August 27, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant instructed the Federal prisoner exchange agents to refuse any Confederate offers to exchange prisoners.
By this month, prison camps in both North and South were becoming overcrowded. Federal authorities continued refusing to exchange prisoners because the Confederates continued refusing to recognize black soldiers as prisoners of war. The suspension of the exchange program benefited the Federals because it added to the growing manpower shortage in the Confederacy.
Because of the Federal blockade and military occupation of much of the South, Confederate officials could barely feed their own people, let alone the increasing number of Federal prisoners. Consequently, southern prison camps ran rampant with malnutrition, famine, and disease. The most notorious of these camps was Andersonville, in southwestern Georgia.
Andersonville held 33,000 inmates by this month, which equated to the fifth largest city in the Confederacy. Having originally been built to hold just 10,000 men, it was expanded to 26 acres, but that still only allowed for an average of 34 square feet per man. Prison Commandant Henry Wirz prohibited the inmates from building shelters except what they could improvise by digging holes and propping up blankets with sticks. Any prisoner coming within 15 feet of the prison fence was to be shot on sight.
Sweet Water Branch flowed through Andersonville, originally intended to provide drinking water for the prisoners but long since tainted by raw sewage. Each inmate received a daily ration of a half-pint of cornmeal, three tablespoons of beans, and a teaspoon of salt. Over the summer, up to 100 men per week died at Andersonville, and 13,000 of the 45,000 total inmates perished. Northerners were infuriated by an article in an Atlanta newspaper that reported, “During one of the intensely hot days of last week more than 300 sick and wounded Yankees died at Andersonville. We thank Heaven for such blessings.”
Conditions in northern prison camps were not much better, even though the Federals had an abundance of food, clothing, and medical supplies for the inmates. Among the most notorious was Elmira Prison in New York. Dr. Eugene F. Sanger, chief surgeon at Elmira, warned the prison commandant, Seth Eastman, that the stagnant pond within the prison was a “source of miasma.” Sanger wrote, “Unless the laws of hygiene are carefully studied and observed in crowded camps, disease is the inevitable consequence.”
Eastman forwarded Sanger’s report to William Hoffman, head of all Federal prisons. Eastman added, “I respectfully request that you give instructions in regard to this with as little delay as possible, for if this work is to be done, it should be done immediately.” However, Hoffman did not act upon the findings. In fact, on the 10th he issued Circular Number 4, which restricted fruit and vegetables only to sick prisoners.
Two weeks later, Federal prison inspector Bennett Munger reported that at Elmira, 226 inmates were “sick in hospital and a larger number in quarters. Some are destitute of blankets and proper underclothes, and all without hospital rations; clothing of prisoners deficient, especially in blankets and shirts. The stench arising from the stagnant water in the pond is still very offensive.”
It was also reported that 793 prisoners were suffering from scurvy, mainly due to a lack of produce, despite the rich harvest in New York that year. The report was forwarded up the chain of command to Hoffman, where it went no further.
The worsening prison conditions prompted Colonel Robert Ould, the Confederate agent for prisoner exchange, to once again ask that discussions be opened with the Federals to renew the exchange system. The Confederates offered to exchange prisoners officer for officer and man for man, which would increase the Federals’ manpower just as much as it would the Confederates’. This included a Confederate offer to release all men on parole, as well as a listing of the mortality rate at Andersonville.
The offer went through Major General E.A. Hitchcock, who forwarded it to Grant, the overall Federal commander. For the second time, Grant refused. He wrote to Major General Benjamin F. Butler, special prisoner exchange agent:
“On the subject of exchange, however, I differ from General Hitchcock. 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 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 North would insure Sherman’s defeat, and would compromise our safety here.”
Privately, Grant said, “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.” The Federals also refused to renew exchanges because the Confederates said nothing about exchanging black soldiers. Butler wrote a letter to Confederate officials on the subject that he also submitted to the press:
“The wrongs, indignities, and privations suffered by our soldiers would move me to consent to anything to procure their exchange, except to barter away the honor and the faith of the Government of the United States, which has been so solemnly pledged to the colored soldiers in its ranks. Consistently with national faith and justice we cannot relinquish that position.”
Thus, prisoners on both sides would continue languishing in their camps.
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