It is the desire of this Government so to conduct the war now existing as to mitigate its horrors as far as may be possible, and, with this intent, its treatment of the prisoners captured by its forces has been marked by the greatest humanity and leniency consistent with public obligation.
Some have been permitted to return home on parole, others to remain at large, under similar conditions, within this Confederacy, and all have been furnished with rations for their subsistence, such as are allowed to our own troops.
It is only since the news has been received of the treatment of the prisoners on the Savannah, that I have been compelled to withdraw these indulgences, and to hold the prisoners taken by us in strict confinement.
A just regard to humanity and to the honor of this Government now requires me to state explicitly that, painful as will be the necessity, this Government will deal out to the prisoners held by it the same treatment and the same fate as shall be experienced by those captured on the Savannah; and, if driven to the terrible necessity of retaliation by your execution of any of the officers or crew of the Savannah, that retaliation will be extended so far as shall be requisite to secure the abandonment of a practice unknown to the warfare of civilized man, and so barbarous as to disgrace the nation which shall be guilty of inaugurating it.
With this view, and because it may not have reached you, I now renew the proposition made to the commander of the blockading squadron, to exchange for the prisoners taken on the Savannah an equal number of these now held by us according to rank.
This communication was taken by Colonel Thomas Taylor
, who was permitted to visit Washington
, but was refused an audience with President Lincoln
He was obliged to content himself with a verbal reply from General Winfield Scott
that the communication had been delivered to President Lincoln
, and that he would reply in writing as soon as possible.
No answer ever came.
We were compelled to select by lot from among the prisoners in our hands a number to whom we proposed to mete out the same fate which might await the crew of the Savannah
. These measures of retaliation arrested the cruel and illegal purposes of the enemy.
Meantime, as early as May 21, 1861, the Confederate Congress passed an act which provided that—
All prisoners of war taken, whether on land or sea, during the pending hostilities with the United States, shall be transferred by the captors from time to time, and as often as convenient, to the Department of War; and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of War, with the approval of the President, to issue such instructions to the quartermaster-general and his subordinates as shall provide for the safe custody and sustenance of prisoners of war, and the rations furnished prisoners of war shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy.
This law of Congress was embodied in the orders issued from the War Department and from the headquarters in the field, and no order was ever issued in conflict with its humane provisions.