On this date in 1865, a large group of Confederate soldiers were returned to Fort Delaware or Pea Patch Island on the Delaware River. Most had been incarcerated in the prison the previous year and had been taken south as a strategic military ploy. In June 1864, a Union commander leading a barrage of cannon fire on Charleston, South Carolina had received word from his Confederate counterpart that fifty Union generals and field officers were inside city limits and in range of the firing. Whether the note was a considerate warning or a threat is not entirely known. What is known is that the Union reaction suggests that they believed it to be the latter.
Fifty inmates from Fort Delaware were assembled and loaded on boats to be used as human shields in retaliation of the Confederates apparently doing the same. By the time they arrived however, a deal had been struck and the prisoners were instead exchanged. Buoyed by the rise in their ranks, the Confederate Army immediately brought another 600 Union soldiers to the city in hopes of another exchange. Word trickled back to Fort Delaware that another exchange was imminent and the men were elated when 600 of their own numbers were loaded on boats and sent south.
This time, however, there was no exchange as Union officials immediately shot down the idea. Instead, the men would be used as human shields at Fort Sumter against Confederate fire under the guard of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; an all-black unit that had just received acclaim and lost many of their own during an assault on Fort Wagner - The events of which were depicted in the movie, Glory, years later. In addition, the Confederate prisoners were issued limited rations in an apparent retaliation of reports of how Union prisoners were being treated in Andersonville (see Andersonville National Historic Site).
As they were returned to Fort Delaware a year later, the inmates that swarmed to greet them were shocked and disgusted at the emaciated condition the men were in. Of the initial six hundred, over twenty did not return - succumbing to the horrid conditions they had been forced into. Yet another 25 would not recover and died at Fort Delaware. However, their refusal to take the Union's "Oath of Allegiance" and tenacity for survival in the most horrid of all conditions elevated them in stature and earned them the nickname of "The Immortal Six Hundred" throughout the south. Of the numbers they lost, none died by friendly fire.
Read more of the many stories of Fort Delaware.
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