IN HELL ON LAND AND SEA: THE IMMORTAL SIX HUNDRED
Franklin Payne Peak was born in Scott County, Kentucky, on May 13, 1838. His parents, also from Scott County, earlier moved to Arkansas where Mr. Peak became a wealthy planter and a state legislator. But they also maintained a home and ties in Kentucky. Franklin Peak left his family’s Arkansas plantation and joined the confederate forces of Byrne’s Company, Kentucky Light Artillery attached to the 1st Kentucky Brigade. After taking part in the battle of Shiloh, the company joined the Army of Tennessee and saw action at Murfreesboro and elsewhere. Franklin Peak, who had entered service as a Junior 2nd Lt., distinguished himself and was promoted to 2nd Lt. In a raid at Buffington Island, Ohio, he was captured and taken to Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. It became the portal to hell.
Fort Delaware did have wooden barracks, unlike many other Civil War prisons. However, after the Battle of Gettysburg, the population swelled to almost 13,000. Water became putrefied; food was scarce; prisoners were afflicted with smallpox, measles, diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy and malnutrition.
Capt. John S. Swann was a prisoner at Fort Delaware. He wrote of the meager portions of distateful food they received and this experience:
Not long after my arrival I heard a cry “Rat call! Rat call!” I went out to see what this meant. A number of prisoners were moving and some running up near the partition, over which a sargeant (sic) was standing and presently he began throwing rats down. The prisoners scrambled for the rats like school boys for apples, none but some of the most needy prisoners, and the needy were the large majority, would scramble for these rats. Of course but few were lucky enough to get a rat. The rats were cleaned, put in salt water a while and fried. Their flesh was tender and not unpleasant to the taste.
In one of the most controversial incidents of the Civil War, 600 Confederate prisoners were taken by ship from Fort Delaware to Charleston Harbor, where they were used as human shields for the Union outpost on Morris Island, directly under the fire of their own Confederate guns. The prisoners believed they were on their way to be exchanged. Instead they found themselves packed into the hold of the ship Crescent City in conditions they compared to the “Black Hole of Calcutta.”
The 600 prisoners were selected so that there were some from every state which had regiments in the Confederate army: 186 prisoners from Virginia; 111 from North Carolina; 60 from Georgia; 49 from Tennessee; 35 from Kentucky, including my cousin Franklin Peak; 31 from Louisiana; 27 from Arkansas; 26 from Alabama; 24 from South Carolina; 22 from Mississippi; 10 from Florida; 8 from Missouri; 6 from Maryland; and 5 from Texas. They were destined to become known as the “Immortal Six Hundred.”
They were marched aboard the steamer Crescent City on August 20, 1864. Rough bunks, four tiers high, lined the ship from one end to the other. Only one hatch was allowed to be open, so it was dark, crowded, and stiflingly hot. The prisoners were kept in the hold for the entire 18-day journey to South Carolina. The Crescent City was escorted by two gunboats and a naval supply steamer. Along the way, the convoy stopped over at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where the POWs remained confined in the ship’s hold. When the convoy resumed its journey, the prisoners were told that they were being taken on to Charleston for exchange.
The August heat, poor ventilation, meager rations and shortage of drinking water began to take their toll. Many began to suffer from scurvy and seasickness, yet the prisoners were not allowed on deck; the filth and stench in the hold worsened. After various stops, the convoy arrived at Morris Island on Sept 5. It was as they neared Charleston Harbor that the prisoners were told they were going to be used as human shields. They were kept in the ship’s hold for another two days while the onshore stockade pen was completed. “On 7 Sept, we disembarked at Morris Island,” wrote one soldier, “and when we finally came out into the light of day, and had a look at each other, we were astonished to note the ravages made by the terrible heat and the nauseous confinement. One could scarcely recognize his best friends.”
The stockade for the prisoners was erected on the beach about 50 feet from the water, made of pine poles 15 to 20 feet tall driven into the sand and cleated together with pine boards. A parapet for the guards ran along the top of the compound. At the head of the middle street was a rapid-fire volley gun, loaded and ready to open upon the camp at a moment’s notice.
On the second day at Morris Island, the Union cannons opened fire on Fort Sumter and Charleston. Confederate gunners across the harbor responded, attempting to avoid hitting the men of the Immortal Six Hundred. Throughout the month of September the big Federal guns blasted shells over their heads, and occasionally one of the rounds would prematurely burst, scattering the camp with fragments. When the Southern gunners replied to the Union salvos, their inbound projectiles went directly over the prisoners’ camp. Several Union guards were struck by shrapnel, but miraculously the prisoners remained unharmed, even though approximately 18 rounds, all duds, actually landed in the stockade.
In retaliation for the treatment of Union prisoners at Andersonville, and perhaps out of frustration that they had been unsuccessful at provoking the Confederates into shelling their own men, the Union officers subjected the prisoners on Morris Island to an intentional starvation diet of four hardtack crackers at breakfast, one-half pint of soup for lunch and nothing for supper. Even on a good day, a prisoner might receive some “worm eaten hard tack, a little chunk of bacon one half inch square” and a bowl of bean soup made, it was rumored, on a formula of “three beans to a half quart of water,” according to Thomas Pickney, a captain in the 4th South Carolina Cavalry.
Franklin Payne Peak lasted just twenty-six days on Morris Island, dying of chronic diarrhea on October 1, 1864. He was one of three who died on the island.
After six weeks, those who were still alive were moved to Fort Pulaski near Savannah. Col. P.P. Brown of the 127th New York told them that he had been ordered to feed them only “ten ounces of corn meal and one-half pint of onion pickle each twenty-four hours, as a ration, without salt, meat, grease, or vegetables.” At Fort Pulaski, the prisoners were deprived of clothing, shoes, and blankets and were confined in an iron cage. The rate of sickness and death increased. Snow fell in Savannah on Christmas Day, 1864, to a depth of four inches, but the prisoners were allowed no additional clothing, no blankets, and no fires. Thirteen more prisoners died.
They remained at Fort Pulaski until March 1865, when they were loaded back on ship and returned to Fort Delaware. Five more died at Hilton Head, en route. On March 12, the ship reached Fort Delaware where 25 more died.
On June 3, 1908, George K. Cracraft, a surviving member of the Immortal Six Hundred, spoke before the Daughters of the Confederacy at Lake Village, Arkansas, and recalled:
Frank Paine Peak, than whom no better man went forth to war, enlisted in Byrne’s battery, attached to Morgan’s cavalry. He distinguished himself, and was complimented and promoted ‘in orders.’ In the great raid in Ohio, he was captured and taken to Fort Delaware, where I met him – I having been captured at the fall of Fort Hudson shortly before. He was one of the noblest specimens of patriotic manhood. He was quiet, cheerful and full of hope. All who knew him loved him for his Christian virtues, his manly courage, and tenderness of heart. By the vicissitudes of war, he and I were of the ‘six hundred’ who were selected to undergo retaliatory measures, and put in a stockade on Morris Island, South Carolina, under the fire of our own batteries for a period of over forty days with rotten corn meal and pickles for our rations. Lieutenant Peak sickened and died like many others under this barbarous treatment. On October 2, 1864, far from his home on Grand Lake, this hero closed his eyes, never to open them again until the resurrection morn. About him stood the men in blue who were his enemies, and could not understand – they could not know the great heart that ceased to beat. On the evening of that day, I helped to bury him in a shallow grave in the sands of that island. As we laid him to rest, the shot and shell from Charleston and Sumter batteries sang his funeral dirge. He had gone to the stars – Peace to his ashes! The confederate army was composed of men like him; their fortitude, courage, and unswerving fidelity to duty during four long and bloody years of war is the proudest asset to American valor, and finds no equal in ancient or modern history. His old grey jacket was a patent of nobility far greater than ever conferred by mortal hands and he valued it as his life.
The marker shown above lists the names of the 13 soldiers from the Immortal Six Hundred who died while at Fort Pulaski. The sentiment is applicable to all who suffered in the Civil War . . . and in all wars.