With the beach and lighthouse of Tybee Island in the rearview mirror, US 80 sprawled out in front of the vehicle as it snaked its way toward the mainland of Savannah, Georgia. Just outside of Tybee, a sign read “Immortal 600 Memorial Highway.” The sign was placed in an appropriate spot, as rising above the brackish water surrounding it, the brick walls of Fort Pulaski could be seen rising from the marsh.
Fort Pulaski was one of the homes of the Immortal 600, a band of six hundred Confederate officers held as prisoners of war by the Union. Here at Fort Pulaski, the Immortals would endure some of the worst privations of the Civil War. These privations came after first being used as human shields and starved near Charleston, South Carolina.
This is a story that begins with Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones, commander of the Confederate forces at Charleston Harbor. For months, he watched as Union guns pounded, not just the coastal defenses, but the residential areas of Charleston. Nightly, homes with women and children were shelled by the Yankee guns.
In an effort to give the innocent residents of Charleston some much-needed relief, Gen. Jones sent word to his Union counterpart, Maj. Gen. John G. Foster that fifty of his officers, including five generals, were housed in the neighborhoods of Charleston as prisoners of war. Basically, Jones let the Union command know that when they gave the order to shell the non-combatants of Charleston, there was the possibility that they would also be shelling their own men.
Foster was outraged. He reached out to Union high command and asked for fifty Confederate prisoners of similar ranks to be brought to Morris Island so that they could be placed in an equally dangerous predicament. Luckily for these fifty rebel officers (and the fifty Yankees in Charleston), Foster and Jones were able to come to an agreement and exchanged prisoners. Crisis averted, right?
Wrong. After this prisoner exchange took place, Foster received word that the Confederates were bringing six hundred more Union POW’s into the city in hopes of another exchange. Once more, Gen. Foster reached out to Washington, DC, this time with the request for six hundred Confederate officers to be brought to the Union fortifications on Morris Island.
These six hundred officers were taken out of the prison camp at Fort Delaware. At first, these men were told they were going to be exchanged. Rightfully so, many of the men looked forward to the trip and going home. It wasn’t until the men arrived on Morris Island that they learned they were not going to be exchanged. Instead, they were to be used as a human shield.
On September 8, 1864, the six hundred Confederate officers were placed in front of the Yankee cannons. Union shells soared over their heads on the way to Fort Sumter. Confederate gunners, if they wished to return fire, risked the chance of hitting their own men. Confederate gunners aimed high, but still shells exploded prematurely and rained shrapnel down on the six hundred men below. Union guns also misfired and sent shots through the prisoners’ encampment.
Despite the conditions, not one man died as a result of the bombings. Three did die on Morris Island due to the starvation rations and exposure to the elements. After six weeks of this, a ship arrived to take the six hundred to their next destination, Fort Pulaski. Lt. Henry Cook wrote, “The horrors of Morris Island were not to be compared with what awaited us on the coast of Georgia.”
Arriving in mid-October, most of the 600 would call Fort Pulaski home until March 1865. Perhaps the greatest hardships were experienced during this time of incarceration. Due to the poor conditions at Confederate prison camps, especially Andersonville, the Union commanders of Fort Pulaski put the Immortal 600 on what they called “retaliation rations,” consisting on a small piece of bread, soured cornmeal, and rotten pickled onions. Meat was not to be had, except for the rats, cats, and dogs the men were lucky enough to catch. Scurvy and dysentery were as common among the 600 as the lice crawling about their uniforms.
Another thirteen died at Fort Pulaski and were buried outside the walls on Cockspur Island. As the condition of the Confederate prisoners worsened, the decision was made to remove them from Fort Pulaski and to return them to the prison at Fort Delaware. The largest number of Immortal 600 deaths occurred upon the return to Fort Delaware. This is not surprising after reading a description of the men penned by a fellow prisoner, Robert E. Park. He wrote, “Their lean, emaciated persons were covered with livid spots of various sizes, occasioned by effusion of blood under the cuticle. They looked pale, languid and low spirited, and suffered from general exhaustion, pains in the limbs, and bleeding gums. All this was caused by their rigid confinement and want of nourishing food.”
Among the men transferred back to Fort Delaware was Maury County’s own Lt. William H. Alderson. He arrived with the rest of the Immortals on March 12th and was admitted to the prison hospital on March 13th. He died on March 30, 1865. The cause of death was listed as erysipelas, a bacterial skin infection. Modern medical journals state this condition can usually be cured in a matter of days when treated with penicillin. He was taken from Fort Delaware and buried across the river on the New Jersey shore.
Another Columbia man, Joseph A. Irvine, was among the ranks of the Immortal 600. Luckily for young Lt. Irvine, he was sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina and exchanged on December 15, 1864. He would miss the full five months of “retaliation rations” endured by his colleagues, but he had still endured more than any prisoner of war should have. Joseph Irvine would return to Maury County and serve as a deputy sheriff before becoming a lumber broker. Today, he rests in Rose Hill Cemetery.
The Immortal 600 became heroes in the final days of the Civil War. Southerners looked to them for inspiration—enduring privations on Morris Island, Hilton Head, and at Fort Pulaski, the easiest thing for the men to do would have been to take the oath to the Union and go home. A very small number of the men did this. For the vast majority, honor and commitment to their cause would not allow this. Today, a small stretch of highway in Georgia and a granite marker outside of Fort Pulaski commemorates their bravery and dedication. On the base of that marker reads the words, “Lest we forget.”
Let us never forget…
References & Suggested Reading:
Edgar, Capt. Alfred Mallory. My Reminiscences of the Civil War with the Stonewall Brigade and the Immortal 600. 35th Star Publishing, 2011.
Joslyn, Mauriel Phillips. The Biographical Roster of the Immportal 600. White Mane Publishing, 1995.
Joslyn, Mauriel Phillips. Immortal Captives: The Story of 600 Confederate Officers and the United States Prisoner of War Policy. Pelican Publishing, 2008.
Murray, Maj. John Ogden. The Immortal Six Hundred: A Story of Cruelty of Confederate Prisoners of War. The Confederate Reprint Company, 2015.
Stokes, Karen. The Immortal 600: Surviving Civil War Charleston and Savannah. The History Press, 2013.