.
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