POWs as Human Shields in the Civil War

Ardent secessionist Ferdinand H. Daugherty had run out of luck. As the lieutenant colonel for the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry, Andrew Jackson Lacy’s regiment, he was sent back behind enemy lines in the Upper Cumberland of Tennessee in August 1863 to retrieve men from his regiment who had become trapped. Then, finding himself trapped behind enemy lines, but eager to wreak havoc, he led bands of men on raids of Union supporters and their households. When the bitter winter of 1864 convinced him to disband his men until warmer weather came along, he returned to his home in Livingston, Tennessee, to lie low and hope Union troops pursuing Confederate guerrillas would not discover him. Alas, Daugherty was found in February 1864, allegedly hiding on top of his smoke house.

Following his capture, Daugherty was sent to Louisville, Kentucky for exchange. But no exchange took place. Instead, Daugherty was transferred to Camp Chase, in Columbus, Ohio, and a month later, to Fort Delaware on the Atlantic coast. The exchange of prisoners had been stopped by Federal authorities.

Throughout the war, Abraham Lincoln had been keen on not adopting any policy which might – through its application – suggest acknowledgment of the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. Lincoln had not been in favor of exchanging prisoners, for this reason, but under political and international pressure, he had reluctantly agreed. Yet, as the war dragged on, some voiced the opinion that exchanging prisoners was only placing Confederates back on the line of battle, while Union soldiers, once released from Confederate prisons, frequently did not go back into battle because their terms of enlistment were up. Ironically, in late 1863 when Gen. Benjamin F. Butler took over as the Federal agent for prisoner exchange, his orders were to not arrange or permit any exchanges, and instead, find excuses. U.S. Secretary of War Stanton, Gen. Henry Halleck, and General Grant were influential in not only establishing an end to prisoner exchange but also, considering alleged atrocities in Confederate prisons, to favor retaliatory moves.[i]

The collapse of the exchange agreement between the Union and the Confederacy resulted in growing populations in the prisons, more and larger prisons, and an almost impossible task of maintaining the prisons, particularly for the Confederacy, who, because of battles and blockades faced severe shortages in food and medicine.

Shortly after Union forces took Morris Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor in July 1863, the city was placed under siege. Union forces shelled Charleston indiscriminately, without regard to military or civilian targets. Nearly a year later, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones, commanding the Department of South Carolina, placed fifty captured Union officers in parts of the city still occupied by citizens, and notified his Federal counterpart, Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, the next day. This provoked an angry exchange of words. Foster condemned Jones’ action as cruelty and claimed his bombardment of Charleston was directed at military targets only. Jones contended that the bombardment has been random, with the intent of destroying everyone and everything.[ii]

In short order, Foster brought fifty captured Confederate officers from Fort Delaware so he could place them in the line of Confederate fire upon Morris Island. Before they could be placed in harm’s way, however, the two parties agreed – in defiance of the orders of their respective governments – to a prisoner exchange. But within days, Jones received word that a large number of prisoners were being sent to him in Charleston because of Union raids near Macon and Andersonville in Georgia. He tried and failed to get his superiors to reverse this decision. His facilities for prisoners were overcrowded, and when the prisoners arrived, they were placed in several locations around the city, while the officers were accommodated in residential areas much like the original fifty officers who had just been exchanged. When Foster learned of this, he was livid. Assuming the Confederacy was once again using Union officers as human shields, he asked Major General Halleck for six hundred rebel officers.[iii]

On August 15, 1864, Foster informed Jones that six hundred Confederate officers would once again being placed under fire because of Jones’ actions. Jones insisted this was only a temporary arrangement, and offered to exchange prisoners at once, but Foster had been ordered by Halleck not to conduct any exchanges without explicit approval from Washington.[iv]

Thus, six hundred officers imprisoned at Fort Delaware – including Lt. Col. Ferdinand Daugherty – were singled out for what they hoped would be an impending exchange. In the coming weeks, they would be disavowed of all hope. They departed Fort Delaware on August 20 onboard the sidewheel steamer Crescent City, headed for Hilton Head in South Carolina. The following day, Grant ordered that none of the six hundred were to be exchanged under any circumstances. At Hilton Head, only a small number of the sick were released and sent ashore; the remainder sailed back up the coast to Charleston. On September 1, the ship reached Charleston Harbor and the six hundred, who would come to be called the "Immortal Six Hundred", were placed under fire while a stockade on Morris Island, on the south shore of the harbor, was completed. On September 7, they went ashore, and on October 21, they were moved to Fort Pulaski, Georgia, at the entrance to Savannah's harbor. On December 15, 1864, thirty-one of the men at Fort Pulaski - including Ferdinand Daugherty - were returned to and paroled at Charleston Harbor. The remainder would eventually return to Fort Delaware.[v]

[i] Lonnie R. Speer, War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 131-132.

[ii] Speer, War of Vengeance, 95-99.

[iii] Speer, War of Vengeance, 102.

[iv] Speer, War of Vengeance, 102, 104.

[v] Speer, War of Vengeance, 105, 108, 112-113.