Prisoners of War

United States Colored TroopsUnited States Colored Troops. Image Credit: American Battlefield Trust


Due to a shortage of labor, materials, and tools, strengthening the fortifications around Mobile posed a challenge. Concerned about the slow progress of the works around the city,  Lieutenant General Richard Taylor sent down some captured United States Colored Troops (USCT) to be employed as laborers at Mobile. These Black soldiers, some of whom were once reportedly enslaved in Mobile, were dressed in standard-issue blue U.S. uniforms.[1]


Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Image Credit: Library of Congress.


Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Image Credit: Library of Congress.

“Union men condemned the Confederate practice of forcing enslaved and free blacks to work for the Southern Army,” noted Varon. Federal military authorities in the vicinity of Mobile considered captured Black soldiers—formerly enslaved men—to be soldiers and expected them to be treated as prisoners of war. Major General Gordon Granger of the U.S. Army sent a letter of protest to Maury over the use of captured Black soldiers to labor upon the fortifications of Mobile. He threatened that an equal number of prisoners in U.S. hands would be similarly employed if Maury allowed the practice to continue.  Maury’s response confirmed that 200 USCT prisoners were laboring upon the fortifications of Mobile, “just as other slaves are and have been almost since the commencement of the war employed by both the Governments of the United States and the Confederate States.” He reiterated the Confederacy policy that formerly enslaved Black soldiers were legal property and not considered prisoners of war at the date of their capture. He defended this stance by pointing out that they operated by Confederate law and “the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Maury dismissed Granger’s threat: “The employment, then, of white men, prisoners of war, whose social and political character is that of freemen, is not justified by the circumstances and is neither fair nor in accordance with the established usages of warfare.” He defiantly added that he intended to restore them to their lawful owners, who would receive just compensation for the labor of these enslaved men. Despite, Granger’s efforts to have the Black soldiers exchanged as prisoners of war, the Confederates retained control over them until the end of the war. [2]

Major General Dabney Herndon Maury


CSA Major General Dabney H. Maury. Image Credit: Encyclopedia of Alabama


After the Mobile Campaign, Granger went on to Galveston, Texas. There on June 19, 1865, he announced that the slaves there were freed in Texas. The date of Granger’s proclamation became the Federal holiday known as Juneteenth. [3]


[1] Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879), 210; ORA 49, pt. 1, 957; “Mobile Items – A letter from Mobile,” Richmond Dispatch, Oct 18, 1864, 1;  Bergeron, Confederate Mobile, 114.

[2] Varon, Armies of Deliverance, 100-11; ORA, Series 2, vol. 8, pt. 1, 354-355; Bergeron, Confederate Mobile, 114.

[3] Jim Memmott, “How Sodus native Gordon Granger’s freedom order in Galveston, Texas, led to Juneteenth,” Democrat & Chronicle, June 10, 2022.