Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts.
On 10 a.m. July 4, 1863, the United States Military Telegraph transmitted this notice:
“The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac, up to 10 p.m. of the 3rd. is such as to cover that Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen. And that for this, he especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude. ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”
This was the President’s press-release of the victory at Gettysburg. Two hours later, Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Confederate army at Vicksburg, Miss. The double victory of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, made July 4, 1863, in the words of historian James McPherson, “the most memorable Independence Day in American history since the first one four score and seven years earlier.”
Yet, apart from the traditional celebrations on the White House grounds, there were few signs of jubilation elsewhere in the Capital. The immediate reaction to the battle of Gettysburg was a mixture of relief and frustration at the failure to capture Lee’s army. It would take three days for the news of the fall of Vicksburg to reach Washington.
The work of the United States Military Telegraph proceeded at a frantic pace, as a team of operators were busy receiving, sending, and routing messages. On 6 p.m., for example, one operator entered a message in his ledger (EC 6), reporting the progress (or rather lack of thereof), General William F. Smith’s unsuccessful pursuit of Lee’s army.
6 P.M. Harrisburg Pa. July 4, 1863
For SecWar Genl Smith on his
march met a flag of truce
two miles from Mt. Holly on
the Bendersville road with two thousand
prisoners which he recd & sent
the escort back trusting that the
exaggerated idea which they had of
his numbers would have a good
effect he delayed his march for
for two hours as his route was
thus discovered he says with
references to news “nothing unfavorable”
Signed L. Thomas Adjut Genl
Sent to Fredk & Baltimore 7 P.M.
At the same time, another operator, his own ledger (EC 8) on his desk, was receiving this message from Dana Couch to General Meade:
6 PM Harrisburg Penna July 4,1863
for Genl Meade Genl Smith’s
advance in the mountain
passes beyond Mount Holly
met two thousand paroled
prisoners from your army
under Escort period Smith
being discovered recd the
prisoners I will send
them to Camp at
West Chester Signed D. N. Couch
Not sent to Meade. One from Thomas gives same information.
Thirty minutes later, Thomas T. Eckert transmitted this cipher from the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Arabia) to William H. Ludlow, the Union commissioner for exchange.
Sheldon Ft Mon. Wash DC July 4, 1863
Rosetta Venus Lud-low you will
if it has not already been
done forward to Adorn by Express
the copy of Jeff Davis’ dispatch
sent him today also my telegram
of this Evening and until you
receive the Adam’s instruction hold no
communication with Mr Stephens or Mr
Ould nor permit either of them
to come within our lines period
Our Victory is complete Lee in
full retreat Arabia Bully
The blotted out “Bully,” (meaning “Well done!”), at the end of the message is one of the few signs of celebration at the War Department.
Yet the telegram showed that the victory at Gettysburg had already born results. Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America and Robert Ould, chief agent for prisoner exchange of the Confederate Army, were envoys of the President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis dispatched the two on July 2, in anticipation of Lee’s successful invasion of Pennsylvania. Lee’s victory was expected to force Lincoln’s hand not only in the negotiations over cartel of the prisoner exchange — suspended in retaliation for the harsh treatment of African American prisoners of war — but in recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America.
Stephens acted as the bearer of the official communication addressed to Lincoln and intended to start international diplomatic negotiations “which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces.” The communication was filled with complaints about “numerous difficulties” in “the execution of the cartel of exchange,” for which Davis, unsurprisingly, squarely blamed the Union side. More ominously, Davis accused Lincoln of war crimes: some of “your officers” asserted “a right to treat as spies” and execute prisoners of war, i.e., “the military officers and enlisted men under my command who may penetrate into States recognized by us as our allies.” Davis referred to the execution of William Orton Williams, a staff officer in Braxton Bragg’s command, and a cousin-in-law of Robert E. Lee, and his adjutant, Walter G. Peters. Captured by in Tennessee, while impersonating Union officers, Williams and Peters were hanged on June 9 on the order of William S. Rosecrans.
Rosecrans had acted in accordance with the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, a.k.a. Lieber Code, the first United States Army field manual, (and a foundation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions). The Code distinguished between a prisoner of war, “a public enemy armed or attached to the hostile army for active aid, who has fallen into the hands of the captor, either fighting or wounded, on the field or in the hospital, by individual surrender or by capitulation” (Section III, Article 49), and a spy defined as “a person who secretly, in disguise or under false pretense, seeks information with the intention of communicating it to the enemy.” (Section IV, Article 88). While a prisoner of war was “subject to no punishment,” nor any acts of “the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity,” a spy was “punishable with death by hanging by the neck, whether or not he succeed in obtaining the information or in conveying it to the enemy.” The execution of Williams and Peters was, in fact, the lead item in the July 4, 1863 issue of the Harpers’ Weekly:
Stephens’ mission hinged on the success of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. But when Stephens and Ould arrived to Fort Monroe in the afternoon of July 4, they were greeted by the news of the Union victory at Gettysburg. When Stanton found out about their arrival, the Secretary of War “swore and growled indignantly.” He then fired off the above telegram, instructing Ludlow to forward Davis’ message to John A. Dix (Adorn) and refrain from any communication with the envoys until he received Lincoln’s instructions.
Lincoln’s instructions were telegraphed a couple of hours later. The President of the United States refused to meet with Stephens. Stating that all questions having to do with prisoner exchange were to be resolved through “Military channels,” he added that “nothing else, will be received by the President, when offered, as in this case, in terms assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States.” (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 6, p. 315)
On July 7, after the news of the fall of Vicksburg reached Washington, a procession with bands of music marched to the Executive Mansion. The crowd cheered as the President marveled at the double victory in Pennsylvania and Mississippi marking the “birthday of the United States of America. It was no accident that “the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal” should “turn tail and run” on the very same day when, “eighty odd years” ago “for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'” Lincoln then added as an afterthought: “Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.” He finally delivered that speech on the Gettysburg battlefield on November 19, 1863.
Nashville Tenn Jany 13
Col. Anson Stager
Two or three rebel telegraphers
one named Butler who claims
to rank of Major have been captured
& sent north from here Cannot they
be exchanged for my men yet at
Cahawba & meriden three of my
Opers are still there James C. Pettett
John F. Ludwig and J.J. Painter the laborers
and repairers have been exchanged.
J.C. Van Duzer
Capt. & Asst. Supt
The Decoding the Civil War project provides the ultimate playground for grammar nerds, a community of which I am a proud member, the type that delights in comma jokes:
This is particularly true for Eckert’s own letterpress books. When he received his own messages, Eckert obviously did not bother with sticking with writing conventions. Everyone who ever took down one’s own voice mail message knows that you often end up with a scribble that makes perfect sense to you but could be mystifying for an outside observer, especially if said observer tries to read it some hundred and fifty years later.
Exhibit A: the telegram found by crmiller211 in the 1865 letterpress book. I must confess, it was a bit of a head-scratcher, because James C. Pettett’s name looks like a signature. This, however, made no sense. The man, whose name was actually James Edward Pettit (1842-1909) had no business sending telegraphs from Nashville. He and his assistant John F. Ludwig had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men in Athens, Ala. in early October 1864 and spent the next several months in Confederate prison camps Meridian, Mississippi and Cahaba, Alabama.
The message only makes sense with correct punctuation. It was a single telegram from John C. Van Duzer, the superintendent of the telegraph office in Nashville, an attachment to the this message from Stager to Eckert: “Cleveland. Jany 13 5. I forward Capt Van Duzer’s telegram concerning exchange of operators and recommend that request be placed in proper hands for action.” The sign (2) that separates the two last lines of the message does not indicate a second telegram; rather it was most likely a page number or a mark indicating that the remainder of the attachment was received after a pause. Van Duzer informed Stager that Pettit, Ludwig and another operator named J.J. Painter were still prisoners, while the USMT laborers and repairers have already been exchanged.
In March 1865, Pettit and Ludwig turned up near Vicksburg, the site of Confederate and Union parole camps. The pair was engaged in maintaining what was known as the “Flag of Truce” Line, the only instance of a telegraphic communication between the Union and Confederate commands. Pettit operated the telegraph at the Confederate office of prisoner exchange near the Big Black River Bridge, and Ludwig was assigned to the Union headquarters four miles from the city.
The Eckert ledgers have been yielding a wealth of previously unknown data about the process of prisoner exchange. Complicated enough when it came to military personnel, it was particularly tortuous, (and much less documented), when it involved civilians. Under the terms of the cartel of exchange, a civilian employee could not be exchanged for a commissioned officer. It was also questionable whether civilian employees could legally be detained as prisoners of war, but few field commanders were bothered with legal niceties.
While most of the USMT operators were civilian employees of a firm contracted by the United States government, their Confederate counterparts were commissioned officers assigned to the staffs of field commanders. The “one named Butler” was most likely Major Jack Butler who superintended the Shelbyville office of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and reported to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Confederate Army of Tennessee Kinloch Falconer. Apparently, at the end of the war, exchange military personnel for civilians became possible.
In Pettit’s case, it may have helped that he, unlike many of his colleagues, had come to USMT from the army, the 1st Regiment of Wisconsin Infantry. Ludwig, on the other hand, was a civilian: he operated the telegraph for the Lake Shore and Michigan Railway until he joined USMT in July 1864 only to end up in a Confederate prison camp two months later.
The two were certainly lucky. They were scheduled to leave Vicksburg on April 15, 1865, along with 14,000 of Union prisoners released from Cahaba and Andersonville. Pettit, however, was too ill to board the transport, the steamer Sultana. The severe diarrhea that Pettit had contracted while in the Confederate captivity spared him the fate of the 1196 Sultana passengers killed when the steamer’s four boilers exploded on April 27, one of the worst maritime disasters in American history.
Pettit was destined to die peacefully in his bed in March 1909, having worked for forty years for the Postal Telegraph Cable Company in Chicago and served as the secretary of the Society of the United States Military Corps. Ludwig ended his career managing the Western Union office in Prescott, Arizona.
Nothing is ever simple. Complex issues are too often boiled down and reduced to a single factoid or a talking point. The real story can only be pieced together by plowing through mounds of seemingly tedious routine paperwork. In fact, historians are often the only people to appreciate the beauty of bureaucracy.
The correspondence of the War Department, a lot of which was conducted by telegraph and is now contained in the USMT ledgers, is a prime example of the extraordinary value of seemingly mundane and boring government paperwork.
A case in point: on April 17, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, who had assumed the command of the Union armed forces a month before, suspended prisoner of war exchanges. It is very tempting to take any pronouncement by a general of Grant’s caliber for a straightforward order.
Yet April 17, 1864 was just an installment in a long and convoluted story of the prisoner exchange. Both sides of the Civil War divide believed that they were fighting a just war and professed their commitment to the norms of civilized warfare. Equitable exchange of prisoners, accomplished by a cartel or agreement between the belligerents, was one of these norms.
The cartel, codified on July 22, 1862, called for equal exchange, man for man, as matched in the rank, branch of service, and the state of health. The exchanged soldiers and officers would return to the ranks. Those men for whom no exact match could be found, were paroled; the parolees were barred from taking up arms until the formal exchange could be arranged.
The cartel ambled along, punctuated by claims of breaches of trust, retaliations and counter-retaliations, until the Union army started recruiting African American soldiers. The Confederates refused to apply the “man-for-man” exchange to black soldiers. The act of the Confederate Congress of May 1, 1863 mandated that black Union troops were to be “delivered” to the authorities of the state where they had been captured “to be dealt with according to the present or future law” of the state, which meant either death or slavery.
In response, Stanton’s War Department halted all exchanges. In early July, Grant and Nathaniel P. Banks ignored this directive to parole the entire garrisons of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The War Department had to remind the generals that all exchanges were suspended until “the rebel authorities” demonstrated a “better understanding in relation to the cartel.”
The negotiations were resumed in December 1863, after Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, appointed Benjamin F. Butler as a special agent. Butler’s instructions directed him to ensure “the protection of the Government” for “colored soldiers of the United States and the officers commanding them.”
On April 9, 1864, Butler submitted a lengthy memorandum to Stanton. He acknowledged that there were many issues with the process but insisted that the United States must honor the cartel, for the sake of “the good sense of the country, the justice of the Government, or humanity toward our suffering brother soldiers in the Confederate prisons.”
Yet there was a red line. The United States could not permit to have “those black men whom we have made free, uniformed and armed, and put in our service, when captured, being treated as slaves.” If the Confederate authorities refused to exchange black soldiers “man-for-man,” the entire cartel would have to be set aside. Butler then proposed to negotiate away all outstanding problems, so that this one crucial issue “may be left standing sharply alone.”
Somewhat taken aback, Stanton referred Butler’s memorandum to Grant. Grant responded on April 17, in a letter to Butler which is often miscast as an order.
Grant agreed with Butler: “no distinction whatsoever shall be made between white and colored prisoners; the only question being where they, at the time of the capture, in the military service of the United States.”
On August 10, 1864, the Confederate commissioner agreed to a “man-to-man” exchange. When Butler inquired whether the exchange would cover black troops, there was no reply.
Harpers Ferry Nov 18th 530 PM for
Genl Kelly – my cavalry under
command of Col Boyd twenty first
Penna Cavalry have returned having been
up the Valley to near new
market fighting Gilmores & Whites command
at Mount Jackson bringing in twenty
seven prisoners two commission officers ninety
head cattle three four horse teams
besides thirty tents all horses &
equipage of prisoners – He destroyed
a number of tents & a
quantity of Salt – The men
helped themselves to a wagon load
of tobacco about five hundred pounds
our loss was two men Killed
three men wounded three missing period
I send you report by mail
sig J C Sullivan Br Gen comdg
The men of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry must have thought they hit the jackpot when they discovered tobacco among the Confederate soldiers and supplies they had captured. Was the tobacco part of the soldiers’ rations? 500 pounds sounds like a lot, but when you have an army of 1,000s you probably burn through supplies pretty quickly.
Thanks to Zooniverse user yourobedientservant for pointing this one out!