Exchange of Prisoners in the Civil War

        The exchange of prisoners between belligerents is made in accordance with agreements, entered into for that purpose, called cartels. The making of such agreements is purely voluntary, and cannot be constrained by subjecting prisoners to special hardships. . . . The binding force of cartels, like that of all other agreements between belligerents, rests upon the good faith of the contracting parties. If the terms of a cartel are violated by one belligerent they cease to be obligatory upon the other.-George B. Dams, in "Outlines of International Law."

        Though prisoners taken in Texas, Missouri, Virginia, and elsewhere had been paroled early in the war, their exchange was not completed until much later. The first instance of formal exchange, apparently, is that in Missouri, when four officers of General G. J. Pillow's command met four of the command of Colonel W. H. L. Wallace, and exchanged six privates, three on each side.
        The Federal Government was anxious to avoid in any way a recognition of the Confederate Government, and therefore whatever exchanges followed these for several months were made by the commanding officers on both sides, unofficially, though with the knowledge and tacit consent of the Government at Washington. The first person who officially realized the fact that the whole question of prisoners and prisons was likely to be important was Quartermaster-General M. C. Meigs, U. S. A., who, on July 12, 1861, nine days before the first battle of Bull Run, wrote Secretary of War Cameron advising the appointment of a commissary-general of prisoners.
        In the West, Generals Halleck and Grant turned over a number of prisoners to Generals Polk and Jeff. Thompson and received their own men in return. In the East, General Benjamin Huger, the Confederate commander at Norfolk, and General John E. Wool, U. S. A., made a number of special exchanges. As the number of prisoners grew, much of the time of the commanding officers was required for this business. A large amount of political pressure was brought to bear upon the officials at Washington, urging them to arrange for an exchange, and on December 3, 1861, General Halleck wrote that the prisoners ought to be exchanged, as it was simply a convention, and the fact that they had been exchanged would not prevent their being tried for treason, if desired, after the war.
        The Confederate officials, conscious of their deficient resources, were eager to escape the care of prisoners, and welcomed the announcement of General Wool, February 13, 1862, that he had been empowered to arrange a general exchange. General Wool met General Howell Cobb, on February 23d, and an agreement, except upon the point of delivery at the "frontier of their own country," was reached for the delivery of all prisoners, the excess to be on parole. At a subsequent meeting, General Wool announced that his instructions had been changed and that he could exchange man for man only. This offer was refused by General Cobb, who charged that the reason for the unwillingness to complete the agreement was the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, which gave the Federal Government an excess of prisoners which it was unwilling to release on parole.
        As the next move on the chess-board, the Confederate Government refused longer to make individual exchanges on the ground that, as political pressure in many cases caused the Federal Government to ask for the exchange of certain individuals, those who had no influential friends would be left in prison. On a letter of General McClellan proposing an exchange, the Confederate Secretary of War, G. W. Randolph, endorsed June 14, 1862: "No arrangement of any sort has been made, and individual exchanges are declined. We will exchange generally or according to some principle, but not by arbitrary selections."
        An interesting correspondence, marked by perfect courtesy on both sides, took place during the summer of 1862 between General Lee and General McClellan. On the 6th of June, a week after the battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks, a general order that surgeons should be considered non-combatants and not sent to prison was issued from Washington, and was accepted by General Lee on the 17th. On the 9th of July, General Lee proposed to release General McClellan's wounded on parole, and the offer was accepted by General McClellan.
        Finally, on the 12th of July, General John A. Dix was authorized by Secretary Stanton to negotiate for the exchange, but was cautioned in every possible way to avoid any recognition of the Confederate Government. The cartel in force between the United States and Great Britain during the War of 1812 was suggested as a basis. General Lee was informed of General Dix's appointment on July 13th, and the next day announced that he had appointed General D. H. Hill as commissioner on the part of the Confederacy. The commissioners met on the 17th of July and adjourned on the following day for further instructions from their Governments, and finally, July 22d, came to an agreement. The cartel, which is interesting in view of the subsequent disputes, is to be found in Appendix A.
        All prisoners in the East were to be delivered at Aiken's Landing on the James River (soon changed to City Point), and in the West at Vicksburg, with the provision that the fortunes of war might render it necessary to change these places and substitute others bearing the same general relation to the contending armies. Each party agreed to appoint two agents, one in the East and one in the West, to carry out the stipulations of the contract. General Lorenzo Thomas was temporarily detached from his position as adjutant-general to act as agent in the East, while the Confederate Government appointed Colonel Robert Ould, Assistant Secretary of War, and previously United States attorney for the District of Columbia, who served in that capacity to the end of the war. Under the supervision of these men and with the aid of General John A. Dix, the prisoners in the East were exchanged. Prisoners in the West were sent to Vicksburg, where the first exchanges were conducted by Major N. G. Watts, C. S. A., and Captain H. M. Lazelle, U. S. A.
        The Confederates maintained that they held, for the greater part of the time before the cartel was signed, several times as many prisoners as were held in the North. The excess was considerable until the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, and the difficulty of feeding and guarding these prisoners was one of the reasons for their anxiety to arrange a plan of exchange. As early as June 17, 1862, the quartermaster-general of the Confederacy wrote that it was almost impossible to feed the prisoners at Lynchburg, and that he deemed it his duty to state that "the difficulty of maintaining prisoners is most serious, and that the growing deficiency in the resources of the Confederacy . . . will render the speedy exchange of prisoners of war or their disposition otherwise absolutely necessary."
        After exchanges were well under way, General Thomas returned to Washington and a volunteer officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William H. Ludlow, was appointed agent for exchange. General E. A. Hitchcock was appointed commissioner for exchange, with headquarters in Washington.
        Almost immediately there were difficulties in the application of the cartel. Nine days after it was signed. President Davis wrote to General Lee, on July 31st, saying, "Scarcely had that cartel been signed when the military authorities of the United States commenced to practise changing the character of the war from such as becomes civilized nations into a campaign of indiscriminate robbery and murder."
        The cause of this strong language was the order issued by Secretary Stanton, on July 22d, which, as interpreted by President Davis, directed "the military authorities of the United States to take the private property of our people for the convenience and use of their armies without compensation." The general order issued by Major-General Pope, July 23d, the day after the signing of the cartel, was also mentioned. The first paragraph of this order reads as follows, "Commanders of army corps, divisions, brigades, and detached commands will proceed immediately to arrest all disloyal male citizens within their lines or within their reach in the rear of their respective stations." Those unwilling to take an oath of allegiance and furnish bond were to be sent to the Confederate lines.
        Two days after the letter of President Davis, therefore, General Samuel Cooper, adjutant-general of the Confederacy, issued General Orders No. 54, on August 1, 1862. After referring to Secretary Stanton's order, and General Pope's order already mentioned, together with the action of General Steinwehr, who, it was asserted, had arrested private citizens in Virginia with the threat that they would be put to death if any of his soldiers were killed, the order declares that all these things taken together show a disposition "to violate all the rules and usages of war and to convert the hostilities waged against armed forces into a campaign of robbery and murder against unarmed citizens and peaceful tillers of the soil." It was therefore announced that General Pope and General Steinwehr, and all commissioned officers serving under them, "are hereby specially declared to be not entitled to be considered as soldiers, and therefore not entitled to the benefit of the cartel for the parole of future prisoners of war."
        General Lee, apparently against his will, was instructed to convey copies of President Davis' letter and the general orders to General Halleck. These were returned by General Halleck as being couched in insulting language, and were never put into force, as General Pope's authority in Virginia soon ended. All the captured officers of General Pope's command were forwarded by Colonel Ould, September 24, 1862. Exchanges went on, and the prisons were practically empty for a time.
        The paroled Union soldiers in the East were sent chiefly to Camp Parole, at Annapolis. Often the officers had been separated from their men and did not report to the camp. Many were unwilling to resume army life and refused to do police or guard duty around their camp, on the ground that such duty was forbidden by their parole.
        In the West, many of the paroled prisoners were sent to Camp Chase, in Ohio. General Lew Wallace, who found three thousand paroled Union soldiers when he took command of the post, reported that "there had never been such a thing as enforcement of order amongst them; never any guards mounted or duty of any kind performed. With but few exceptions officers abandoned the men and left them to shift for themselves. The consequences can be easily imagined. The soldiers became lousy and ragged, despairing and totally demoralized." Secretary Stanton, in an interesting telegraphic correspondence with Governor Tod, of Ohio, on September 9, 1862, stated he believed "there is reason to fear that many voluntarily surrender for the sake of getting home. I have sent fifteen hundred to Camp Chase and wish to have them kept in close quarters and drilled diligently every day, with no leave of absence." Governor Tod, the same day, suggested that these paroled prisoners awaiting a declaration of exchange, be sent to Minnesota to fight the Indians, and Secretary Stanton immediately approved the suggestion.
        General Wallace says, however, that very few were willing to go. In order to bring some sort of order out of chaos, he determined to organize new regiments and refused to pay or to provide clothes for any man who had not enrolled himself in one of these companies. The paroled prisoners insisted that they were exempt from military duty. The first regiment organized deserted almost in a mass. The officer of the guard one morning found three muskets leaning against a tree, left there by sentinels who had deserted.
        Since so few of the released Federal prisoners were willing to reenlist, while the majority of the Confederates by this time were in the ranks "for the whole war," it is perhaps natural that doubts of the wisdom of further exchange should become convictions in the minds of some of the Northern leaders. Meanwhile, General Benjamin F. Butler had begun his military government in New Orleans, and William B. Mumford, a citizen, had been hanged for pulling down the United States flag. The Confederacy charged that this was done before the city had been formally occupied by Federal troops. On December 23, 1862, President Davis issued a proclamation denouncing General Butler as "a felon deserving of capital punishment," and the commissioned officers serving under him "robbers and criminals," not entitled to be considered as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare and deserving of execution.
        Negro troops also had been enrolled in the Union army, and President Lincoln had issued his preliminary proclamation of emancipation. In answer, President Davis decreed that all negro slaves captured in arms and their white officers should not be treated as prisoners of war but should be delivered to the States to be punished according to their laws. If carried out, these officers would be put to death on the charge of inciting negro insurrection.
        Secretary Stanton, December 28, 1862, answered by suspending the exchange of commissioned officers, but the exchange of enlisted men went on as usual, though marked by much mutual recrimination between Colonel Ludlow and Colonel Ould. Special exchanges were sometimes effected, although Colonel Ould attempted to prevent all such. President Davis' proclamation was practically endorsed by the Confederate Congress, and on May 25, 1863, General Halleck ordered all exchanges stopped.
        In spite of the suspension of the cartel, exchanges went on in the East by special agreements for more than a year longer. In the West, many thousands were exchanged by Colonel C. C. Dwight, on the part of the United States, and Lieutenant-Colonel N. G. Watts and Major Ignatius Szymanski, on the part of the Confederacy. Generals Sherman and Hood also exchanged some prisoners afterward taken by their respective commands, and other special agreements between commanders in the field were made.
        Meanwhile, though the cartel of 1862 declared that all captures must be reduced to actual possession, and that all prisoners of war must be delivered at designated places for exchange or parole, unless by agreement of commanders of opposing armies, the custom of paroling prisoners at the point of capture had grown up by common consent. On the last day of the battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, Secretary Stanton issued General Orders No. 207, declaring that all such paroles were in violation of general orders, and therefore null and void ; declaring further that any soldier accepting such parole would be returned to duty and punished for disobedience of orders. Some provisions of General Orders No. 100 served upon Colonel Ould on May 23d also forbade parole without delivery. The reasons for the issuance of this order were probably to put an end to the accumulation of paroles by the irregular or guerilla Confederate forces in the West, which picked up prisoners here and there.
        The capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, together with the battle of Gettysburg, threw the excess of prisoners very largely in favor of the Federals, and from this time on the number of Confederates in Northern prisons was larger than that of Federals in Southern prisons. It was next determined by the War Department to make no exchanges except for those actually held in confinement. This rendered useless, of course, a large number of paroles which Colonel Ould claimed to have, and if accepted would have released every Federal prisoner in the South, while leaving thousands of Confederates in confinement. With the practical cessation of exchanges came much complaint upon both sides. The hardships of Salisbury, Libby, and Belle Isle are, of course, better known by the North than those of Fort Delaware, Alton, and Camp Morton. But in Southern experiences and reminiscences, perhaps as many complaints of insufficient food and clothing and of cruel treatment can be found as on the other side up to the summer of 1863.
        The Federal officials in control of the matter refused to complete the exchange of those whose paroles had been given, or to exchange the Vicksburg and Port Hudson prisoners. Colonel Ould, however, finally declared them exchanged, regardless of the approval of the Federal commissioner. The question as to whether the consent of both agents or commissioners was necessary to make a valid declaration of exchange, had been discussed before by Generals Buell and Bragg, on October 1, 1862, when General Buell declared that it was not. His version had been accepted in the West, though in the East a mutual declaration had been the rule.
        The trouble arose from the lack of clearness in the supplementary articles of the cartel giving permission to "commanders of two opposing armies "for paroling or exchanging prisoners by mutual consent. Colonel Ould claimed that General Gardner, in command at Port Hudson, was a subordinate officer and therefore was not authorized to accept paroles. The Federal commissioner protested vigorously, and a lengthy correspondence ensued, in which Colonel Ould declared that mutual consent was not necessary and that Colonel Ludlow had made similar declarations. Colonel Ould furnished a schedule of captures, some of which were pronounced legitimate while the validity of others was denied. When his paroles were exhausted all further exchanges ceased for a time. Brigadier-General S. A. Meredith succeeded Colonel Ludlow as agent for exchange, and soon was involved in acrimonious controversy with Colonel Ould.
        General Butler, who had been appointed to command at Fortress Monroe, was, at his own suggestion, created a special agent for exchange, and from that time onward made no reports to General Hitchcock, commissioner for exchange, but assumed the title and duties of commissioner. At first, the Confederate authorities refused to treat with General Butler, but finally Secretary Seddon, on April 28, 1864, wrote: "It may well excite surprise and indignation that the Government of the United States should select for any position of dignity and command a man so notoriously stigmatized by the common sentiment of enlightened nations. But it is not for us to deny their right to appreciate and select one whom they may not inappropriately, perhaps, deem a fitting type and representative of their power and characteristics." After this, Colonel Ould opened negotiations. Previously, General Butler had written many letters to Colonel Ould which the latter answered in detail but addressed his replies to Major Mulford, the assistant agent for exchange. With the natural shrewdness of an astute lawyer, General Butler saw that too many questions were involved for the public to gain a clear idea of the matters in question. Therefore, he was willing to grant to Colonel Ould what the previous commissioners for exchange had refused to do, setting forth in his confidential communication to Secretary Stanton that his great object was to get exchanges started again, and even to exchange a considerable number of prisoners.
        The Union authorities held so much larger numbers that they could afford to do this and still retain a number large enough to guard against cruel treatment of negro troops. Butler wrote that it was his object, after exchanges had continued for some time, to bring the matter of negro troops sharply and clearly into view, and to make further exchanges depend absolutely upon the treatment of negro troops as prisoners of war. The voluminous correspondence between himself and Colonel Ould is interesting. Both were able lawyers, both had a fondness for disputation, and sometimes one is tempted to believe that to both of them the subject of discussion was not really so important as the discussion itself, and that overwhelming the adversary was more vital than securing the objects of the discussion. All of this was stopped by the positive order of General Grant, April 17, 1864, who, after consultation with Secretary Stanton, forbade any exchange until the questions of the Vicksburg and Port Hudson paroles and the matter of exchanges of negro troops were arranged. The Confederacy, despairing of forcing a complete exchange according to the cartel, yielded to the inevitable, and on August 10, Colonel Ould offered a man-for-man exchange so far as the Confederate prisoners would go.
        On August 18th, however, General Grant wrote to General Butler, who was still corresponding with Colonel Ould, saying: "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners in the North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here."
        The next day a letter to Secretary Seward closes with the following sentence, "We have got to fight until the military power of the South is exhausted, and if we release or exchange prisoners captured, it simply becomes a war of extermination." To this determination General Grant held fast against pressure to which a weaker man would have yielded. Conditions in Andersonville and other Southern prisons were, by this time, well known. The Confederate authorities, finding it more and more difficult to secure provisions for prisoners and army, allowed five non-commissioned officers to go through the lines bearing a petition from the prisoners at Andersonville, setting forth the conditions there and asking for exchange; but to no purpose. Nor was the protest of the commissioned officers more successful, for the broad reasons given by General Grant as shown in the quotation above.
        The relatives and friends of prisoners besieged the War Department, the governors of their States, members of Congress, and all who were supposed to have any influence with the officers of the Government, pleading, imploring, demanding that some method of releasing prisoners be adopted. The same determination which led Grant to hammer steadily in the Wilderness campaign, enabled him to hold the War Department in harmony with his policy. Since the Confederate armies could be beaten only by exhausting them, therefore every means by which those armies were prevented from being increased was justified from his standpoint.
        He felt that to give Lee forty thousand additional men might prolong the war indefinitely, for nearly every Confederate prisoner released went back to the ranks, while a large proportion of the prisoners at Andersonville belonged to regiments whose time was expired and in many cases had been mustered out of service. Therefore, had their physical condition permitted it, few would have returned to the ranks, or could have been utilized for further service. It was, of course, greatly to the advantage of the Confederacy to exchange, as their resources were dwindling alarmingly.
        General Lee, on October 1, 1864, again proposed an exchange to General Grant. It was met by the question whether negro soldiers who had been slaves would be exchanged. General Lee, acting under instructions, wrote that negroes belonging to citizens were not considered subjects of exchange, and General Grant declined any further discussion.
        When it seemed that re was not probable, several Southerners advised that prisoners in South Carolina and Georgia, or a part of them, be released on parole, even without equivalents. It was suggested that all opposed to the administration be sent home in time to vote, and also that all whose time had expired be released. The Confederacy would thus be relieved of the burden of their support. Secretary Seddon evidently considered the matter seriously, for he writes, "It presents a great embarrassment, but I see no remedy which is not worse than the evil," and did not issue the order.
        This endorsement was made upon a letter from a citizen of South Carolina, dated September 21, 1864, and forwarded to Secretary Seddon with the tacit approval at least, of Governor Bonham. Previously, on September 9th, Alexander H. Stephens had suggested the release of the Andersonville prisoners, to General Howell Cobb, who was responsible for the suggestion already mentioned that those opposed to the administration be sent home.
        The burden upon the South became overwhelming. Colonel Ould offered to deliver the sick and wounded at Savannah, without equivalent. Transportation was sent late in November, and there and at Charleston, where the delivery was completed after the railroad leading to Savannah was cut, about thirteen thousand men were released. More than three thousand Confederates were delivered at the same time. Another proposition for exchange was made on January 24, 1865, and as it was then certain that the action could have little influence on the final result, exchanges were begun and continued with little interruption to the end, though much confusion was caused by the refusal of subordinates who had not been informed of the arrangements to receive the prisoners. In February, for example, General Schofield's orders from General Grant were delayed, and for several days he declined to receive, much to the dismay of the Confederate commander, a large number of prisoners ordered to Wilmington from Salisbury and F1orence.

Source: "The Photographic History of The Civil War", Volume 4, Soldier Life and Secret Service, Prisons and Hospitals. Article by Holland Thompson

Note:  The original title of this article was "Exchange of Prisoners".  The words "In The Civil War" were added to accommodate the Internet search engines.

This page last updated 07/02/05

 Appendix A  The Cartel of July 22, 1863