What was a prisoner exchange during the Civil War?

What was a prisoner exchange during the Civil War?

Returned prisoners of war exchanging their rags for new clothing, drawn by William Waud

Early in the war a prison exchange system was developed by agreement between the two sides. It called for equal exchanges of all soldiers captured based on rank. Once exchanged, these soldiers could return to their units. The balance remaining after equal exchanges were to be paroled, and not to take up arms again until they were formally exchanged.

On July 22, 1862, Union Maj Gen John A Dix (pictured) and Confederate Major General Daniel Harvey Hill concluded an agreement for the general exchange of prisoners between the Union and Confederate armies. A scale of equivalents was developed wherein an officer might be exchanged for a certain number of enlisted men, or might entail a parole in which no military capacity was allowed until officially exchanged.

Officers were exchanged for more soldiers than others. The operation of the system was:

Soldiers of equivalent ranks would be exchanged on a one to one value,

Corporals and sergeants were worth two privates,

Lieutenants were worth four privates,

A captain was worth six privates,

A major was worth eight privates,

A lieutenant colonel was worth 10 privates,

A colonel was worth 15 privates,

A brigadier general was worth 20 privates,

A major general was worth 40 privates, and

A commanding general was worth 60 privates.

The Exchange System worked well in 1862 but there were irregularities on both sides, in which paroled men nevertheless rejoined their units. Edwin Stanton wanted to suspend the exchanges because he felt that southern soldiers weren’t following the rules of the parole. Secretary Stanton saw a potential for Union soldiers to abuse the parole system. The Confederates had begun paroling a number of Western prisoners unilaterally, including some two thousand taken at the April 1862 battle of Shiloh. The violations continued with the parolees from Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

Cessation of the Cartel and Its Implications

In September of 1862, President Lincoln called for the enlistment of black soldiers into the Union Armies as part of the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. In December 1862, President Davis responded by issuing a proclamation that neither captured black soldiers nor their white officers would be subject to exchange. That the black soldiers were fugitive slaves and subject to capital punishment.

In January 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation became official and the United States began the active recruitment of black soldiers. Jefferson Davis was incensed by this, and threatened severe actions. President Davis made an official proclamation that black POWs were fugitive slaves. In May 1863, the Confederate Congress passed a joint resolution that formalized Davis’ proclamation that black soldiers taken prisoner would not be exchanged.

 “That all commissioned officers in the command of said Benjamin F. Butler be declared not entitled to be considered as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare but as robbers and criminals deserving death, and that they and each of them be whenever captured reserved for execution.” Find the proclamation here: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/pow.htm 

Lincoln’s response was to commission The Lieber Code, General Order 100, issued in April 1863. This was in essence the first major revision of the 1806 Articles of War. One of its articles stipulated that the United States government expected all prisoners to be treated equally, regardless of color.

Franz Lieber was a German-American legal scholar. He had fought with the Prussian Army and been wounded at Waterloo. He later moved and taught for 20 years in South Carolina, where he was repulsed by slavery. In 1861 he became professor of law at Columbia University in NYC. Two of his sons fought for the Union, a third fought for the Confederacy and was killed in action. Halleck, a lawyer with an interest in International Law, consulted Lieber regarding ethical dilemmas early on and invited him, along with Stanton, to undertake this project.

Prisoners at Camp Morton, c. 1863.jpg
Prisoners at Camp Morton, c. 1863

The Lieber Code expressly forbade giving “no quarter” to the enemy (i.e. killing prisoners of war), except in such cases when the survival of the unit that held these prisoners was threatened. It forbade the use of poisons, stating that use of such puts any force who uses them entirely outside the pale of the civilized nations and peoples; it forbade the use of torture to extract confessions or information; it described the rights and duties of prisoners of war and of capturing forces. Most of its ideas were incorporated into the Hague Convention of 1907, and are the fundamental rules of war to this day.

Several prisoners from the 54th Massachusetts were not exchanged with the rest of the white soldiers who participated in the assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863. 

It was Lincoln, the astute politician, who realized it would be unpopular to suspend exchanges for the reasons Stanton favored, but if applied to the USCT it would be better accepted. 


On July 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued General Order 252, which effectively suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel until the Confederate forces agreed to treat black prisoners the same as white prisoners. 

Large scale prisoner exchanges ceased by August 1863, resulting in a dramatic increase in the prison populations on both sides. Neither side was prepared for this sudden responsibility. The inhumane consequences on both sides are well known. 

The fact is that it was official CSA policy to kill all black POWs. Secretary of War James Seddon responded to PGT Beauregard’s request for the official policy as to how to handle his black POWs. Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, in a November 30, 1862, letter to General P. G. T. Beauregard, outlined a policy of executing captured black soldiers as criminals guilty of breaking slave insurrection laws. You can find this brief letter here: http://historymaking.org/textbook/items/show/97 

Fort Pillow occurred on April 12, 1864. The Congressional Investigation into the battle concluded that the massacre was consistent with official CSA policy. The next month, the Confederacy in May 1864 passed a law stating that black U.S. soldiers captured while fighting against the Confederacy would be turned over to the state, where the captured would be tried, according to state laws.

The exchange system had collapsed in late 1863 because of the failure of Confederate prisoners (and their government) to observe paroles, most notably those issued to the surrendered garrison of Vicksburg. When Union soldiers captured some of those unexchanged soldiers at Chattanooga, Stanton decided that something had to be done. Making matters worse, the Confederacy refused to exchange black Union soldiers. Stories that Confederate soldiers murdered black captives carried more impact after Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men stormed Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, and killed black soldiers who were attempting to surrender. 

Did Grant End the Exchanges?

The photographic history of the Civil War - thousands of scenes photographed 1861-65, with text by many special authorities (1911) (14760407854).jpg
prisoners at evening roll-call for dinner in the winter of 1864. The sergeants in front of the Ions line of prisoners are calling the roll. There were both Federal and Confederate sergeants. Elmira prison contained from the time of its establishment several thousand Confederate prisoners. The barracks in the foreground had been completed only a few days when this picture was made, and up to that time a large number of prisoners had occupied tents. The leaves are gone from the trees, and it is obvious that the winter frosts have set in. The tents were unheated. and the inmates suffered severely from the cold. The sentry in the foreground is not paying strict attention to the prison.

It is taught in most history books that the exchange system ended during the Overland Campaign. This quote is usually presented as proof that General Grant ended the system:

“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 Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.” – General Ulysses S. Grant, August 18, 1864

Photograph of Grant in uniform leaning on a post in front of a tent

The myth is that Grant eschewed the exchanges to prevent the Southern armies to regain its captured men, thus favoring the Union side. Supposedly he did it because of the callous arithmetic of the war – calculating that by stopping exchanges the Union armies could simply outlast the Confederates. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel in retaliation for the Confederacy’s refusal to exchange black soldiers captured in the summer of 1863. 

During the Summer of 1864 Grant pointed out that the refusal to exchange prisoners, however harsh it might seem, drained the Confederacy of much needed manpower; exchanged Confederates would return to the ranks to kill more Yankees, complicating calculations based on the supposed humanity of exchanges. As you can see, Grant wrote this almost 1 year after the exchanges had stopped. It is fascinating that this is the quote that appears on the Wirz monument, trying to shift blame for Andersonville onto Grant (See photo).

In the late summer of 1864, a year after the Dix-Hill Cartel was suspended, Confederate officials approached Union General Benjamin Butler about resuming the cartel and exchanges, including black prisoners. Butler, the Union Commissioner of Exchange, contacted Grant for guidance on the issue. Grant responded on August 18, 1864 with this statement. In their conversation, Grant informed Butler that he approved an equal exchange of soldier for soldier, but did not approve a full resumption of the Dix-Hill Cartel. His issue was with the cartel’s stipulation that the balance after equal exchanges was to be paroled and sent home to await formal exchange. By August 1864, Confederate prisoners far outnumbered Union prisoners, so a resumption of the cartel would release thousands more Confederates. Grant also felt that once released, Confederate prisoners would likely violate their paroles and rejoin their units. Many of the Union prisoners, on the other hand, had already fulfilled their enlistments and would likely go home

An agreement for resuming prisoner exchanges would not be reached until the winter of 1864-1865. Had Confederate authorities agreed to exchange black soldiers, however, the exchanges would have been resumed; and in January 1865 Confederate authorities agreed it was best to exchange “all” prisoners, regardless of color. The reality is that Grant did approve a prisoner for prisoner exchange that did in fact occur. The Lost Cause myths seem to be never ending.

What was a prisoner exchange during the Civil War? written by Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

US Civil War

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein – Rebellion Research

What was a prisoner exchange during the Civil War?