Union detective Lafayette Baker had recently made another sweep through the Maryland countryside to determine what postmasters in the area were a threat to the Union. Information is crucial in the war and Southern sympathizers are to be prevented as much as possible from being able to send correspondence to the Confederacy. Maryland is a border state and many try to obtain positions like postmaster in an effort to help the Confederate cause. In Surrattsville, Maryland, 18-year-old John Surratt Jr. holds the postmaster job but learns that he is not on the list to be dismissed for disloyalty. Given that his father had passed away in August, this is a relief to his mother Mary as they need all the income they can bring in so debts could be paid off.
U.S. Major General William T. Sherman has received a letter from C.S.A. Lieutenant General John Pemberton, who is the current Commander in Jackson, Mississippi. Pemberton is upset at a recent incident in which a citizen, William White, was killed by Sherman’s cavalry and he is therefore demanding that Sherman turn over the cavalry officer responsible or Pemberton will harm four Union prisoners of war. Sherman, a man driven by rules and proper conduct, is outraged at Pemberton would make such a threat as he feels he has no grounds to do so. Sherman writes a response back and forwards his message to Major General Ulysses S. Grant so he may also respond.
Your letter of November. 12 dated Jackson Miss. is before me. General Grant commands the Department which embraces Memphis and I will send him your letter that he may answer it according to the interests and honor of the Government of the United States.
You recite the more aggravated parts of the story of Mrs. White, concerning the killing her husband by a party of the 6th Illinois cavalry, but you do not recite the attending circumstances. In the early part of September last, the public highway hence to Hernando was infested by a parcel of men who burned the cotton of the People and depredated on their property. A party of the 6th Illinois Cavalry was sent to capture them, but on approach they fled, and only ten prisoners were taken. These were dispatched back towards Memphis in charge of a Lieutenant & ten men. As this party was on the road near Whites, they were fired on from ambush, the Lieutenant and the Confederate Soldier at his side were killed, one or more wounded & the party scattered.
As soon as the intelligence reached the Camp of the 6th Illinois Cavalry in Memphis, Captain Boicourt started to the rescue with a small detachment of his men. On the way out they met the dead body of the Lieutenant being brought in punctured by six balls, from which the story was started of barbarous treatment viz. his being shot whilst lying on the ground. They also heard enough to connect the People of the neighborhood with this firing from ambush, and mutilating their dead Lieutenant.
The taking of White, the accusation of his being concerned, his resistance, his attempt to escape are all matters asserted and denied. No one man deplores more than I do, that you have torn to pieces the fabric of our Government so that such acts should ever occur, or if they did that they should be promptly punished.
White’s house is almost on the line between Mississippi and Tennessee, but this affair occurred on the Mississippi side of the line. If the state of Mississippi were in a condition and should make due inquiry, and demand the parties for a fair trial, there would be some appearance of law & justice.
But what shadow of Right you have to inquire into the matter I don’t see. White was not a Confederate Soldier, not even a Guerilla and some contend he was a good Union Man. I assert that his Killing was unfortunate, but was the legitimate & logical sequence of the mode of warfare chosen by the Confederate Government by means of Guerillas or Partizan Rangers. Captain Boicourt has answered for his conduct to the Government of the United States, and it may be will answer to the Civil authorities of Mississippi when Peace is restored to her. But he will not answer to the Confederate Government or its officers.
You now hold for retaliation four U.S. soldiers, whose names you say were ascertained by lot. We hold here thirty odd wounded Confederate soldiers left by your companions on the Field at Corinth. They receive kind treatment at the hands of our surgeons. I expect a boat load of other prisoners in a day or so from above en route for Vicksburg to be exchanged according to the solemn cartel made between the two Contracting parties. Under the terms of that Cartel we shall expect at Vicksburg the four men you have named and should they not be at Vicksburg the officer in charge of your Prisoners will have his orders.
Our Armies now occupy many southern states. Even North Mississippi is in our possession. Your Guerillas & Partizan Rangers have done deeds that I know you do not sanction. Do not make this War more vindictive and bloody than it has been and will be in spite of the most moderate counsels. If you think a moment, you will admit that retaliation is not the remedy for such acts as the killing of White, but the same end will be attained by regulating your Guerillas. This I know you are doing, and for it you have the thanks of your Southern Rights People who were plundered & abused by them.
General Grant commands this Department and you had better await his answer before proceeding to extremities. All I can now do is to see that the terms for the exchange of prisoners of War be faithfully executed, by your exchanging the four men you have in custody for four we will send to Vicksburg.