The Immortal 600
Thursday, March 24, 2011
By Bob Hurst
The Director of the National Park Service in Washington has just recently approved the erection of a monument on the grounds outside Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia. What makes this announcement significant is that the request for the monument was made initially almost a decade ago by a contingent of Southern groups with the Sons of Confederate Veterans taking the lead role in this endeavor.
The purpose of the monument and other features of the memorial is to honor the memory of a group of six hundred Confederate officer prisoners who were subjected to incredible hardships and mistreatment but still displayed incredible courage and Christian concern for their fellow prisoners.
This honor for the members of The Immortal 600, as the group later came to be known, is long overdue but necessary since now, hopefully, many more people will learn the story of these gallant men which heretofore has been little-known except among those groups of Southerners who revere their heritage and spend much time in the study of our magnificent Confederate ancestors.
So who were The Immortal 600?
Their story actually begins in August of 1863 when the shelling of Charleston began under orders of Union Major General Quincy A. Gillmore. Gillmore justified the shelling of civilian Charleston with the claim that since there were facilities in the city that contributed to the war effort (even in a minor way) then that constituted to him a military target. This reasoning was about as faulty as the justification by the Allies in bombing the beautiful German city of Dresden with all its magnificent architecture and civilian population toward the end of World War !!.
This bombardment of civilian Charleston lasted 567 days and resulted in numerous deaths and the loss of many architectural treasures in the city.
During this bombardment period the Union command of the Charleston area had shifted to a General Foster and the Confederate command had moved to General Sam Jones. (Note: Jones is well-known to many here in upper Florida for his command of Confederate troops in the Battle of Natural Bridge.)
Gen. Jones sent correspondence to Foster which said, in part: " 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."
As a means to possibly deflect the bombardment, Gen. Jones had 50 Union officers, five of them generals, boarded in the residential area of Charleston which had been a constant target of the federal guns.
By the way, the five federal generals were Truman Seymour, Henry Wessells, Eliakim P. Scammons, Charles A. Heckman and Alexander Shaler..
At this point events began to occur which would eventually lead to the legend of The Immortal 600.
Prisoner exchange talks began to break down as the North decided it no longer wished to release Confederate prisoners since they would just go back to the battlefield. Sherman’s forces were getting close to the large Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia so the decision was made to move the prisoners that were there to Charleston. This infuriated Gen. Foster who, in retaliation, ordered 600 Confederate officer prisoners be brought from the infamous federal prison known as Fort Delaware.
On August 20, 1864, a federal steamer, the "Crescent City", left Fort Delaware with 600 specifically chosen Confederate officers packed aboard and headed south in the blistering heat. They were bound for the Union army base at Hilton Head, South, Carolina.
These Confederate officers were to be placed in a stockade built in front of the Union artillery units located on Morris Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. These artillery units were the very ones engaged in th shelling of Charleston. The purpose of locating the Confederates at this site was to use them as "human shields" to discourage any Confederate artillery units in the Charleston area from firing on Morris Island.
The Confederates were placed in a 1 and 1/2 acre pen on Morris Island and remained there for 45 days. During this period they were issued no blankets and had to sleep in the sand. They were exposed to sand fleas, mosquitoes and other annoyances plus the constantly blazing sun. They had no protection on those occasions that it rained. The prisoner rations consisted of two small pieces of hardtack each day, a small chunk of bacon and a "soup" made with 3 beans to a half quart of water. They also had to listen as "friendly fire" from Confederate artillery in Charleston screamed overhead.
On October 21 the survivors, weakened and in poor health, were removed to Fort Pulaski and crowded into the damp, dark confines of the fort. On November 19, 197 were sent back to Hilton Head to relieve overcrowding at Fort Pulaski. They were fed nothing for 42 days but a daily ration of about 10 oz. of moldy cornbread and soured onion pickles. During this period 13 men died at Fort Pulaski and 5 dies at Hilton Head.
Author Mauriel Joslyn, historian of The Immortal 600, wrote: "…the long history of the chivalric code, and the medieval laws of war governing captives, bit the dust… in 1864."
Interestingly, there had been a resolution proposed in Congress by Henry Smith Lane of Indiana. Even though it was eventually defeated in Congress, it had already been adopted as policy by the Lincoln Administration in 1864. The resolution read as follows:
" Rebel prisoners in our hands are to be subjected to a
treatment finding its parallels only in the conduct of savage
tribes and resulting in the deaths of multitudes by the slow
but designed process of starvation and by mortal diseases
occasioned by insufficient and unhealthy food and wanton
exposure of their perons to the inclemency of the weather.
We should take the lives of prisoners, even by freezing and
starvation, or turn them into living skeletons by act of Congress."
Nice folks, these yankees! You have to admit, though, they weren’t shy about proclaiming to the world the inhumanity of their ways or methods.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing that happened during this entire event, other than the fact that all 600 did not die of exposure or malnutrition, was the creation of the Confederate Relief Association by the officers themselves to care for the most severely ill among them. The creation of the CRA was on December 13, 1864. That winter was one of the coldest on record in Georgia and the prisoners were forced to endure inhumane policies of the U.S. Government including the withholding of food, clothing and blankets. As a result of the efforts of the CRA, only 13 of the prisoners died during that winter.
On March 12, 1865, the surviving members of The Immortal 600 were returned to Fort Delaware. Likely, this was because they were so emaciated and in such poor health that they had to be "fattened up" and their health improved so their condition would not embarrass the Federal government which had complained so long and loudly about the prisoner treatment at Andersonville. The last prisoner of the group was not released from Fort Delaware until July 1865 – well after the War ended.
In 1905 one of the survivors of this experience, John O. Murray, wrote a book to record his experiences during this travail. He titled the book "The Immortal Six-hundred" and the group became immortalized by that sobriquet. And, well deserved, I might say.
These men truly deserve the monument and the memorial on the grounds of Fort Pulaski. Although they were treated in the most barbaric and inhumane manner, these men – these Southern gentlemen – never lost their own humanity or their concern for others. It is altogether fitting that these men receive their due for their courage, their remarkable resiliency and their deep concern for their fellow prisoners.
In fact, the recognition for these immortals is long overdue.