The prisoner of war parole and exchange system during the American Civil War was an evolving one that became more complex as the war went on. The two governments and their respective armies never conceived of such an expansive and long war. Many felt that the war would be decided after one or two major battles.
The Southerners felt that all Northerners were city boys who couldn’t ride on a horse or shoot a rifle. One hard fight and they would run home to their mamas. The Northerners felt that their superior numbers and technology would overwhelm the South in rather a quick fashion. Both sides were wrong.
At first, President Lincoln would not countenance a formal prisoner exchange system because he wouldn’t recognize the Confederacy as having any wartime rights. However, many generals, when faced with large numbers of prisoners, set up informal exchanges with their opposite numbers.
The first high commander who realized that prisoners were an issue that needed to be dealt with was Quartermaster-General M. C. Meigs, U. S. A. On July 12, 1861, nine days before the first battle of Bull Run, he wrote Secretary of War Cameron advising the appointment of a commissary-general of prisoners.
In the West Generals Henry Halleck and Ulysses Grant exchanged prisoners with Brig. Gens. Leonidas Polk and Jeff Thompson, each side receiving an equal number of men. In Virginia, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Huger, CSA and Brig. Gen. John Wool, USA had a number of prisoner exchanges.
On the Confederate side, the government realized that with limited resources, they would be hard-pressed to care for large numbers of prisoners. On February 13, 1862, Brig. Gen. John Wool that he had been empowered to arrange a general exchange. General Wool met Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb, on February 23d, and an agreement, except upon the point of delivery at the “frontier of their own country,” was reached for the delivery of all prisoners, the excess to be on parole.
However, at a subsequent meeting, General Wool announced that the Federal government would only exchange man for man, without the parole of excess men. Their was also disagreement on which side would pay the expenses for prisoner transportation. Cobb refused these new terms, stating that the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson had given the Union army an excess of prisoners which it was unwilling to release on parole.
Up to that point, the informal system had called for a one-to-one exchange of captured soldiers, without regard of rank. Prisoners who were in excess of the even exchange were paroled with the promise that they would not take part ion any military activity until exchanged.
Men would return to their homes until they were notified by military authorities that they had been exchanged. They were given a certain number of days to return to their units, after which they would be considered absent without leave.
The two sides remained at loggerheads without several exceptions. On June 6t, 1862, a general order was issued in Washington that surgeons were to be considered non-combatants and were not to be taken prisoner. General Robert E. Lee accepted this stipulation on the 17th. On June 9th, General Lee had proposed to release General George McClellan’s wounded which he accepted.
On July 12, 1862, Maj. Gen. John Dix was appointed by Secretary of War Edward Stanton to negotiate with the Confederates over prisoners of war. Stanton cautioned Dix in every possible way to avoid any recognition of the Confederate Government. General Lee appointed Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill as his representative.
The cartel in force between the United States and Great Britain during the War of 1812 was suggested as a basis for negotiation. The two generals met on July 17th, adjourned for consultations with their respective governments and met again on July 22nd. At this second meeting, the two sides came to an agreement, the Dix-Hill Cartel, for exchanges.
The cartel agreement established a scale of equivalents to manage the exchange of military officers and enlisted personnel. For example, a naval captain or a colonel in the army would exchange for fifteen privates or common seamen, while personnel of equal ranks would transfer man for man.
The agreement named two locations for the exchanges to occur, one at A. M. Aiken’s Landing, below Dutch Gap, in Virginia, and the other at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Each government would appoint an agent to handle the exchange and parole of prisoners. The agreement also allowed the exchange or parole of captives between the commanders of two opposing forces.
In addition, the agreement permitted each side to exchange non-combatants, such as citizens accused of disloyalty, and civilian employees of the military, such as teamsters and sutlers. Authorities were to parole any prisoners not formally exchanged within ten days following their capture. The terms of the cartel prohibited paroled prisoners from returning to the military in any capacity including “the performance of field, garrison, police, or guard, or constabulary duty.”
In the first week of August 1862, the cartel’s newly appointed agents, Confederate Robert Ould and Union Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, conducted their first official prisoner exchange under the agreement’s terms with a transfer of 3021 Union personnel for 3000 Confederates at Aiken’s Landing.
The prisoner exchanges functioned well until December 1862 when Confederate President Jefferson Davis suspended the parole of Union officers following the execution of William Mumford, a New Orleans citizen, by Union General Benjamin F. Butler earlier that year. In reaction, Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered a halt to all exchanges of commissioned officers.
Further difficulties developed when the Confederate government refused to parole and exchange any African-American soldiers taken captive who might have escaped from slavery. Confederate authorities decided instead to treat these prisoners as runaways suitable only for return to their former owners.
By early June 1863, the prisoner of war exchanges were effectively stopped and a dark chapter in the war began. With the suspension of the Dix-Hill Cartel, both sides were forced to incarcerate prisoners of war in large camp that were located all around the country. It was expensive using both financial and military resources that neither side could afford.
Although attempts were made to maintain the system, prisoners were increasingly incarcerated in camps. Most subsequent exchanges were local and limited. General Benjamin Butler asked for permission to exchange prisoners in November 1863, stating that he had twice as many prisoners as the Confederates. After receiving permission, he continued to exchange prisoners into early 1864.
Asked to review the situation in April 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant ordered the halt of all exchanges until the Confederates recognized “the validity of the paroles of the prisoners captured at Vicksburg and Port Hudson,” and stopped discrimination against “colored soldiers.”
From August to November 1864, General Butler and Colonel Robert Ould conducted a limited number of exchanges, primarily of “sick and invalid officers and men . . . unfit for duty and likely to remain so for sixty days.” These exchanges took place at Fort Pulaski near Savannah and in the area of Charleston, South Carolina.
In January 1865, General Grant permitted the resumption of exchanges when Confederate authorities agreed to allow all prisoners to be included. Grant wrote Stanton that he was trying to exchange 3,000 men a week and preference should go to disabled troops, “few of these will be got in the ranks again and as we can count upon but little reinforcement from the prisoners we get.”
In his military history, The Longest Night, historian David J. Eicher states that the “Union Army paroled or exchanged 329,963 Confederate prisoners of war, while the Confederacy paroled or exchanged about 152,015 Union prisoners of war.”