Cannot They Be Exchanged

Pettit_Exchnage

 

Nashville Tenn Jany 13
Col. Anson Stager
Two or three rebel telegraphers
one named Butler who claims
to rank of Major have been captured
& sent north from here Cannot they
be exchanged for my men yet at
Cahawba & meriden three of my
Opers are still there James C. Pettett

(2)

John F. Ludwig and J.J. Painter the laborers
and repairers have been exchanged.
J.C. Van Duzer
Capt. & Asst. Supt

 

The Decoding the Civil War project provides the ultimate playground for grammar nerds, a community of which I am a proud member, the type that delights in comma jokes:

Punctuation-saves-lives

This is particularly true for Eckert’s own letterpress books. When he received his own messages, Eckert obviously did not bother with sticking with writing conventions. Everyone who ever took down one’s own voice mail message knows that you often end up with a scribble that makes perfect sense to you but could be mystifying for an outside observer, especially if said observer tries to read it some hundred and fifty years later.

Exhibit A: the telegram found by crmiller211 in the 1865 letterpress book. I must confess, it was a bit of a head-scratcher, because James C. Pettett’s name looks like a signature. This, however, made no sense. The man, whose name was actually James Edward Pettit (1842-1909) had no business sending telegraphs from Nashville. He and his assistant John F. Ludwig had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men in Athens, Ala. in early October 1864 and spent the next several months in Confederate prison camps Meridian, Mississippi and Cahaba, Alabama.

The message only makes sense with correct punctuation. It was a single telegram from John C. Van Duzer, the superintendent of the telegraph office in Nashville, an attachment to the this message from Stager to Eckert:  “Cleveland. Jany 13 [186]5. I forward Capt Van Duzer’s telegram concerning exchange of operators and recommend that request be placed in proper hands for action.”  The sign (2) that separates the two last lines of the message does not indicate a second telegram; rather it was most likely a page number or a mark indicating that the remainder of the attachment was received after a pause. Van Duzer informed Stager that Pettit, Ludwig and another operator named J.J. Painter were still prisoners, while the USMT laborers and repairers have already been exchanged.

In March 1865, Pettit and Ludwig turned up near Vicksburg, the site of Confederate and Union parole camps. The pair was engaged in maintaining what was known as the “Flag of Truce” Line, the only instance of a telegraphic communication between the Union and Confederate commands. Pettit operated the telegraph at the Confederate office of prisoner exchange near the Big Black River Bridge, and Ludwig was assigned to the Union headquarters four miles from the city.

The Eckert ledgers have been yielding a wealth of previously unknown data about the process of prisoner exchange. Complicated enough when it came to military personnel, it was particularly tortuous, (and much less documented), when it involved civilians. Under the terms of the cartel of exchange, a civilian employee could not be exchanged for a commissioned officer. It was also questionable whether civilian employees could legally be detained as prisoners of war, but few field commanders were bothered with legal niceties.

While most of the USMT operators were civilian employees of a firm contracted by the United States government, their Confederate counterparts were commissioned officers assigned to the staffs of field commanders.  The “one named Butler” was most likely Major Jack Butler who superintended the Shelbyville office of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and reported to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Confederate Army of Tennessee Kinloch Falconer. Apparently, at the end of the war, exchange military personnel for civilians became possible.

In Pettit’s case, it may have helped that he, unlike many of his colleagues, had come to USMT from the army, the 1st Regiment of Wisconsin Infantry. Ludwig, on the other hand, was a civilian: he operated the telegraph for the Lake Shore and Michigan Railway until he joined USMT in July 1864 only to end up in a Confederate prison camp two months later.

The two were certainly lucky. They were scheduled to leave Vicksburg on April 15, 1865, along with 14,000 of Union prisoners released from Cahaba and Andersonville. Pettit, however, was too ill to board the transport, the steamer Sultana. The severe diarrhea that Pettit had contracted while in the Confederate captivity spared him the fate of the 1196 Sultana passengers killed when the steamer’s four boilers exploded on April 27, one of the worst maritime disasters in American history.

Pettit was destined to die peacefully in his bed in March 1909, having worked for forty years for the Postal Telegraph Cable Company in Chicago and served as the secretary of the Society of the United States Military Corps. Ludwig ended his career managing the Western Union office in Prescott, Arizona.

 

Explostion of the steamer Sultana

Explosion of the Steamer Sultana, April 28, 1865. (Harper’s Weekly, (1865 May 20), p. 316)

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One response to “Cannot They Be Exchanged”

  1. Craig says :

    Thanks for a great insight into what I am certain, in my innocence (insert “ignorance”), I read and transcribed as two completely unattached messages! Your blog is great in that it lets us know that our seemingly simple transcriptions can certainly be taken much further by experts….

    Jeez, I hope my preceding punctuation was correct…?:’:’>={???

    Thanks again otsapina,
    Craig

    Like

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