Michelle Isenhoff

Ebb Tide: African American Soldier POW Trial

This is the second in a three-part series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Ebb Tide, the third book in my Ella Wood trilogy. (Part 1: The Port Royal Experiment.)

Ebb Tide continues the theme of the evolution of Black soldiers in the Civil War, begun in Blood Moon. The First (July 10-11, 1863) and Second (July 18-Sept. 7, 1863) Battles of Fort Wagner feature prominently in Blood Moon. These were major confrontations on Morris Island in the mouth of Charleston harbor. The first was a hasty and presumptuous attack that ended in bitter defeat for the North. The second marked one of the very first times a Black regiment featured fully in battle. It also happens to be the battle immortalized by the movie Glory. At the end of the ill-fated charge by the famous 54th Massachusetts, scores of African American soldiers were taken prisoner…and held by a Confederate government that refused to acknowledge their status as soldiers.

Members of the 54th Massachusetts.

I wish there was a Glory II to illustrate the now-forgotten courtroom drama that followed the battle. It would make excellent viewing. You see, South Carolina law still considered all Negroes taken in arms to be slaves in rebellion and required they be executed or returned to slavery. Confederate General Beauregard and President Jefferson Davis both recognized the policy as untenable. The execution of several dozen black men would not only alienate England, with whom they still hoped to secure an alliance, but when it reached Lincoln’s ears, he promptly promised equal treatment (hard labor, not execution) to the same number of Confederates. So in essence, Richmond had to find a way to squeak out from underneath its own law.

This new and complex situation prompted several questions: Who had jurisdiction over the prisoners–Richmond, South Carolina, or the military? Were the defendants to be treated as prisoners of war or as criminals? Would they be tried in a civil court or military? And who would carry out any sentence? President Davis agreed to hand the case over to South Carolina’s Governor Bonham (who strongly advocated execution), but he insisted that it be tried in a civil court and that any sentencing would be carried out by the provost Marshall.

On the surface, President Davis’s decision seems at odds with his purpose. Wasn’t it a bit risky to hand authority of such a weighty issue over to a state and let the trial proceed in Charleston, that hot-headed city that started the war? Ah, but Davis was a sly old fox, you see. He knew a civil trial would appease everyone—racial extremists, abolitionists, and Englishmen. And he recognized that the court could hardly fail to find Blacks taken in battle, wearing the blue uniform, in the employ of and with the full backing of the United States of America, to be true soldiers.

Castle Pinkney, where about 80 black POWs from the 54th Massachusetts were imprisoned for 18 months following the First Battle of Fort Wagner.

Governor Bonham actually began by establishing a commission to interview two dozen of the prisoners, and four who admitted to being former slaves were then hand-picked for the trial, which took place over three days beginning on September 8, 1863. Council for the defendants was provided by a Charleston lawyer by the name of Nelson Mitchell, who argued exactly as President Davis had foreseen. And in the end, despite a good deal of public outcry, Davis got his wish. The judge agreed that the POWs were indeed soldiers and could not be prosecuted as criminals.

Lest you think President Davis took too great a gamble with these men’s lives, consider his second condition. Any sentencing would be carried out by the provost Marshall–military, over which he had full control. Had the verdict gone the other way, it is doubtful that he would have allowed the executions to be carried out. Most likely, the men would have been locked away somewhere, making them de facto prisoners of war. As it was, they were imprisoned in Castle Pinkney, a small fortress in Charleston harbor, for over a year and finally sent on to a POW camp in Florence, SC in December 1864. I did not research how many of them survived the war.

The Massacre at Fort Pillow (Tennessee) on April 12, 1864, where surrendering black Union soldiers were slaughtered by Confederate troops.

As a result of the trial, Black soldiers would thereafter be granted full legal rights as prisoners of war with one notable exception. Richmond refused to exchange them one for one, which would have granted them equal status with White soldiers. It was this incident that brought the entire prisoner exchange system to a halt. In reality, however, that new legal status wasn’t always enough to overcome Southern hatred for black men in uniform. The Fort Pillow Massacre of April 12, 1864 was one tragic example. But overall, at least in the North, the formation of Colored regiments did much to begin changing the universal prejudice against African Americans. It was certainly a major stepping stone on the long, long road to Civil Rights.

Part Three: Mitchelville

Ebb Tide: African American Soldier POW Trial

4 thoughts on “Ebb Tide: African American Soldier POW Trial

  1. Interesting information about how the captured black soldiers on the Union side were treated by the southern states. President Davis really took a chance. But, most of all I find the exchange system really interesting — not equals. I look forward to how you use the material in Ebb Tide.

    1. Yes, the South was stubborn to the point of breaking down the system on that one. But I dare say it was on its way out anyway. Both sides had come to realize this was going to be a long, drawn-out fight and exchange would only prolong it.

  2. You are right, this sounds like another movie script. Maybe someday! (My own personal candidate for best potential screenplay of largely forgotten historical event: the story of Dred Scott.) Thank you for the history lesson here.

    1. I did seriously consider pursuing this as its own novel but decided not to after a few weeks of deliberating. It’s more straight historical and would require far deeper research than I need to do for my historical fiction. With kids still at home, this probably isn’t the time to undertake a project that would likely require me to travel to my source documents.
      Yes, Dred Scot would be another fantastic project!

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