April 17, 1864 (Sunday)
Over the summer of 1863, the Federal victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg included many thousands of captured Confederates. Previously in the war, these prisoners would have been paroled on the spot, the captives vowing not to take up arms against their enemies until officially “exchanged,” when the Southern army released a like number of Northern prisoners. But since the summer, things were changing. No longer were captured soldiers immediately released. They were, instead, taken to prison camps and held there until exchanged.
This caused prisons on both sides to quickly become overcrowded and laden with miserable conditions. This process became even more bogged down when confusion reigned over the wording of just who was responsible for the exchanges. Traditionally, when the two armies in the field would parole their captives, it was up to the commanders of those armies. Now that they were held in prisons, it was much less defined.
One of the major sticking points was the refusal of the Confederate government to recognize black soldiers are actual soldiers. Rather than treat them as prisoners of war, Richmond authorized its commanding officers to sell back into slavery or even execute captured black soldiers. Davis himself personally supported the idea of executing white officers in command of black troops.
Additionally, as General Ulysses S. Grant discovered, many of the Rebels he captured at the battle of Chattanooga were the same Rebels he captured at Vicksburg. Richmond tried to argue that it was a clerical error, but Grant wasn’t so sure. This, for Grant, was the final straw, and on this date, he put an end to paroles and exchanges for the foreseeable future.
“Until there is released to us an equal number of officers and men as were captured and paroles at Vicksburg and Port Hudson,” wrote Grant to Benjamin Butler, who had been placed in charge of exchanges, “not another Confederate prisoner of war will be paroles or exchanged.” Grant wanted proof that this was actually an honest mistake.
Even if the Confederates could prove that, there was yet another point of contention. “No distinction whatever will be made in the exchange between white and colored prisoners,” Grant continued, “the only question being, were they, at the time of their capture, in the military service of the United States. If they were, the same terms as to treatment while prisoners and conditions of release and exchange must be exacted and had, in the case of colored soldiers as in the case of white soldiers.”
Grant closed by insisting that the Confederates acquiesce to both. If they did not, their silent refusal would “be regarded a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and will be so treated by us.”
The following day, Grant again wrote to Butler, this time explaining further reasons. “It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them,” Grant allowed, “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 and active soldiers 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.”
Many would remember these words by Grant as the only reason he halted exchanges, but as has been shown, it was much more complex than simple arithmetic.
Interestingly enough, also on this date, Confederate General John Winder, in command of Southern prisons, ordered Henry Wirz, in command of Andersonville Prison in Georgia to establish the “dead line,” a three-foot high railing to be placed fifteen feet away from the stockade. Any prisoner that crossed the dead line was to be shot.
As of April 1864, Andersonville Prison was already an abomination. Had the prison closed its doors on this day (and not have churned on till almost the end of the war), it would still hold the macabre title of deadliest Civil War prison, already claiming the lives of 8,000 Federal soldiers. At the time when Grant ended the exchanges, there were 30,000 prisoners inside its wooden walls.
Still, now the choice was up to Richmond. If they would agree to release a like number of Federal prisoners as were “erroneously” paroled after Vicksburg and Port Hudson, as well as consider black soldiers nondifferent from white soldiers, the exchange system would be restarted. And as history shows, the Confederate government refused to do either.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 7, p62-63, 606-607; Papers by Ulysses S. Grant; Autobiography by Benjamin Butler; Andersonville, Civil War Prison by Robert Scott Davis. [↩]