Prisoner Exchange and the USCT (Part 36) by Bill Vallante

There are many stories circulating around these days which claim that the South refused to treat black union soldiers as prisoners of war, that they killed them outright, or sold them into slavery, and that the North, in an effort to hold the moral high ground, suspended the prisoner exchange cartel in 1864 in a noble effort to get the South to recognize black civil rights.

****George Christian, writing in the Southern Historical Society Papers, essentially lays out the real issues and the problem as it concerned black union prisoners of war and General Richard Taylor confirms Christian’s contentions in the following source.

Essentially, if a black union prisoner was recognized as being a runaway slave, he was to be returned to his former owner. Until the owner was found, he was put to work repairing or building military fortifications or projects. Free men of color went to a prison camp along with the white prisoners. There was no policy on the part of the Confederate government which ordered the execution of black union prisoners.

Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXX. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1902
By Hon. GEO. L. CHRISTIAN, Chairman., Read at Wytheville, Va., October 23rd, 1902.

“….. The Federal authorities contended that where slaves were captured by them, or when they deserted and came to them and enlisted in their armies, they thereby became free, and should be placed on the same footing with their white soldiers, in respect to exchanges, as well as in all other respects. The Confederates, on the contrary, contended that whatever might be the effect on the status of the slave by going to the Federals and enlisting in their armies, yet should they be recaptured by the Confederates, that restored them to their former status as slaves, and they should then be returned to their masters or put to work by the Confederates, and their masters compensated for their labor. In those cases where the masters did not reside in the Confederacy, or could not be ascertained, such Negroes were to be exchanged as other prisoners.”

“Destruction and Reconstruction,” by Richard Taylor, Page 215

“The Confederate Congress had enacted that negro troops, captured, should be restored to their owners. We had several hundreds of such, taken by Forrest in Tennessee, whose owners could not be reached; and they were put to work on the fortifications at Mobile, rather for the purpose of giving them healthy employment than for the value of the work. I made it a point to visit their camps and inspect the quantity and quality of their food, always found to be satisfactory…..”

****Jefferson Davis, not one for lying, remarked that he had never been told the reason for the North’s suspension of the prisoner exchange, which leaves one wondering about the claim of contemporary historians that the reason the North suspended prisoner exchange was because the Confederates would not treat black prisoners who were runaway slaves as “prisoners of war.” Looking at Davis’ quote, we are left to wonder how it was that the North could supend the cartel, allegedly over injustice directed at the black man, but forget to notify the Confederate government of this? The matter is more clearly laid out in the source following Davis’, written by a former Confederate officer in the January 1896 edition of the “Confederate Veteran”:

Jefferson Davis to Congress of the Confederate States, Richmond, 2. May 1864.

“On the subject of the exchange of prisoners, I greatly regret to be unable to give you satisfactory information. The government of the United States, while persisting in failure to execute the terms of the cartel, make occasional deliveries of prisoners and then suspend action without apparent cause. I confess my inability to comprehend their policy or purpose.”

From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 10, pp. 378-87. Transcribed from a signed copy in the National Archives, RG109, Documents in the Official Records, Series 4, Volume 3, pp. 365-68.

JOHN SHIRLEY WARD, Los Angeles, Cal., P. 10 Confederate Veteran January 1896.

“…This fact led the Southern Government to decline to recognize negroes as prisoners of war who had been decoyed from their homes by promises of large bounties for enlistment against their old masters, and it was intended by the Cartel that it should include the exchange of only free soldiers. This was not a question of color, for the South was willing to regard as prisoners free negroes who had been captured in the Union Army.”

****I’ve been reading about the Civil War for over 50 years. The way I always understood it, the prisoner exchange was suspended by the North in 1864 as part of a war of attrition against the South. Quite simply, the South could not replace its killed, wounded or captured, while the North could, due to its much larger population. The North then had nothing to gain by engaging in a prisoner exchange and chose therefore, to forego it, and bleed the South dry, thus bringing the war to a speedier conclusion. Today we are often told that the North suspended the cartel because it was enraged over the South’s failure to give black prisoners of war their civil rights. If anyone believes that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I dearly would love to sell you.

I also have to believe that had Lincoln announced to the white northern population that their husbands, brothers and sons would have to languish in Southern prison camps to promote black civil rights that he either would have had mass riots on his hands, or, he would have been clobbered in the election of 1864.

The following two sources give another, and perhaps more truthful side to the story. The first is written by a Confederate officer in the July 1911 edition of the Confederate Veteran, and the second is from a Union POW who was part of a delegation of Andersonville prisoners that was sent to Washington in 1864, to help try and negotiate the re-instituting of the prisoner exchange cartel.


“Stanton’s words are well known: "We will not exchange able bodied men for skeletons. We do not propose to reinforce the Rebel army by exchanging prisoners."

It is claimed with some weight that the talk after the war of negroes having affected the exchange of prisoners was not founded on fact, since at the time the Northern authorities abandoned the cartel there were no negro prisoners. The difference, however, did affect conditions.

The attitude of Secretary of War Stanton and of General Grant that no exchange so long as the North held the excess of prisoners was a necessity of war is best seen in their own communications on the subject. On August 8, 1864, Grant sent the following telegram to General Butler:

    "On the subject of exchange of prisoners, however, I differ with General Hitchcock. It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to release them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. To commence a system of exchange now, which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those already caught, they amount to no more than so many dead men. At this particular time to release Rebel prisoners would insure Sherman’s defeat and compromise our safety here."

Grant says in his "Memoirs" that the exchanged Confederate was equal on the defensive to three Union soldiers attacking.”

“Andersonville, The Southern Perspective,” by Joe Henry Segars

Google Books, page 76, (This from union Pvt. Edward Wellington Boate)
”…General Winder remarked to us before we quitted Andersonville, that the object of our government in refusing to exchange was that they felt it hard to give soldiers for civilians. "The time," added he, "of thousands of those unhappy men in that stockade is out many months; thousand of others are rendered worthless for soldiers through long confinements, disease and privations – for I will admit that we have not the resources to treat your men as we would wish."

Since I returned to the North, Winder’s words were confirmed, for it was semi-officially stated to me that, "It might look very hard that we refused to exchange; but we could not afford to do so. We would have to give a number of strong; well fed, available soldiers for a number of men broken down from campaigning, disease, and out of the service by the expiration of their term."

A policy like this is the quintessence of inhumanity, a disgrace to the Administration which carried it out, and a blot upon the county. You rulers who make the charge that the rebels intentionally killed of or men, when I can honestly swear they were doing everything in their power to sustain us, do not lay this flattering unction to your souls. You abandoned your brave men in the hour of their cruelest need. They fought for the Union, and you reached no hand out to save the old faithful, loyal, and devoted servants of the country. You may try to shift the blame from your own shoulders, but posterity will saddle the responsibility where it justly belongs.”

****The claim is often made that the official Confederate policy toward black union soldiers was to take no prisoners, or to execute them after capture. While such things did occur, as well as the reverse I might add, the truth is that there was no official policy to that effect. After an incident of this type at Saltville Virginia in 1864, the commanding general in that area, General J.C. Breckinridge, irate over the behavior of some of his troops, reported the incident to Robert E. Lee. Lee wrote the following letter back to Breckinridge…

Robert E. Lee’s dispatch concerning the murders of POW’s at Saltville, VA
(October 2, 1864)

October 21, 1864.
&c., Wytheville:


General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 5th instant, and to repeat the gratification the handsome success at Saltville afforded him, and his satisfaction with the arrange meats and dispositions made by you. He hopes your efforts to promote the efficiency of the troops in your department will be soon attended with the success they deserve. He is much pained to hear of the treatment the negro prisoners are reported to have received, and agrees with you in entirely condemning it. That a general officer should have been guilty of the crime you mention meets with his unqualified reprobation. He directs that if the officer is still in your department you prefer charges against him and bring him to trial. Should he have left your department you will forward the charges to be transmitted to the Department, in order that such action may be taken as the case calls for.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Lieutenant-Colonel and

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