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Captain Irving and the “steamer Convoy” --supplies for prisoners.

By Judge Robert Ould.
[We are very much indebted to Judge Ould for the following interesting and conclusive paper, in which he not only explodes the statement about the “Steamer Convoy,” quoted in Notes and Queries of our June number, but gives a most valuable vindication of the Confederate [321] Government on the whole question of supplies for prisoners.]

In the Notes and Queries of the June number of the Southern Historical papers, after quoting from the Michigan Post and Tribune a statement “that, in November, 1863, the United States Government sent Captain Irving up the James with the steamer Convoy, laden with clothing and provisions for the Union soldiers at Libby and Bell Isle, and that the steamer Convoy returned still laden as she went, the Rebel scoundrels refusing to allow the goods to be delivered to the sufferers there.” I am asked to tell what I know “about the effort of the steamer Convoy.”

In reply, I say that, according to the best of my recollection and belief, this is the first time I ever heard of Captain Irving or the steamer Convoy. It is true that many years have elapsed since the alleged occurrence, but yet, if it ever happened, it would be strange if I did not recollect something about it. Upon reference to my correspondence with the Federal authorities during the war, I find no allusion to Captain Irving or the Convoy, but I do find enough to satisfy any reasonable mind that any such statement, as of the date given, is an utter falsehood. At the risk of being tedious, I will present the action of the Confederate Government on this matter of the contribution of clothing and provisions from the North to Federal prisoners confined in the South. Only one of the letters produced in this communication has been heretofore published, to-wit: that of January 24th, 1864.

For a long time previous to November, 1863, food and clothing had been sent by flag of truce boats from the North to City Point, then the headquarters of exchange, and there received and delivered over to the parties to whom they were consigned. Sometimes such food and clothing were directed to individual parties, and sometimes to Federal prisoners generally, or to Federal prisoners confined at some particular prison. These consignments multiplied to such an extent, that, at the instance of the Federal authorities, General Neal Dow, then a prisoner at the Libby, was appointed to take charge of them and distribute them. General Dowe having proved very inefficient in this matter, and having availed himself of his parole to do things which were against the word of honor which he had given, I notified the Federal authorities on the 16th November, 1863, that Colonel A. Von Schrader, Inspector-General of Fourteenth Army Corps, Colonel Cesnola, Fourth New York Cavalry, and Lieutenant-Colonel I. F. Boyd, Quartermaster Twentieth Army Corps, had been appointed as members of the Board to superintend the distribution of supplies, of which there was then a [322] large supply on hand. These officers were given such a parole as would enable them to discharge the duty with efficiency, with full liberty to report their proceedings to their own government. While this state of affairs was in existence, it was ascertained that false and unjust accusations against the Confederate authorities were industriously circulated at the North in respect to the distribution of these supplies. This at length became such a grievance, that on November 18th, 1863, I addressed the following letter to Brigadier-General S. A. Meredith, then Federal Agent of Exchange, in answer to a letter of General Hitch-cock, forwarded to me:

Confederate States of America, war Department, Richmond, Va., Nov. 18th 1863.
Brigadier-General S. A. Meredith, Agent of Exchange:
Sir,--The letter of General Hitchcock has been received. Until the Confederate authorities appeal to be relieved “from the obligation to treat prisoners of war according to the laws of civilized warfare,” or offer as “an explanation or excuse” for insufficient food that supplies have not been forwarded by your government, it is entirely unnecessary to discuss what will be the views of your authorities in either contingency.

Statements most infamously false have recently been made and circulated at the North by persons whose calling should have imposed a respect for truth, which their own personal honor seems to have failed to secure. Our regulations require that prisoners shall receive the same rations as soldiers in the field. Such your prisoners have received, and will continue to receive. Do you ask more? If so, what do you demand? We recognize in the fullest form our obligation to treat your prisoners with humanity, and to serve them with the same food, in quantity and quality, as is given to our own soldiers. If the supply is scanty, you have only to blame the system of warfare you have waged against us. There is nothing in the action of the Confederate Government which gives any sort of countenance to the charge of cruelty or inhumanity to your prisoners. In the first place, we have importuned you to agree to a fair and honest proposition which would secure the release of all of them. When that was rejected, you have been permitted to send, without stint or limitation, all kinds of supplies to them. General Hitchcock requests that the prisoners [323] now in our hands be returned to your lines. This is not accompanied with any proposition to release our prisoners now in your hands: so far from that being the case, he promises “to continue to supply food and clothing as heretofore” to such. General Hitchcock need not have urged you to “lose no time in communicating his letter.” No degree of haste would have secured the assent of the Confederate authorities to a proposition so flagrantly unequal. We are ready to relieve your Government from the burthen of supplying “food and clothing as heretofore” to our people in your hands, and if they are sent to us, yours shall be returned to you, the excess on one side or the other to be on parole. I hope you will urge upon General Hitchcock the acceptance of this proposition “as due to the most solemn consideration in the face of the civilized world.” We are content that the “civilized world” should draw its own conclusions when it contrasts the two offers. I will thank you to forward this communication to General Hitchcock, or inform him that the Confederate authorities decline to accept his proposition.

Respectfully, &c.,

Ro. Ould, Agent of Exchange.

It was hoped that this protest would have the effect of preventing any further trouble in that direction. But such was not the case. The misrepresentation increased instead of diminishing, until at length the directions which were put upon the packages were insults to the Confederate authorities. In addition, the Confederate authorities were charged at the North with the confiscation of the stores, notwithstanding the fact that the officers named receipted for them and forwarded the receipts to their government.

The Confederate authorities were unwilling to allow this state of affairs to continue, and accordingly I wrote on the 11th December, 1863, the following letter to the Federal Agent of Exchange:

Confederate States of America, December 11th 1863.
Brigadier-General S. A. Meredith, Agent of Exchange:
Sir,--As the assent of the Confederate Government to the transmission by your authorities and people, of food and clothing to the prisoners at Richmond and elsewhere, has been the subject of so much misconstruction and misrepresentation, and has been made the occasion [324] of so much vilification and abuse, I am directed to inform you that no more will be allowed to be delivered at City Point. The clothing and provisions already received will be devoted to the use of your prisoners. When that supply is exhausted, they will receive the same rations as our soldiers in the field.

Respectfully, &c.,

Ro. Ould, Agent of Exchange.

No further supplies were sent from the North for some time. But the Confederate Government anxious that some fair, proper and reciprocal plan for the relief of prisoners on both sides should be adopted, directed me to bring the matter to the attention of the Federal authorities, which I did on January 24th, 1864, in the following letter:

Confederate States of America, war Department, Richmond, Va., January 24, 1864.
Major-General E. A. Hitchcock, Agent of Exchange:
Sir,--In view of the present difficulties attending the exchange and release of prisoners, I propose that all such on each side shall be attended by a proper number of their own surgeons, who under rules to be established, shall be permitted to take charge of their health and comfort. I also propose that these surgeons shall act as commissaries, with power to receive and distribute such contributions of money, food, clothing and medicines as may be forwarded for the relief of the prisoners. I further propose that these surgeons shall be selected by their own government, and that they shall have full liberty at any and all times, through the agents of Exchange, to make reports not only of their own acts but of any matters relating to the welfare of the prisoners.

Respectfully, &c., &c.,

Ro. Ould, Agent of Exchange.

To this letter I never received any reply. I brought it several times both verbally and in writing to the attention of the Federal authorities, but without avail. It was perhaps too just and humane to be formally declined, and therefore resort was had to silence. I have always believed that the reciprocity feature of the proposal prevented its acceptance. [325]

Deliveries of food and clothing, except perhaps in the case now and then of individual prisoners, practically ceased after this date, until October, 1864, when, on the 6th day of that month, I varied the form of the proposal of January 24th, hoping that the modification would receive the approval of the Federal authorities, especially as the number of prisoners on both sides had greatly increased, and the Confederate resources had been more than correspondingly diminished. On the 6th of October, 1864, I wrote the following letter:

Confederate States of America, war Department, Richmond, Virginia, October 6th, 1864.
Major John E. Mulford, Assistant Agent of Exchange:
Sir,--As it appears to be more than probable that a large number of prisoners will be held in captivity by both belligerents during the coming winter, the cause of humanity to which, though foes, we all owe a common allegiance, demands that some measure should be adopted for the relief of such as are held by either party. To that end I propose that each government shall have the privilege of forwarding for the use and comfort of such of its prisoners as are held by the other necessary articles of food and clothing. The manner of their distribution, with all proper safeguards, can be agreed upon in the future. A fair reciprocity is only asked. The articles that can be mutually sent can also be made the subject of agreement. I propose that each may send necessary clothing, and blankets, and rations of meat, bread, coffee, sugar, tobacco, pickles and vinegar.

I would suggest that the receipt of the stores, and their distribution amongst the prisoners for whom they are intended, might be authenticated by the certificate of the senior officer at the respective camps or depots.

In order to carry out this arrangement with effectiveness, it would be necessary that we should make purchases outside the limits of the Confederate States, and then ship them to one of your ports. It would be impracticable to send the stores by your flag of truce boats.

Of course the supplies referred to, in this communication, are to be considered as being in addition to such rations as are furnished by the government which has the prisoners in custody. Neither belligerent is to be discharged from the obligation of feeding and clothing the prisoners in its charge. [326]

This is a matter of such grave importance, that I sincerely trust an early and favorable response will be made.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

Ro. Ould, Agent of Exchange.

A copy of this letter was sent on the 7th October to Secretary Stanton.

It seems that these letters were forwarded to General Grant, and he communicated with General Lee on October 19th, 1864, who replied with the following letter on the 19th:

Headquarters army of Northern Va., 19th October, 1864.
Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, Commanding Armies of the United States:
General,--I have received your letter of the 18th instant accompanying letters from Judge Ould, Commissioner of Exchange of prisoners on the part of the Confederate States, and the Honorable E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mulford, Assistant Commissioner of Exchange of United States. I understand your letter to be an acceptance of the general proposition submitted by Judge Ould for the relief of the prisoners held by both parties, and shall transmit it to him that arrangements may be made for carrying it into effect. The necessary details will be submitted to you through Colonel Mulford for agreement. In order to simplify the matter and to remove, so far as possible, causes of complaint, I suggest that the articles sent by either party should be confined to those necessary for the comfort and health of the prisoners, and that the officer selected from among them to receive and distribute the articles, should be given only such a parole while so engaged, as to afford him the necessary facilities to attend properly to the matter.

I have the honor to be,

Very respectfully your obedient servant,


R. E. Lee, General.

From this date, after an interruption of nearly eight months, deliveries of food and clothing to prisoners on both sides were made, continuing until nearly the close of the war. I deem it proper to repeat [327] that during the period of interruption, the Confederate proposal of January 24th, 1864, was before the Federal authorities, and its acceptance continuously urged.

As the last agreement concerning supplies related only to such as were sent by the respective governments, in the interest of humanity I sought to extend the agreement to supplies contributed by individuals, and accordingly on the 25th November, 1864, I addressed the following letter to the Federal Agent of Exchange.

Richmond, Va., November 25th, 1864.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jno. E. Mulford, Assistant Agent of Exchange:
Sir,--Since the recent agreement allowing supplies to be sent by the respective governments, it seems to me that it would be proper that and restrictions heretofore existing on either side, relating to contributions to prisoners, should be removed. If I am correctly informed, person at the North, unless they were near relations of sick prisoners, have not been allowed since the 10th of August last, to send supplies to Confederate officers and men in your custody. I also understand that the prisoners have not been permitted to make purchases except of the most limited character, and then only from sutlers. Some doubt has also been entertained by our people, whether money sent to our prisoners at the North is delivered to them. The Confederate authorities are entirely willing that your prisoners confined here, shall, in addition to Government or State supplies, receive any contributions sent by private individuals, either North or South, and also whatever sums of money may be sent to them to be expended in accordance with humane and proper prison regulations. Will your Government not agree to the same? I will thank you for an early reply.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

Ro. Ould, Agent of Exchange.

Under the plan thus adopted Government supplies were consigned to officers of the respective parties, those representing the Confederate authorities at the North being Generals Trimble and Beale, and those representing the Federal authorities at the South being General Hays and Colonel Wild. All these officers were granted paroles to enable them more efficiently to discharge their duties. The goods sent were invoiced in duplicate, and one of the invoices signed by the proper [328] officer and returned to his Government. In this way it was conclusively shown that the goods sent were received. The reports made from time to time by the receiving officers, showed how and when they were distributed.

From this narration it very clearly appears that no food or clothing on board the steamer Convoy, or any other steamer, was refused in November, 1863. But the correspondence herein produced not only shows that fact, but fully explains the attitude of the Confederate States on the question of supplies to prisoners, and if it does no other service, will at least show to our people that the charges of inhumanity against the Confederate Government in this respect are entirely unfounded.

I am unable to furnish the replies of the Federal authorities to such of the letters as were answered. They are on file, however, at Washington, and will verify what I have stated.

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