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Lt. William E. Johnson Jr.
One of the Immortal Six Hundred
Bee envelope
An envelope from the Littlejohn collection.

In 2010, Broadus R. Littlejohn, a Spartanburg collector, gave Wofford College a very large collection of books, pamphlets, documents and manuscripts. Among his gift were more than two dozen Civil War letters and a diary Lt. William E. Johnson Jr. of Liberty Hill kept from May 1864 until June 1865 while he was a Union prisoner-of-war.

The college has now placed these letters and the diary online. Lt. Johnson’s papers provide further insight into a lesser known aspect of the Civil War, the story of the Immortal Six Hundred.

These were 600 officer prisoners-of-war selected from all 14 Confederates states who were shipped from Fort Delaware to Morris Island, S.C., in 1864. There they were placed in a stockade just in front of the Union batteries shelling Fort Sumter and Charleston.

This retaliatory action was taken under the mistaken assumption that Confederate forces had placed captured Union officers in Charleston under the fire of Union batteries shelling the city. Captured Union officers had been brought to Charleston for the purpose of exchanging them for captured Confederate officers but they had not been housed in an area of Charleston reachable by Union batteries.

Lt. Johnson’s father was a very successful merchant in Camden for a number of years before he moved his family to Kirkwood. He became the president of the Bank of Camden in 1845, a position he held until his death in 1871.

He purchased a 20- or so acre tract of land in Kirkwood which formerly was a part of the Revolutionary War Hobkirk Hill battlefield. On this tract he completed a large home in 1842 to which he added landscaped gardens with a pond. In later years it became known as Holly Hedge and today, it is one of the finer antebellum homes in Camden. When William E. Johnson Jr. was 15, his family moved into their new home.

He attended the University of Va. (1845) and at about the age of 23, he married Ann Cunningham, the daughter of the large and successful Liberty Hill planter, Robert Cunningham. William was a planter at Liberty Hill when the Civil War began.

He enlisted in Co. A. of the Boykin Mounted Rifles but after some reorganization of troops, he joined Co. K S. C. Cavalry. He was appointed a lieutenant on May 18, 1864, and on May 30th, 12 days later, was captured at Old Church outside of Richmond, Va.

By August of 1864, he was imprisoned at Fort Delaware. On the 20th of that month, he and 599 other Confederate officers were crowded into the small schooner, Crescent City, for an 18-day trip to Morris Island with an intermediate stop in Beaufort to unload sick and wounded at the military hospital there.

On board the Crescent City, they suffered intense heat and a lack of water and food. On one occasion they went for 40 hours without any water.

For seven days they suffered on board the Crescent City in Charleston harbor while prisoners were exchanged and the stockade made ready for their occupation. During this period they were “treated” to a daily diet of shelling by both sides. Finally, on September 7, 1864, they left the Crescent City after 18 days aboard and marched into the stockade on Morris Island.

Their guards were from the 54th Massachusetts, a military unit chiefly created from former slaves. During the prisoners’ 45 days on Morris Island, these guards were quick to fire on them for the most minor reasons. However, these Southern “boys” knew their former slaves quite well and very soon reached an understanding with them about most matters.

Simultaneously, the Immortal Six Hundred daily faced “friendly” fire from Confederate batteries who continued to shell Battery Wagner and the other batteries firing on Charleston. Miraculously, no Confederate officers were killed by friendly fire.

The prisoners occupied themselves as best they could with card, checker and chess playing, writing in their diaries, writing letters home, making escape plans, thinking of home and creating a list of the 600 which included the name, rank, military unit, place and date of capture. Some of these lists survived the war and would later appear in print. Most prisoners also spent time thinking of being exchanged.

Although Confederate and Union forces reached an agreement about exchanging prisoners on July 12, 1862, few exchanges occurred during the war. Union authorities all the way up the chain-of-command to President Lincoln, opposed exchanges due to their fear that such exchanges would recognize the Confederacy as a nation.

By 1864, their military success convinced the Union to think victory could be achieved more quickly by not exchanging Confederate officers who would soon be back at the front lines fighting them if exchanged.

The Union’s decision not to exchange sacrificed many Union prisoners to an untimely death from lack of food, shelter and medical attention. At this time, the weakened Confederacy could not consistently provide these items for prisoners in necessary amounts. The Union forces even rejected a Confederate offer to turn Union prisoners over without any exchange of Confederates. This no-exchange policy also doomed 44 of the Immortal Six Hundred to die in prison or shortly after their release.

On October 21, 1864, the prisoners on Morris Island were transferred by ship to Fort Pulaski, Ga. As winter approached, their health worsened due to lack of warm clothing, blankets and fuel for fires. On November 19, 1864, 198 of these prisoners were transferred to Hilton Head.

Under a now-in-effect retaliation policy supposedly based on Confederate mistreatment of Union prisoners, rations were cut to a small amount of worm-infested corn meal and a few pickles per day. Scurvy set in and dysentery was rampant. Prisoners resorted to killing and eating any cats around the prisons and catching and cooking rats for meat.

All of this transpired as Sherman burned Atlanta, marched across Georgia, captured Savannah and began his march through the Carolinas. Meanwhile, Grant laid siege to Petersburg, captured it and was poised to capture Richmond.

On March 4 and 5, 1865, the Confederate prisoners at Fort Pulaski and Hilton Head were loaded on ships and sent back at Fort Delaware, arriving there on the 10th. Most of the Immortal Six Hundred still held out some hope and continued to refuse to sign the oath of allegiance to the United States.

After General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9 and General Joseph E. Johnston on April 26, 1865, the war was over. On June 16, 1865, Lt. William E. Johnson Jr. and most of his fellow Confederate officers signed the oath of allegiance. Johnson returned home to a broken and defeated South to begin picking up the pieces of his personal life. Six years later at his father’s death, he inherited Holly Hedge.

The South Caroliniana Library will soon acquire a significant 28-page manuscript Civil War document created by Lieutenant William E. Johnson, Jr. while on Morris Island. A future column will discuss this document.