Origin of the Prisoner Exchange System or What are We Supposed to do with all these Prisoners?

Let’s set the stage first. At the onset of the Civil War, Union President Abraham Lincoln did not formally recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government. Since, in his mind that they were not a legitimate government, they were not entitled to "rights" associated with wartime. It wasn’t until after the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) that resulted in a victory for the Confederacy and the subsequent capture of Union forces that he began to have a change of heart. With the prodding of Congress, negotiations for a formal prisoner exchange system were begun. Prior to the establishment of this formal exchange, prisoners were traded back and forth between the commanders of the opposing armies under a flag of truce.

The first of these formal exchanges took place sometime if February of 1862 however it wasn’t until July of the same year that the two governments agreed upon a pre-set formula that established a “ratio” of prisoner exchanges (more on that to follow). The agreement also provided that any prisoners taken by either side were to be either exchanged or paroled within 10 day of their being captured. Any prisoners that did not meet the exchange conditions were to be paroled. The terms of the “parole” were such that they were not allowed to engage in any military activity until they were notified that they had been “officially” exchanged. I guess one might equate this to the sporting term of “being benched.”

As you can imagine, this turned into a bureaucratic nightmare and the system was mired down by paperwork. Each side, for its own reasons, often interrupted or cancelled planned exchanges. Despite this, the agreement worked reasonably well until the summer of 1863.(More on that to follow)

Okay, I’ve been taken prisoner, what am I worth?

The following formula was devised and agreed upon by both sides that determined your value had you been unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner. For those of you familiar with the sporting world, I’d compare it to your trading value. Anyway…

If you were a General, you were worth 46 privates
If you were a Major General, you were worth 40 privates
If you were a Brigadier General, you were worth 20 privates
If you were a Colonel, you were worth 15 privates
If you were a Lieutenant Colonel, you were worth 10 privates
If you were a Major, you were worth 8 privates
If you were a Captain, you were worth 6 privates
If you were a Lieutenant, you were worth 4 privates
And finally, if you were a NCO, you were worth 2 privates

So why did the Prisoner Exchange System breakdown or What about Black Soldiers?

By the summer of 1863, the prisoner exchange system was in shambles. The main cause of the situation was the Confederacy’s stance on black Union soldiers. Their policy was to NOT treat them as a prisoner of war but instead to return them to slavery. To justify their position, one must put themselves in Confederate shoes.

First of all, the members of the Confederacy were pissed off that the Union had “stolen” their slaves to begin with. Add to that, the Union then trained and armed these former “slaves” and pitted them against their former “masters.” Since most of the black Union soldiers knew what to expect if they were captured, they had added incentive to fight and proved their merit many times on the battlefield. Lastly, the Confederacy also threatened to execute any (white) Union commander who was in charge of black troops.

If indeed any black soldiers were unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner and managed to survive the wrath of their captors, they were usually put to work in Confederate forts where they performed hard labor until they were “reclaimed” by their previous owners. Should their previous owners not reclaim them, they were to be re-sold to new owners. Some southern newspapers printed lists of captured black soldiers in order to provide notice to former slave owners that they were being held.

How did the Union react? Well, to say the least, they were not pleased and threatened to retaliate. President Lincoln had this to say at the time - "For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a Rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works."

Initially, the threat served its purpose and the Confederacy backed away from its threat of executions. It also marked the beginning of the end for the prisoner exchange system. As the tide of war changed to favor the North, the Confederacy requested that the prisoner exchanges resume. General Ulysses S. Grant refused their request on the grounds that he had plenty of troops and the exchange of prisoners would be of no benefit to the North.

As a side note, it should be mentioned that members of Congress and the public in general were not very supportive of Lincoln’s position. They felt it was too harsh and would punish the some of the innocent Southerners who had fallen victim to capture. Lincoln, in either a display of his wisdom or political savvy, realized that the terms he set forth were indeed too harsh and later had this to say - "blood cannot restore blood, and government should not act for revenge."

Intangibles - Aftermath of the Breakdown

Before the exchange system broke down, prisoners were allowed to return to their homes and their loved ones. Besides the physical benefits there were also psychological benefits to be gained. Long terms of imprisonment and harsh treatment of prisoners could be avoided on both sides. It was also much less expensive to return the prisoners to their homes rather than to build and staff prisons in order to house them.

With the breakdown of the system, prisoner of war populations swelled and many thousands of soldiers were placed in prison camps that were ill equipped to deal with such numbers. The subsequent lack of adequate housing and food needed to care for the prisoners became a black mark for both sides. It led to overcrowded conditions and frightful treatment by prison guards. The most famous of the was the notorious Andersonville GA, prison in the south and the Elmira,NY facility in the north.


Many thanks to dannye and JerboaKolinowski for showing me the light.

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