Thursday, October 29, 2009

William Tillman Bishop, Immortal 600

In a letter home dated September 8, 1864 from Morris Island, off the Charleston, South Carolina coast, William T. Bishop wrote that he is "not very well at present but able to be up." He noted that there are "600 of us placed here under fire of our guns" and that "the cannons are rearing all round us constantly." He indicated hope "that we will not be kept here long" and that "we will be exchanged before many days." In the letter, William stated that he had been in prison for "going on 2 years" and in closing, William wrote "may the richest blessings of heaven rest on you all is the sincere prayer of your unworthy husband until death."

After three weeks on the island, on September 22, the prisoners were once more loaded onto the Crescent City, a move that led them to hope an exchange of prisoners was imminent. It was a false hope, however, as they were herded back onto the island the next day, the reason for the move being so that the Federal officials could search the camp for contraband. After 45 days of serving as human shields, the remaining soldiers, weak and suffering from disease, were transferred out of the miserable conditions on Morris Island to a prison camp at Fort Pulaski at Savannah, Georgia on October 21, 1864. Remarkably, not one prisoner had died from gunfire although four died from disease.

They arrived at Fort Pulaski in tattered clothing, many barefoot, and suffering from dysentery and malnutrition. Of the original 600, only 520 remained. Forty-nine were hospitalized, 4 escaped, 6 were sent to a convict prison for attempted escape, 13 were missing, 4 were buried on Morris Island, 2 were exchanged, and 2 had signed an Oath of Allegiance to the Federal government. It is remarkable that 598 Confederate prisoners had refused to sign the Oath, an act that would have released them from imprisonment and the torture they had endured.

The conditions at Fort Pulaski were not much better. The prison camp was overcrowded, the rations poor, and the fort was cold and damp. To relieve some of the overcrowding, 197 of the original 600 prisoners were sent to prison facilities at Hilton Head. Unfortunately, the conditions at Hilton Head mirrored those at Fort Pulaski.

The prisoners at Fort Pulaski endured one of the coldest winters on record for Savannah. Thirteen men died under the poor living conditions there. For 42 days, the rations consisted solely of moldy cornmeal and soured onion pickles. The commander of Fort Pulaski attempted in the beginning to treat the prisoners as humanely as possible, even sharing the rations provided for his own troops, but his superiors, upon learning of this, forbade the commander from continuing his humane treatment of the prisoners.

The following March the remaining men were put on board a ship and sent to City Point, Virginia where they remained imprisoned on the ship for a while. They were in such poor physical condition as to be an embarrassment to the Federal officials who had so loudly denounced the conditions at the Southern prison camp at Andersonville. Before releasing or exchanging the prisoners, the Federal government felt the need to fatten them up. Once more, these men were sent to the prison at Fort Delaware. Here, another 25 died. The last men of the Immortal 600” were finally released in July 1865, three months after the surrender at Appomattox. William Tillman Bishop had spent two years in various prison camps under extremely poor and inhumane conditions, but he lived to return home to his family.

The use of the 600 officers as human shields is one of the most barbaric episodes of the Civil War. These "Immortal 600”" were victims of a cruel policy of retaliation that began when the Southern commander over Charleston received Union prisoners into the city to relieve overcrowding at the Andersonville prison camp. The Union prisoners were placed in the old jail and in Roper Hospital upon their arrival into Charleston. Unfortunately, these locations were also in an area that had received artillery fire from Union troops stationed at Morris Island. In retaliation, Union officials moved some of their prisoners to a hastily-built stockade in front of their gun battery on Morris Island. While the Union prisoners were ensconced in a city of several square miles, their Southern counterparts were held in an open one-and-a-half acre pen on a small island directly in front of Union cannons.

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