The Immortal 600
By Rick Saunders
Augusta native William W. Hulbert lay in the sand of Morris Island under artillery fire. Unnerving as it was to be shot at, it was nothing new to the young Lieutenant. A veteran of 3 long years of fighting in Virginia with Company D, 4th Georgia, he had become accustomed to it. But this hot August day in 1864 was quite different from any previous shelling he had endured. For one thing he was not with his regiment but was one of 600 Confederate officers on the island. For another, the men were located between two Union forts, Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg and the men firing at them from Fort Sumter were fellow Confederates. The strange chain of events that brought Lt Hulbert and his fellow POW's to this point began long before Lt. Hulbert was captured at Spotsylvania the previous May.
Like all Confederate port cities, Charlestown was a target for the Federals. By 1863 General Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan" had progressed from what seemed impossible in 1861 to US Navy ships blockading ports from the Potomac River to Key West. Indeed some areas of the east coast were already under US control, Port Royal SC being captured in November 1861. In addition to being home for the many blockade runners coming up from the Bahamas, Charleston was a symbol to both sides. To the Confederates it symbolized Federal tyranny and the place where states' rights triumphed in 1861. To the Federals it was the cradle of secession where traitors fired on the country's flag. The Confederates understood the importance of defending the city and spent a large amount of their scarce resources making it a hard nut to crack. Unlike New Orleans, which had been defended by two strongpoints downriver, Charleston Harbor was, as one US Navy officer put it, "a cul-de-sac, a circle of fire."
The Navy made the first attempt to capture the city in April 1863 when Admiral DuPont sent 7 of the new monitors against Fort Sumter. It was a dismal failure, after four hours they withdrew having lost one of the ships and 23 casualties while hitting the fort only 55 times. The Army plan called for 3,000 men to land at Folly Island, cross Lighthouse Inlet and land on the southern end of Morris Island. Then march up the four mile long island, quickly overrun both Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg and set up artillery at Cummings Point only 1500 yards from Fort Sumter and pound it into submission. That plan failed when the outnumbered defenders of Battery Wagner resisted every Federal attempt to capture it. Finally, on September 6th, after delaying the Federals for two months and causing 2300 casualties, the Confederates finally evacuated the battery; and Morris Island was at last in Federal hands.
By August 1863, it was obvious that Charleston was too strong to take by assault and the Confederates weren't inclined to surrender. Union commander, M. G. Quincy Gillmore decided on another tactic; he would bombard the city itself. Since the Confederate government had taken over the old US Arsenal, it, as well as other activities such as shipbuilding, made the city a legitimate military target. Shelling the city began in August 1863 and continued on and off throughout 1864. In retaliation the Confederate commander sent a request to President Davis for 50 Union prisoners to be brought to the city and quartered amongst the civilians. President Davis agreed and on June 12, 1864, 50 Union officers including 5 brigadier generals arrived from Camp Oglethorpe near Macon and were shown their new quarters. For the next four months the officers would reside at the O'Connor house located at 180 Broad Street. Although the house was located just over half a mile from White Point Gardens and buildings surrounding it were hit by Union shell fire, not a single round hit the O'Conner house.
The Union commander retaliated by requesting 50 Confederate officers be transferred to his control and put in harm's way on Morris Island. Meanwhile Sherman's Atlanta campaign had brought his large army to the outskirts of that city. The close proximity to both the Macon and Andersonville POW camps caused the Confederate government to move those prisoners held there. Nearly 600 were sent to Charleston and housed in the city jail on Magazine Street.
Upon learning of this, the infuriated Gillmore assumed it was the Confederates upping the ante. He immediately sent a request to Secretary of War Stanton for 600 Confederate officers to be sent to Morris Island in retaliation.
Fort Delaware is located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River about 10 miles south of Wilmington, DE. The pentagon shaped fort completed in 1859, covers approximately 6 acres. It became a POW camp in the summer of 1861 and by the summer of 1864 it held nearly 13,000 Confederate prisoners, including about 1500 Confederate officers. In mid-August 1864, rumors of a prisoner exchange raced through the camp. On August 17th the sergeant who called the daily prisoner roll for the officers informed them that there would be an exchange in a few days. On the morning of August 20th the 600 men who had been selected were told to pack their belongings and be ready to move on a moment's notice. At 3 PM they fell into ranks and marched to the wharf where they boarded the steamship "Crescent City."
After 18 days on board the ship, under terrible conditions imposed by the ship's captain, they at last arrived at Morris Island. Before disembarking they were told that it was never the intent of the Federals to exchange them, but instead they would put in a POW camp on the island and used as human shields.
A stockade had been built between Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg that was right in line with the incoming artillery fire from Fort Sumter. On September 7th 1864 the 600 were marched off the ship and into the stockade that would be their home for the next 45 days. Confederate shells would hit Gregg in front of the stockade or fly over it to hit Wagner. Outgoing shells from Wagner would fly over the stockade, some exploding prematurely and rain shrapnel over the camp. Amazingly no prisoners were killed or injured as a result of the shelling.
As bad as the problem of incoming and outgoing shells was for the prisoners, a much larger problem was their rations. One of the 600 wrote that breakfast consisted of four hardtack army crackers, often rotten and green with mold, and one ounce of fat meat. For dinner they received one half pint of bean or rice soup and for supper all the wind they could inhale. They obtained drinking water by digging in the sand and waiting until enough very insipid water would ooze out to quench their thirst. Their quarters consisted of canvas A-Frame tents, with four men to a tent built for two. The Federals did not issue blankets so they slept on the ground. They were subjected to swarms of sand fleas and mosquitoes as well as the scorching sun and drenching rain storms common to coastal Carolina. Under these brutal conditions, disease soon began to take its toll. Nearly everyone suffered from diarrhea or dysentery. Scurvy soon made an appearance as well.
On October 8th all the Union prisoners held in Charleston were sent to other camps and on October 21st the 600 were loaded on board a ship and taken to Fort Pulaski. Conditions improved here as they were quartered in the casements on the north side of the fort and enjoyed better rations. But after only a few days they were told that their rations were to be cut to 10 ounces of corn meal and half a pint of onion pickle a day. That was their rations for the next 42 days. They supplemented their diet by capturing rats and an occasional stray dog. They were issued only enough firewood for cooking, none for warmth. They had no blankets and the winter of 64-65 was one of the coldest on record. On Christmas Day there was 4 inches of snow on the parade ground. On November 19th, 197 of the group departed for Hilton Head Island to relieve the overcrowding.
On March 4th, 1865 the prisoners at Fort Pulaski were marched on board the steamer Ashland and they headed for Hilton Head Island. There they were reunited with their comrades and they and their guards were put aboard a larger ocean going ship and soon on their way to Fort Monroe. They were told they would be exchanged there but that was not to be. Apparently their gaunt appearance would be bad PR for the Federal government, so they set sail back to Fort Delaware. Arriving back to their old quarters eight months after leaving, they were soon surrounded by the other prisoners and telling of their experience in the Carolinas.
Upon hearing of Lee's surrender they were asked to take the oath of Allegiance. At first many refused, but they soon came to realize that they were soldiers without a country. By July 25th, all but 3 who had refused to take the oath were released and sent home.
Of the 600 who had left Fort Delaware in August 1864, disease brought on by the inhumane treatment claimed 41 lives. 3 died at Morris Island, 13 at Fort Pulaski and 25 upon their return to Fort Delaware. Another 17 took the Oath of Allegiance and became pariahs to their former comrades. Lt. William Hulbert was not among these men; he survived and returned to Augusta. He married Miss Catherine Hollister of Savannah and resumed work for the Southern Express Company. He would eventually become superintendent of the company and was very prominent in veteran organization. They moved to Atlanta shortly after the war and he died there in July 1911.