Prison Hostages Banner


O'Connor house in Charleston, S.C., in which Union officers were confined under fire, April 1865

Throughout the war, the Union and Confederacy occasionally held prisoners of war as hostages sentenced to death in retaliation for some action taken by the other side. At the beginning of the war, the Confederate privateers Jefferson Davis and Savannah were captured, and the United States sentenced the officers and crew to be executed for piracy, even though international law considered privateering legal during time of war. The Confederacy retaliated by selecting the same number of Union prisoners, officers of the highest rank, from Castle Pinckney prison in Charleston Harbor, and placed them in close confinement, sentenced to death.

When two Rebel officers in Kentucky were executed by federal forces for spying, the Confederate government chose two Union officers from Libby Prison and sentenced them to the same fate. The United States promptly notified Richmond that it held Confederate General Robert E. Lee's son, General W.H.F."Rooney" Lee, prisoner and would hang him if the sentence against the Libby prisoners was carried out.

Union forces at Charleston Harbor had bombed the civilian population of Charleston, the Rebel commander notified his Yankee counterpart that 50 Union prisoners had been taken from their cells and placed in a part of the city that frequently received the federal fire. The United States retaliated by selecting 50 high-ranking Confederate prisoners and placing them in exposed positions on the gunboats at Charleston, where they could be hit by fire from the Rebel Batteries.

These example of hostage taking ended with an exchange of prisoners, but not all hostages were so fortunate. When General Ulysses S. Grant ordered the Colonel John S. Mosby's partisans be hanged when captured, seven were executed. In turn, Mosby had his Union prisoners select seven from among their ranks and had them executed.