The Prisoner Exchange Cartel

July 22, 1862 – With the number of prisoners of war quickly growing, Federals and Confederates agreed to a tentative system of prisoner exchange.

By this month, the major battles of 1862 had resulted in the capture of tens of thousands of prisoners on both sides. The Confederate government tried working with the Federals on a prisoner exchange agreement, but the Lincoln administration was reluctant to negotiate such a deal with a government they did not consider legitimate. Talks had taken place between the two sides in February, but they broke down in early March.

Finally, both sides came together to discuss the growing problem on July 18, when Federal Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D.H. Hill met at Haxall’s Landing on the James River. The men signed a cartel agreement regarding a prisoner exchange system based on the agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain during the War of 1812. It was approved by both governments four days later.

Generals D.H. Hill and John A. Dix

Officers and men of equal rank would be exchanged one-for-one. A scale was developed to exchange men of unequal rank, such as 30 enlisted men equaled a major general, six equaled a captain, two equaled a sergeant, and so on. Prisoners who could not be immediately exchanged would be paroled (i.e., sent home on the promise that they would not take up arms again until an equal number of men were paroled on the other side). The cartel had no provisions for civilians seized by Federal forces in southern areas under occupation.

The Lincoln administration demanded that no mention of the “Confederate States of America” be written into the official document, and only military officers would administer the program. President Jefferson Davis appointed Robert Ould to be the Confederate prisoner exchange agent. President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Lorenzo Thomas for the Federals.

The cartel eventually became very difficult to manage due to the mounting bureaucracy involved. Its heavy reliance on promises and “gentlemen’s agreements” also hindered the cartel’s effectiveness. And when Federals began recruiting slaves into the army, this added a complication because the Confederacy would not consider slaves eligible for exchange. All these factors assured that the system would eventually break down.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 500; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21346; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 184; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 353; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 111; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362

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