Tag Archives: Prisoners of War

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

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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

North Carolina: Confederate Deserters Executed

February 15, 1864 – Thirteen men who deserted the North Carolina militia to join the Federal army were executed by Confederate officials, even though they had never officially belonged to the Confederate army.

Confederate forces withdrawing from New Bern captured several Federal troops near Beach Grove and identified 22 of them as former members of the North Carolina Home Guard. They had served in J.H. Nethercutt’s battalion of the 66th North Carolina, under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. The men had apparently deserted and joined the Federal cause when rumors swirled that the Home Guard would be drafted into the Confederate army.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina, confronted these prisoners and exclaimed, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert!” He later told his subordinates, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting… every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”

However, a court-martial had no authority over these men because they had belonged to a state militia unit, not the national army. Nevertheless, two were executed by firing squad before Pickett even approved the creation of a court-martial to try the remaining 20 men. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and others are undergoing trial.”

The tribunal consisted of Pickett’s officers, headed by Hoke. According to one of the defendant’s brothers, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.” Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, received a list of 53 Federal prisoners who had once belonged to the North Carolina militia. He forwarded this list to Pickett and wrote, “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.”

Before Pickett responded, seven men were found guilty and hanged less than 24 hours after the verdict. On the 14th, the remaining 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death the next day. According to Reverend John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina:

“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only 24 hours to live, and but little preparation had been made for death. Here was a wife to say farewell to a husband forever. Here a mother to take the last look at her ruined son; and then a sister who had come to embrace, for the last time, the brother who had brought disgrace upon the very name she bore, by his treason to his country. I told them they had sinned against their country, and that country would not forgive; but they had also sinned against God, yet God would forgive if they approached Him with penitent hearts filled with a godly sorrow for sin, and repose their trust in the atoning blood of Christ.”

Nethercutt urged Hoke to intervene on the condemned men’s behalf, but Hoke told him (according to Nethercutt) that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Parris wrote:

“The 13 marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear not. On the scaffold they were arranged in one row. At a given signal the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling; but it was as truly the deserters’ doom. Many of them said ‘I never expected to come to such an end as this.’ But yet they were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom.”

Pickett replied to Peck’s letter the day after the executions. He told Peck that he had only executed 22 of the 53 men on the list, but because the list had been “so kindly furnished me,” it would help Pickett “bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.” Pickett wrote, “Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors.”

Before Peck received Pickett’s reply, he was shown the article in the Fayetteville Observer stating that two men had been executed and the rest were awaiting trial. Peck wrote, “Having reported this matter to higher authority, I am instructed to notify you, that if the members of the North Carolina regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war, the strictest retaliation will be enforced.”

Peck warned Pickett that the Federals held “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula “as hostages for their safety.” Peck received information from various sources, some accurate and some not, and he tried sorting it out with his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, before learning the truth in March.

After the war, Nethercutt testified before a Federal war crimes commission regarding those executed: “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the (66th North Carolina) regiment.” In response to the question why these men deserted before their unit was absorbed into the Confederate army, Nethercutt said that he did not believe “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Daring Escape from Libby Prison

February 9, 1864 – Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania plotted a remarkable escape from disease-ridden Libby Prison in Richmond.

Libby Prison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Libby was a four-story warehouse situated near the James River that held captured Federal officers. This building housed about 1,200 men in extremely overcrowded, drafty, and damp conditions that invited the spread of illness and disease. Rose, who had been captured at the Battle of Chickamauga, worked with Major Andrew G. Hamilton, a Kentucky cavalry officer, to tunnel out of the prison from underground.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Rose estimated that digging a 50-yard tunnel to a warehouse shed beyond the compound fence could enable prisoners to escape undetected. Rose opened a hole in the fireplace on the building’s first floor, which enabled him to gain access to the basement. He enlisted the help of other officers to tunnel out from there, and each man was sworn to secrecy.

The men worked in shifts in the east section of the basement, which they called “Rat Hell.” They collected the dirt in spittoons and emptied them among the basement straw and rubbish. The work took several months to complete; the prisoners estimated the tunnel to be eight feet below ground and just wide enough for a man to crawl through.

Colonel Abel D. Streight, who had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest, was the ranking officer and became the first man to use the tunnel on the 7th. He emerged short of the fence, but the guards did not see him. The hole was plugged and the digging continued.

Two nights later, a loud music show covered the escape of six colonels, six lieutenant colonels, seven majors, 32 captains and 58 lieutenants. The escapees scattered throughout Richmond, and when guards noticed their absence, the city’s alarms were sounded.

Rose and 47 others were eventually recaptured, and two others drowned while trying to cross waterways. However, 59 managed to reach Federal lines, making this the largest and most sensational prison escape of the war.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 373; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 396; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 436-38; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462-63; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-28

Confederate Peace Overtures

July 4, 1863 – Confederate officials arrived off Hampton Roads, Virginia, to negotiate prisoner exchange terms with the Federals. They were also unofficially authorized to negotiate a possible end to the war.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

President Jefferson Davis instructed Vice President Alexander Stephens to “proceed as a military commissioner under flag of truce” to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and then, if the Federals permitted, on to Washington. Robert Ould, the Confederate agent in charge of prisoner exchange, accompanied Stephens.

The men were to try renegotiating the violated prisoner exchange cartel, as the Confederates accused the Federals of keeping officers and men in confinement even after being exchanged. But Stephens was also authorized to entertain offers to end the war if the subject came up.

Stephens and Ould boarded the flag-of-truce steamer Torpedo at Richmond on the 3rd and proceeded down the James River to the Federal lines at Norfolk. Davis hoped to time the journey so that Stephens would arrive at Washington around the same time as General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The Torpedo reached Hampton Roads on the morning of Independence Day. Stephens sent a request to the Federal admiral stationed there to be allowed to continue to Washington. The admiral instructed Stephens to wait while he notified his superiors.

When President Abraham Lincoln received the request, he favored the idea of talking with Stephens, his old friend from Congress. But news of the Federal victory at Gettysburg arrived around the same time, and Lincoln’s cabinet argued that negotiating peace now would give the Confederacy false hope that it still may gain independence. Lincoln ultimately acknowledged that once the Federals destroyed the Confederacy’s ability to wage war, southerners “would be ready to swing back to their old bearings,” without negotiations on ending the war, or even on prisoner exchange.

Stephens and Ould waited for two days aboard the Torpedo before Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton telegraphed a response to the Federal commanders at Fort Monroe: “Until you receive (Lincoln’s) instructions hold no communication with Mr. Stephens or Mr. Ould, nor permit either of them to come within our lines. Our victory is complete. Lee’s in full retreat.”

The Federals informed Stephens and Ould, “The request is inadmissible. The customary agents and channels are adequate for all needful military communications and conference between the United States forces and the insurgents.” The Confederates returned to Richmond the next day, unable to discuss either prisoner exchange or peace with the Federals.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21469-75; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 300, 302; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9671; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 652-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 323; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 376, 379; 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. 650, 664; 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), Q363

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