Monday, August 6, 2012

The Society of the Immortal 600 - No Monument for Morris Island

Okay fine, but who were the Immortal 600? The 600 (since you asked) were a group of former Confederate officers who had been intentionally placed under fire while held as prisoner of war.  Veterans of the 600 had served time in various northern prison camps including Sandusky, Ohio, Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, and ultimately on Morris Island, South Carolina – where they found themselves used as human shields in a stockade placed before the Union batteries conducting the siege of Charleston.

This may come as no surprise, but these practices along with the allegedly harsh treatment carried out by Union Colonel Edward N. Hallowell and his command of African American guards led many to direct anger northward – a practice that never subsided. In 1910, Thomas Coleman Chandler, a former officer who had left the Virginia Military Institute in 1861 to enlist with the Tyranny Unmasked Artillery, recalled his hardships after an early-twentieth century trip to Morris Island. This aging veteran, who had been wounded several times and captured at Spotsylvania, addressed his fellow former prisoners with imagery as vivid as it was animus. Chandler focused on a number of troubling aspects. “Suffering men” typical of most prison reminiscences formed the foundation of an argument attacking the Union commander and especially the “Negro guards” at Morris Island. These particular points most certainly would have stirred emotions among Confederate veterans reminded of the “brutal laugh of Hallowell and his niggers as they gloated over your suffering.”(This is Chandler's language, not mine. As much as such language offends us today, I think it important to use their words as written).

Recognition of the official Immortal 600 veterans’ organization gained steam in the early-twentieth century when John Ogden Murray, a captain with the 11th Virginia Cavalry and member of the Society, began compiling information on the group with the purpose of publishing the first book-length paean to the 600. Funds generated by such a publication would be set aside to finance a monument to the group on Morris Island. In a powerful work intended to “give the world a true history of the wanton cruelty inflicted upon helpless prisoners of war, without the least shadow of excuse,” Murray vividly recounted how his Union captors “hated everything southern.”

While proceeds fell short of the funds necessary to construct a monument, Murray’s book nevertheless created a stir in the South and saw several printings. Seizing the commemorative reins, the Virginia state legislature recognized appeals to honor the 600 and appropriated necessary funds for the monument in 1910. Making sure to point out that any such monument would pay tribute to those “inhumanely treated by the United States Government,” Virginia legislators kept lingering hostilities in the forefront.

But the monument never materialized. For what ever reason, funding, politics - certainly waning interest did not play a part. Even today heritage foundations and other neo-Confederate groups demand recognition of the suffering of Confederate prisoners at the hands of the United States government. What do you think? Should the 600 have a monument?



  1. The 600 were supposedly placed as human shields because of a use of human shields by the Confederates. Under modern international law, both were grave violations. Americans tend to view such acts today as medeival when in fact our own honored ancestors engaged in them.

  2. Right you are, Pat - something that former Confederates curiously forgot - that they had done the same thing - when they were ranting about this late in the 19th century.

  3. Herewith the words of Harry E. Handerson, 9th Louisiana Infantry: "In retaliation the Federal authorities had directed that we should be confined between forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, and thus exposed to the fire of the Confederate batteries. At first glance this would seem to be a terrible position for the unfortunate prisoners of both sides. A moment's reflection, however, will recall to us the fact that no prisoners would remain in a dangerous position unless kept there by guards, and he would be a poor soldier, indeed, who could not endure with equanimity as much danger as his guards. The whole procedure was, of course, a farce, expensive and well adapted to 'fire the Northern heart,' but absolutely harmless to the supposed victims. Not a single prisoner was injured on either side by the fire of his friends, so far as I know, and certainly a Confederate shell rarely came near enough to even excite interest." Pp. 76-77, "Yankee in Gray: The Civil War Memoirs of Henry E. Handerson, with a selection of his wartime letters," (Western Reserve, 1962).

  4. Murray's book is available online here.

    References to the Immortal 600 turn up regularly online, so I'm curious as to why there isn't a monument. Confederate heritage folks certainly seem to be able to turn out their people and open their wallets for some dubious and counter-productive things, so why is there no monument? It's a good question.

  5. Having thought about it some more, it may be that Morris Island is simply not practical for a monument. Most of Morris Island as it was in 1861-65, including the site of Battery Wagner, has been reclaimed by the Atlantic. The site of Battery Gregg is still extant, but the shoreline between there and the site of Wagner is mostly gone.

    Looking at aerial images of it, Morris Island appears to be undeveloped, and there doesn't appear to be either a way to get there by vehicle, or actual roads on the island. According to Wiki, it's been acquired as a preserve, and I imagine it's not an easy place to get to.

    So anyway, there may be some significant practical reasons why a monument on Morris Island is not a priority.

    Image overlays showing erosion between 1863 and the present at the bottom of this post:

  6. Come to think of it Andy, you're most definitely right. It would be an inconvenient place for a monument. Maybe they should consider Charleston...? I would be interested in seeing the controversy surrounding that one.

    Thanks for the link!