Here's an example of just how hard negotiations can be and how difficult it is to get both sides to comply with what they have agreed to. And we can't accuse anyone of being a bullheaded foreign intransigent or an crafty alien snake-oil salesman because, guess what, everyone involved in this mess was American! The question of what to do about captured prisoners-of-war was critical during the American Civil War (1861-65). Each side held tens of thousands of prisoners, and both sides treated their prisoners quite badly. The death rate in both Confederate and Union prisons was high--a distant relative of mine, a great-great-grandparent's brother, died in the Union prison at Elmira, New York--but Andersonville, Georgia, is the best-known and by far the most deadly of the prison-camp hellholes of the Civil War. When Andersonville opened in 1864 the Confederacy was already collapsing, on the defensive on all fronts and east cut off from west by the Union capture of Vicksburg, sealing off the Mississippi. Food was short for everyone and there was little to spare for prisoners, and men died by the thousands in Andersonville during the summer of 1864. They could have been saved through a prisoner exchange, but they were not, and the following passage by John McElroy, a journalist and Union soldier captured in Virginia and sent first to a Richmond prison and then to Andersonville, which he survived, explains why.
THE EXCHANGE AND THE CAUSE OF ITS INTERRUPTION--BRIEF RESUME OF THE
DIFFERENT CARTELS, AND THE DIFFICULTIES THAT LED TO THEIR SUSPENSION.
Few questions intimately connected with the actual operations of the
Rebellion have been enveloped with such a mass of conflicting statement
as the responsibility for the interruption of the exchange. Southern
writers and politicians, naturally anxious to diminish as much as
possible the great odium resting upon their section for the treatment of
prisoners of war during the last year and a half of the Confederacy's
existence, have vehemently charged that the Government of the United
States deliberately and pitilessly resigned to their fate such of its
soldiers as fell into the hands of the enemy, and repelled all advances
from the Rebel Government looking toward a resumption of exchange. It is
alleged on our side, on the other hand, that our Government did all that
was possible, consistent with National dignity and military prudence,
to secure a release of its unfortunate men in the power of the Rebels.
Over this vexed question there has been waged an acrimonious war of
words, which has apparently led to no decision, nor any convictions--the
disputants, one and all, remaining on the sides of the controversy
occupied by them when the debate began.
I may not be in possession of all the facts bearing upon the case, and
may be warped in judgment by prejudices in favor of my own Government's
wisdom and humanity, but, however this may be, the following is my firm
belief as to the controlling facts in this lamentable affair:
1. For some time after the beginning of hostilities our Government
refused to exchange prisoners with the Rebels, on the ground that this
might be held by the European powers who were seeking a pretext for
acknowledging the Confederacy, to be admission by us that the war was no
longer an insurrection but a revolution, which had resulted in the 'de
facto' establishment of a new nation. This difficulty was finally gotten
over by recognizing the Rebels as belligerents, which, while it placed
them on a somewhat different plane from mere insurgents, did not elevate
them to the position of soldiers of a foreign power.
2. Then the following cartel was agreed upon by Generals Dix on our side
and Hill on that of the Rebels:
HAXALL'S LANDING, ON JAMES RIVER, July 22, 1882.
The undersigned, having been commissioned by the authorities they
respectively represent to make arrangements for a general exchange of
prisoners of war, have agreed to the following articles:
ARTICLE I.--It is hereby agreed and stipulated, that all prisoners of
war, held by either party, including those taken on private armed
vessels, known as privateers, shall be exchanged upon the conditions and
Prisoners to be exchanged man for man and officer for officer.
Privateers to be placed upon the footing of officers and men of the navy.
(additional verbiage deleted)
ARTICLE II.--Local, State, civil and militia rank held by persons not in
actual military service will not be recognized; the basis of exchange
being the grade actually held in the naval and military service of the
ARTICLE III.--If citizens held by either party on charges of disloyalty,
or any alleged civil offense, are exchanged, it shall only be for
citizens. Captured sutlers, teamsters, and all civilians in the actual
service of either party, to be exchanged for persons in similar
ARTICLE IV.--All prisoners of war to be discharged on parole in ten days
after their capture; and the prisoners now held, and those hereafter
taken, to be transported to the points mutually agreed upon, at the
expense of the capturing party. The surplus prisoners not exchanged
shall not be permitted to take up arms again, nor to serve as military
police or constabulary force in any fort, garrison or field-work, held by
either of the respective parties, nor as guards of prisoners, deposits or
stores, nor to discharge any duty usually performed by soldiers, until
exchanged under the provisions of this cartel. The exchange is not to be
considered complete until the officer or soldier exchanged for has been
actually restored to the lines to which he belongs.
ARTICLE V.--Each party upon the discharge of prisoners of the other party
is authorized to discharge an equal number of their own officers or men
from parole, furnishing, at the same time, to the other party a list of
their prisoners discharged, and of their own officers and men relieved
from parole; thus enabling each party to relieve from parole such of
their officers and men as the party may choose. The lists thus mutually
furnished, will keep both parties advised of the true condition of the
exchange of prisoners.
ARTICLE VI.--The stipulations and provisions above mentioned to be of
binding obligation during the continuance of the war, it matters not
which party may have the surplus of prisoners; the great principles
involved being, First, An equitable exchange of prisoners, man for man,
or officer for officer, or officers of higher grade exchanged for
officers of lower grade, or for privates, according to scale of
equivalents. Second, That privates and officers and men of different
services may be exchanged according to the same scale of equivalents.
Third, That all prisoners, of whatever arm of service, are to be
exchanged or paroled in ten days from the time of their capture, if it be
practicable to transfer them to their own lines in that time; if not, so
soon thereafter as practicable. Fourth, That no officer, or soldier,
employed in the service of either party, is to be considered as exchanged
and absolved from his parole until his equivalent has actually reached
the lines of his friends. Fifth, That parole forbids the performance of
field, garrison, police, or guard or constabulary duty.
JOHN A. DIX, Major General.
D. H. HILL, Major General, C. S. A.
ARTICLE VII.--All prisoners of war now held on either side, and all
prisoners hereafter taken, shall be sent with all reasonable dispatch to
A. M. Aiken's, below Dutch Gap, on the James River, in Virginia, or to
Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River, in the State of Mississippi, and
there exchanged of paroled until such exchange can be effected, notice
being previously given by each party of the number of prisoners it will
send, and the time when they will be delivered at those points
respectively; and in case the vicissitudes of war shall change the
military relations of the places designated in this article to the
contending parties, so as to render the same inconvenient for the
delivery and exchange of prisoners, other places bearing as nearly as may
be the present local relations of said places to the lines of said
parties, shall be, by mutual agreement, substituted. But nothing in this
article contained shall prevent the commanders of the two opposing armies
from exchanging prisoners or releasing them on parole, at other points
mutually agreed on by said commanders.
ARTICLE VIII.--For the purpose of carrying into effect the foregoing
articles of agreement, each party will appoint two agents for the
exchange of prisoners of war, whose duty it shall be to communicate with
each other by correspondence and otherwise; to prepare the lists of
prisoners; to attend to the delivery of the prisoners at the places
agreed on, and to carry out promptly, effectually, and in good faith,
all the details and provisions of the said articles of agreement.
ARTICLE IX.--And, in case any misunderstanding shall arise in regard to
any clause or stipulation in the foregoing articles, it is mutually
agreed that such misunderstanding shall not affect the release of
prisoners on parole, as herein provided, but shall be made the subject of
friendly explanation, in order that the object of this agreement may
neither be defeated nor postponed.
JOHN A. DIX, Major General.
D. H. HILL, Major General. C. S. A.
This plan did not work well. Men on both sides, who wanted a little rest
from soldiering, could obtain it by so straggling in the vicinity of the
enemy. Their parole--following close upon their capture, frequently upon
the spot--allowed them to visit home, and sojourn awhile where were
pleasanter pastures than at the front. Then the Rebels grew into the
habit of paroling everybody that they could constrain into being a
prisoner of war. Peaceable, unwarlike and decrepit citizens of Kentucky,
East Tennessee, West Virginia, Missouri and Maryland were "captured" and
paroled, and setoff against regular Rebel soldiers taken by us.
3. After some months of trial of this scheme, a modification of the
cartel was agreed upon, the main feature of which was that all prisoners
must be reduced to possession, and delivered to the exchange officers
either at City Point, Va., or Vicksburg, Miss. This worked very well for
some months, until our Government began organizing negro troops. The
Rebels then issued an order that neither these troops nor their officers
should be held as amenable to the laws of war, but that, when captured,
the men should be returned to slavery, and the officers turned over to
the Governors of the States in which they were taken, to be dealt with
according to the stringent law punishing the incitement of servile
insurrection. Our Government could not permit this for a day. It was
bound by every consideration of National honor to protect those who wore
its uniform and bore its flag. The Rebel Government was promptly
informed that rebel officers and men would be held as hostages for the
proper treatment of such members of colored regiments as might be taken.
4. This discussion did not put a stop to the exchange, but while it was
going on Vicksburg was captured, and the battle of Gettysburg was fought.
The first placed one of the exchange points in our hands. At the opening
of the fight at Gettysburg Lee captured some six thousand Pennsylvania
militia. He sent to Meade to have these exchanged on the field of
battle. Meade declined to do so for two reasons: first, because it was
against the cartel, which prescribed that prisoners must be reduced to
possession; and second, because he was anxious to have Lee hampered with
such a body of prisoners, since it was very doubtful if he could get his
beaten army back across the Potomac, let alone his prisoners. Lee then
sent a communication to General Couch, commanding the Pennsylvania
militia, asking him to receive prisoners on parole, and Couch, not
knowing what Meade had done, acceded to the request. Our Government
disavowed Couch's action instantly, and ordered the paroles to be treated
as of no force, whereupon the Rebel Government ordered back into the
field twelve thousand of the prisoners captured by Grant's army at
5. The paroling now stopped abruptly, leaving in the hands of both sides
the prisoners captured at Gettysburg, except the militia above mentioned.
The Rebels added considerably to those in their hands by their captures
at Chickamauga, while we gained a great many at Mission Ridge, Cumberland
Gap and elsewhere, so that at the time we arrived in Richmond the Rebels
had about fifteen thousand prisoners in their hands and our Government
had about twenty-five thousand.
6. The rebels now began demanding that the prisoners on both sides be
exchanged--man for man--as far as they went, and the remainder paroled.
Our Government offered to exchange man for man, but declined--on account
of the previous bad faith of the Rebels--to release the balance on
parole. The Rebels also refused to make any concessions in regard to the
treatment of officers and men of colored regiments.
7. At this juncture General B. F. Butler was appointed to the command of
the Department of the Blackwater, which made him an ex-officio
Commissioner of Exchange. The Rebels instantly refused to treat with
him, on the ground that he was outlawed by the proclamation of Jefferson
Davis. General Butler very pertinently replied that this only placed him
nearer their level, as Jefferson Davis and all associated with him in the
Rebel Government had been outlawed by the proclamation of President
Lincoln. The Rebels scorned to notice this home thrust by the Union
8. On February 12, 1864, General Butler addressed a letter to the Rebel
Commissioner Ould, in which be asked, for the sake of humanity, that the
questions interrupting the exchange be left temporarily in abeyance while
an informal exchange was put in operation. He would send five hundred
prisoners to City Point; let them be met by a similar number of Union
prisoners. This could go on from day to day until all in each other's
hands should be transferred to their respective flags.
The five hundred sent with the General's letter were received, and five
hundred Union prisoners returned for them. Another five hundred, sent
the next day, were refused, and so this reasonable and humane proposition
ended in nothing.
This was the condition of affairs in February, 1864, when the Rebel
authorities concluded to send us to Andersonville. If the reader will
fix these facts in his minds I will explain other phases as they develop.