Tag Archives: Prisoner Exchange

Virginia: More Fighting and Prisoner Exchange

October 6, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee discussed prisoner exchanges and made one more effort to take back Fort Harrison, southeast of Richmond.

Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was rapidly shrinking due to combat, illness, and desertion. He therefore contacted Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, to discuss the possibility of informally renewing the prisoner exchange cartel.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Grant had suspended prisoner exchanges because the Confederates had refused to include slaves-turned-soldiers. This suspension had caused a widespread manpower shortage in the Confederacy, but it also doomed thousands of Federal prisoners to disease and death in southern prison camps, where officials lacked the necessities to care for them. In all, about 100,000 Federal and Confederate soldiers currently languished in various makeshift prisons.

As fighting raged around Peebles’ Farm, Lee wrote Grant, “With a view of alleviating the sufferings of our soldiers, I have the honor to propose an exchange of prisoners of war belonging to the armies operating in Virginia, man for man, or upon the basis established by the cartel.” Grant replied on the 2nd:

“I could not of a right accept your proposition further than to exchange those prisoners captured within the last three days, and who have not yet been delivered to the commanding General of Prisoners. Among those lost by the armies operating against Richmond were a number of colored troops. Before further negotiations are had upon the subject, I would ask if you propose delivering these men the same as white soldiers.”

Lee responded the next day:

“In my proposition of the 1st inst., to exchange the prisoners of war belonging to the armies operating in Virginia, I intended to include all captured soldiers of the United States, of whatever nation and color, under my control. Deserters from our service and negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange, and were not included in my proposition. If there are any such among those stated by you to have been captured around Richmond, they can not be returned.”

Grant finally answered on the 20th:

“I shall always regret the necessity of retaliating for wrong done our soldiers, but regard it my duty to protect all persons received into the army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality; when acknowledged soldiers of the Government are captured, they must be treated as prisoners of war, or such treatment as they receive inflicted upon an equal number of prisoners held by us.”

Thus, Grant and Lee were still at an impasse on the subject of whether former slaves now serving in the Federal army would be treated like all other soldiers.

Meanwhile, Lee met with President Jefferson Davis at Chaffin’s Bluff on the 6th. Unable to launch a major offensive before winter due to his dwindling numbers, Lee said, “We may be able, with the blessing of God, to keep the enemy in check until the beginning of winter. If we fail to do this the result may be calamitous.”

However, Lee was still determined to take back Fort Harrison, which the Confederates had lost last month. Leaving a token force in the trenches between the fort and the capital, Lee planned to attack the Federals guarding the Darbytown and New Market roads. These Federals were commanded by Major General David B. Birney and Brigadier General August V. Kautz. Under Lee’s plan:

  • Brigadier General Martin Gary’s cavalry brigade and Brigadier General Edward A. Perry’s infantry brigade would attack from the north, hitting the Federals on their right flank and in their rear.
  • Major General Charles W. Field’s division would launch a frontal attack on the Federals from the west.
  • Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division would support the frontal attack on Field’s right (south).

If successful, the Confederates would roll up the Federal right and force them to retreat south toward the James River, abandoning Fort Harrison along the way.

At dawn on the 7th, the Confederates hit the Federal right and front, pushing Kautz’s 1,700 Federals southward as planned and capturing all eight of their guns. The Federals fell back from the Darbytown Road and joined Birney’s X Corps, which was firmly entrenched on the New Market Road and ready.

Field’s Confederates charged, but Federal artillery thinned their ranks. Field sent his entire division forward, but the Federals repelled this attack as well. Brigadier General John Gregg, commanding the famed Texas Brigade, was killed. Hoke did not come up as planned, causing confusion among the Confederates until Lee finally ordered them to fall back.

The Confederates sustained 1,350 casualties in their failed effort to take back Fort Harrison and drive the Federals to the James. The Federals lost just 399 men. Lee soon ordered his men to build fortifications closer to Richmond.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21532, 21539-57; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 153-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 467, 470; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 506-07; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7975; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 799-800; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177, 393; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 204-05

Prisoner Exchange Remains Suspended

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 Prison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

Elmira Prison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

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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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21546-60; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 449; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 487; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 556-57; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 796, 97, 799; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 435-36; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 241; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26; 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), Q364

Grant Suspends Prisoner Exchange

April 1, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant issued “most emphatic” orders to take no action on agreeing to exchange prisoners of war without further notification. This initiated a grim new war policy.

On the last day of March, Robert Ould, Confederate commissioner of prisoner exchange, met with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, the Federal agent for prisoner exchange, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, to discuss ways to solve the problems with the exchange system.

A makeshift prisoner exchange cartel had been agreed upon in 1862, but it had virtually dissolved by the middle of 1863. The Federal victories at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and other locations resulted in the capture of tens of thousands of Confederates, and instead of shipping them to northern prison camps, they were paroled on the promise that they would not take up arms against the U.S. again until properly exchanged for Federal prisoners.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Grant was enraged when he discovered that many Confederates captured during the Battle of Chattanooga had violated their pledge and returned to the army without being exchanged. An effort was made to renew the cartel, but the Confederates initially refused to deal with Butler because the Confederate government had branded him a war criminal for his dictatorial rule over New Orleans in 1862.

The Confederates also refused to recognize black Federal soldiers as legitimate prisoners of war and would not exchange them. According to the Confederate War Bureau, “The enlistment of our slaves is a barbarity. No people… could tolerate… the use of savages (against them) … We cannot on any principle allow that our property can acquire adverse rights by virtue of a theft of it.”

In late 1863, the Confederates expressed willingness to negotiate the exchange of black prisoners who had been free before enlisting, but the Federal government refused to distinguish between free blacks and slaves in the military. Ould declared that the Confederates would “die in the last ditch” before “giving up the right to send slaves back to slavery as property recaptured.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton called this “a shameful dishonor… when (the Confederates) agree to exchange all alike there will be no difficulty.”

Four months later, Ould and Butler finally arranged to sit down together and try working out their differences. The men agreed that Butler would work with his superiors to address all the points of contention and then meet with Ould again.

However, when Butler conferred with Grant the next day, Butler said that “most emphatic verbal directions were received from the Lieutenant-General not to take any step by which another able-bodied man should be exchanged until further orders from him.”

On the 17th, Grant outlined a major policy change on the issue in a letter to Butler: “Until there is released to us an equal number of officers and men as were captured and paroled at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, not another Confederate prisoner of war will be paroled or exchanged.” Confederate officials had claimed that the troops had returned to the army prematurely due to a clerical error. Grant demanded proof, and he added another stipulation:

“No distinction whatever will be made in the exchange between white and colored prisoners, the only question being, were they, at the time of their capture, in the military service of the United States. If they were, the same terms as to treatment while prisoners and conditions of release and exchange must be exacted and had, in the case of colored soldiers as in the case of white soldiers.”

Grant further declared, “Non-acquiescence by the Confederate authorities in both or either of these propositions will be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and will be so treated by us.” Grant elaborated on this policy in a second message to Butler the next day:

“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 North would insure (William T.) Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.”

This new policy deprived the Confederacy of desperately needed manpower by keeping captured soldiers in prison camps. It also provided an incentive for soldiers to avoid being captured. However, the policy condemned thousands of Federal soldiers to death because the Confederacy lacked the necessities to care for its own citizens, let alone prisoners of war. The Federal blockade and growing occupation of southern regions added to the Confederate shortages and indirectly harmed the prisoners even more.

General Robert E. Lee tried to personally appeal to Grant to reconsider, but Grant refused. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis, “We have done everything in our power to mitigate the suffering of prisoners and there is no further responsibility on our part.”

This month, it was reported that Federals had captured 146,634 Confederate troops since the war began. In response to alleged mistreatment of Federal prisoners, the Federal government decreased the ration allotment to Confederate captives. On the 30th, Grant directed Butler “to receive all the sick and wounded the Confederate authorities may send you, but send no more in exchange.”

In the South, Andersonville prison camp in southwestern Georgia soon became notorious for its horrid living conditions. It held nearly 30,000 prisoners by this month, or nearly three times its capacity. Prison Commandant Henry Wirz received orders to set a “dead line” within 15 feet of the prison walls. Any prisoner crossing this line would be shot by guards.

Photographs of emaciated Federal troops recently released from Confederate prisons appeared in northern illustrated newspapers and sparked outrage. An article in the New York Times declared that this treatment should be expected from slaveholders “born to tyranny and reared to cruelty.” Both the Committee on the Conduct of the War and the U.S. Sanitary Commission published reports on the condition of Confederate prison camps based on accounts from released or escaped prisoners.

Stanton declared, “The enormity of the crime committed by the rebels cannot but fill with horror the civilized world… There appears to have been a deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment.” However, Confederate prisoners languished in similar living conditions, even though the Federal government had the resources to provide better care.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21524, 21597; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 393; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2766-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420, 422; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 38; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 792, 797; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 604; 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), Q264

Andersonville Prison Opens

February 27, 1864 – Confederate officials opened a new prisoner of war camp in Georgia that soon became notorious for its inhumane living conditions.

By this time, the tentative prisoner exchange cartel between the Federals and Confederates had virtually broken down for various reasons, including:

  • Confederates would not recognize black prisoners as legitimate combatants eligible for exchange
  • Federals would not ease the Confederacy’s manpower shortage by returning Confederate prisoners
  • Confederates refused to negotiate with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, the new Federal agent for prisoner exchange, because they deemed Butler a war criminal for his dictatorial rule over New Orleans

Consequently, the number of prisoners began skyrocketing, and prisons in both North and South quickly became overcrowded. The Confederates held tens of thousands of Federal prisoners in Richmond, which was within striking distance of Federal guerrillas seeking to liberate them. Confederates also sought to address the problem of dwindling real estate in which to house this growing number of captives.

Confederate officials decided to set up a new prison camp near Americus, in southwestern Georgia. The climate in this area allowed for holding a large number of prisoners in an outdoor stockade. It was also an area relatively unaffected by the war, far from any potential Federal raiders. Moreover, it boasted plentiful natural resources, with a local professor stating that the water “may be considered as equal in purity to the purest well-water in the world.”

The prison was named Camp Sumter, located near Anderson Station on the Southwestern Railroad, in Sumter County. According to the professor, “there is no recognizable source of disease in the water and soil of Andersonville.” Confederates measured out and built a stockade 750 feet by 750 feet, with walls 15 feet high and a stream running through the compound. When residents refused to donate supplies or slave labor for construction, the foreman impressed their slaves into service.

Andersonville Prison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By this month, the stockade featured two gates on the west wall, guard towers every 90 feet, and other facilities outside the compound such as a cook house, hospital, and sawmill. The prison was designed to hold 9,000 men. Colonel Alexander Persons of Georgia was appointed commandant of the new prison, which soon became known as Andersonville.

The first 500 prisoners from Belle Isle, Virginia, arrived on the 27th, before the compound was completed. The prison eventually grew to cover 26 acres and house some 30,000 prisoners. The Confederacy, having barely enough food or medicinal supplies for its citizens, had even less for prisoners. Efforts by President Jefferson Davis to procure medicines from the Federals to tend to their soldiers went ignored. Davis’s offer to allow Federal doctors to treat the prisoners within Confederate lines also went unheeded.

Widespread illness, famine, and disease ran rampant as a result. Others suffered from exposure due to a lack of adequate shelter from the elements. Andersonville quickly epitomized the brutality of military confinement.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21491; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 378-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 403; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 13; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 469; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 795-96; 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), Q164

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