The Ely/Faulkner Exchange, Part II

ECW welcomes back guest author Max Longley

Part I is here

Fort Lafayette

In Part I, we saw New York Congressman Alfred Ely captured at the battle of Bull Run and held with other Union prisoners in Richmond. We also saw Virginia politician Charles James Faulkner locked up in the North, without trial, on suspicion of subversion.

Secretary of State Seward offered to release Faulkner if the prisoner swore an oath of allegiance to the Union, thus renouncing secession. Faulkner rejected this offer, calling the proposed oath illegal, discriminatory, insinuating guilt, and limiting his options if he returned to Virginia. So, instead of being released, Faulkner was moved with other Fort Lafayette captives to another fortress-turned prison: Fort Warren in Boston harbor. Faulkner kept up a correspondence with a former Fort Lafayette prisoner who had taken the loyalty oath (under protest) and been released. James McMaster was the editor of the suppressed New York Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register, which had caustically criticized the Northern war effort.[1]

Writing to McMaster in late October, Faulkner recalled the good fellowship at Fort Lafayette but was downcast at the thought he wouldn’t be released from Fort Warren. William H. Ludlow, a prominent Democratic politician from Long Island (and later to be the Union’s exchange agent with the Confederacy) had been helpful in negotiating the release of other political prisoners, including McMaster. Ludlow had lately visited Fort Warren, but Faulkner noticed that Ludlow didn’t come to see him. From this, Faulkner inferred that the prospects of release were “hopeless.”[2]

Jefferson Davis, in a November 18, 1861, message to the Confederate Congress, used Faulkner’s case to illustrate the alleged wickedness of the North. Faulkner had been “perfidiously arrested and imprisoned,” helping to show how, in the North, “rights the most sacred seem to have lost all respect.”[3]

Libby Prison

Ely was feeling as depressed as Faulkner. Hopes of an early release had faded. The best substitute was Ely’s being allowed to visit, under escort, various locations in Richmond. He had presumably given his pledge (“parole”) not to leave the city. On one excursion, unbeknownst to him until later, a citizen attempted to shoot Ely, and was restrained by the quick action of Captain Gibbs, Ely’s custodian and rescuer.[4]

Ely’s constituents helped break the impasse. At least some of them wanted their Congressman out of prison and back in the House, and they proposed exchanging Faulkner for Ely. Faulkner read of this initiative in the newspapers and seized on it. On December 1, Faulkner wrote from Fort Warren to Republican Congressman Reuben Fenton of New York. Faulkner offered to “give my parole of honor with any other security” that he would go to Richmond and secure Ely’s release, or else hand himself back to the Union authorities for a continuation of his imprisonment. After sending off this letter, Faulkner wrote McMaster soliciting the latter’s help in getting the idea accepted. Faulkner said his family was so distressed by his imprisonment that staying imprisoned would be too much to bear. On December 5, Seward authorized Faulkner’s conditional release. Faulkner must give his parole of honor that if he couldn’t get Ely released in twenty days, he (Faulkner) would go back to Fort Warren. Pending Ely’s liberation, Faulkner was to avoid “any hostile act” against the U. S. government and not give intelligence to the Confederates.[5]

On December 18, having traveled down the coast to where the front cut across the Chesapeake, Faulkner took a truce boat to Craney Island in Hampton Roads, site of an American military victory in the War of 1812. Charles’ father James had been one of the victorious officers in that battle.[6]

Now in Confederate territory, Faulkner arrived in Richmond to an enthusiastic welcome. In a reception at City Hall, Virginia governor John Letcher said that the Confederacy should have no trouble exchanging Ely for Faulkner, the latter, according to Letcher, being “worth a whole regiment of Elys.” Jefferson Davis was less enthusiastic when he had an interview with Faulkner. While both men agreed that the war would be protracted, Davis believed the Confederacy would win and Faulkner thought it would lose. The two didn’t hit it off, but Davis seemed to have realized Faulkner’s popularity and the public-relations problems of Faulkner having to go back to a Yankee dungeon. In any case, Davis ordered Ely’s release, thus honorably releasing Faulkner from his promise to return to Northern imprisonment.[7]

Ely had friendly meetings with Faulkner and Governor Letcher, tweaking the latter by asking for a regiment to be released along with him, based on Letcher’s estimate of Faulkner’s worth. Moving opposite federally-occupied Fortress Monroe, Ely had one last inspection of his goods by Confederate officers. The latter had a tip that Ely was smuggling documents in a false-bottomed trunk. While Ely’s trunk had indeed possessed a false bottom, the Congressman had had it removed so as to play fair with his Southern hosts. Discovering this, the Confederate searchers let Ely keep the prison journal he had been writing, and he was brought back to Fortress Monroe and the North.[8]

Who benefited from the exchange – the North from recovering Ely, or the Confederacy from gaining Faulkner?

Two of Faulkner’s sons were in the Confederate army, and Faulkner himself accompanied Stonewall Jackson during some of his campaigns – but Faulkner insisted after the war that he did little when he was with General Jackson, and merely worked on writing up battle reports. Jackson’s aide, Henry Kyd Douglas, asserted in his not-always-reliable memoir that Faulkner had been pretty much useless.[9] Apart from riding with Stonewall, Faulkner spent the war practicing law in Appomattox County (his contested home county of Berkeley apparently being too hot for civil life). After the war Faulkner collected affidavits from people who had heard his denunciations of the secession movement and his predictions of Confederate defeat. Faulkner’s eagerness to collect these affidavits may have had something to do with his postwar decision to resume his political career in the new state of West Virginia, going so far as to appear in the U. S. Supreme Court to (successfully) seek recognition of his home county of Berkeley as part of his new state. He died in 1884 and is buried in his home town of Martinsburg.[10]

Alfred Ely’s loyalties were less complicated. Back in the North, he agreed to publish the journal he kept in prison, with notes and commentary, and a list of all the Union soldiers he knew of who were still in Southern captivity. For whatever reason, Ely did not get a new Congressional term in his Rochester district in 1862. He tried to return to Congress in the 1864 elections but lost the Republican nomination to Provost Marshal Roswell Hart. Hart had promised Ely, in exchange for the Provost Marshal position, not to run for Congress, but Hart ended up getting elected for a term. Ely returned to his successful legal practice in Rochester.[11] He outlived all four of his children, and died in 1892. He is buried in his home town of Rochester.[12]

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, 2020), For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2015), and many articles. He is on Substack ( where he is working on articles about various topics, definitely including the Civil War.


[1] Seward to Col. Martin Burke, Sept. 11, 1861; Faulkner to Seward, September 13, 1861; “Suspected and Disloyal Persons,” 469-71. McVeigh, 131-33; Faulkner to McMaster, October 26, 1861, UNDA; Max Longley, “The Radicalization of James McMaster: The ‘Puritan’ North as an Enemy of Peace, the Constitution, and the Catholic Church,” U. S. Catholic Historian, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Fall 2018), 25-50.

[2] Faulkner to McMaster, October 26, 1861, UNDA; Diane Holliday and Chris Kretz, Images of America: Oakdale (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 7, 54, 110, 116; Longley, 41

[3] James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Volume I (Nashville: United States Publishing Company, 1906), 142

[4] Ely, 237 (footnote)

[5] Faulkner to Fenton, December 1, 1861, “Suspected and Disloyal Persons;” Fenton, Reuben Eaton 1819-1885,; Faulkner to McMaster, December 1, 1861, UNDA; Seward to Colonel Dimick (Fort Warren), December 5, 1861

[6] McVeigh, 134; “James Faulkner,” Dictionary of Virginia Biography,; Christopher Pieczynski, “The Decision at Craney Island,”

[7] McVeigh, 135; Ely, 260-61; Aler, 333

[8] Ely, 261-71

[9] McVeigh, 136-37, 138-42; Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1940), 209-11.

[10]; “Faulkner, Charles James,”; “Charles James Faulkner,”; Aler, 334-36; State of Virginia v. State of West Virginia, 78 U. S. (11 Wall.) 39 (1871). For the various postwar affidavits, see Faulkner Papers, Duke University, Box 1, folder marked “1860-1865.” During the war, Faulkner wrote Jefferson Davis offering his services to the Confederacy, but this might have been another chivalrous gesture of nobly serving what he considered literally a Lost Cause. McVeigh, 136-37.

[11] Blake McKelvey (ed.), Rochester In the Civil War (Rochester: Rochester Historical Society, 1944), 65-66, and “Hart, Roswell”, Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress.

[12] Ely, 5-6; “Hon. Alfred Ely;” “Ely, Alfred,”; “Alfred Ely,”

3 Responses to The Ely/Faulkner Exchange, Part II

  1. And as everyone knows… some years after the Civil War Libby Prison was dismantled and shipped by rail to Chicago. Once there, it was re-assembled in time for the 1893 World’s Fair (although there is debate whether Libby Prison was “part of the Fair,” or just an attraction nearby.)

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