Prisoner Exchange

During the early stages of the American Civil War the federal government refused to negotiate the exchange of prisoners as it did not recognize the Confederacy as a nation. In July, 1862, General John Dix of the Union Army and General D. H. Hill met and agreed an exchange. They decided that the rate of exchange was one general for every 60 enlisted men, a colonel for 15, a lieutenant for 4 and a sergeant for 2.

In 1863 General Henry Halleck became the Union representative involved in the exchange of prisoners. Under pressure from Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, these exchanges became less frequent. When Ulysses S. Grant became overall commander of the Union Army in March, 1864, he brought an end to exchanges. He told General Benjamin F. Butler that "He said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us."

The decision of Ulysses S. Grant obviously increased the suffering of prisoners held by both sides but his defenders argued that this policy helped to reduce the length of the war. Grant's policy was also partly responsible for the disaster at Andersonville. The Confederate Army was so burdened with Union prisoners that by November, 1864, they began to send them back to the North without gaining anything in exchange.

After the conflict came to an end the War Department published figures to show that of the 200,000 members of the Confederate Army captured, over 26,500 died in captivity. Of the 260,526 prisoners that the Confederates took, 22,526 members of the Union Army died. This indicated that 13% of Confederate prisoners died compared to 8 per cent of Federal prisoners.

Primary Sources

(1) Benjamin F. Butler met Ulysses S. Grant for the first time in April, 1864.

Lieutenant-General Grant visited Fortress Monroe on the 1st April. To him the state of the negotiations as to exchange of prisoners was communicated, and most emphatic verbal directions were received from the lieutenant-general not to take any steps by which another able-bodied man should be exchanged until further orders from him.

He then explained to me his views upon these matters. He said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us. For we gave them well men who went directly into their ranks and we had but few others, as the returns showed. Yet we received none from them substantially but disabled men, and by our laws and regulations they were to be allowed to go home and recuperate, which few of them did, and fewer still came back to our armies.

Now, the coming campaign was to be decided by the strength of the opposing forces, for the contest would all centre upon the Army of the Potomac and its immediate adjuncts. His proposition was to make an aggressive fight upon Lee, trusting to the superiority of numbers and to the practical impossibility of Lee getting any considerable reinforcements to keep up his army. We had twenty-six thousand Confederate prisoners, and if they were exchanged it would give the Confederates a corps, larger than any in Lee's army, of disciplined veterans better able to stand the hardships of a campaign and more capable than any other. To continue exchanging upon parole the prisoners captured on one side and the other, especially if we captured more prisoners than they did, would at least add from thirty to perhaps fifty per cent to Lee's capability for resistance.

(2) Robert E. Lee was cross-examined by Jacob Howard, the senator from Michigan, as a Congressional committee held on 17th February, 1866. Howard questioned Lee about what happened at Andersonville Prison Camp.

I suppose they suffered from want of ability on the part of the Confederate States to supply them with their wants. At the very beginning of the war there was suffering of prisoners on both sides, but as far as I could I did everything in my power to establish the cartel (of prisoner exchange) as agreed upon. I made several efforts to exchange the prisons after the cartel was suspended. I offered to General Grant, around Richmond, that we should ourselves exchange all the prisoners in our hands. I offered to send to City Point all the prisoners in Virginia and North Carolina over which my command extended, provided they returned an equal number of mine, man for man. I reported this to the War Department, and received an answer that they could place at my command all the prisoners at the South if the proposition was accepted. I heard nothing more on the subject.