‘I Regret to Inform You, an Exchange of Prisoners Impossible’

September 11, 1864 (Sunday)

This was not going well at all for John Bell Hood. In the campaign leading up to and including the fall of Richmond, the Confederates had lost upwards of 13,000 missing or captured. Many of these men were now prisoners of war. Likewise, the Rebels had captured many Federals, and Hood was of the mind to propose an exchange.

Confederate prisoners from Atlanta at Chattanooga.
Confederate prisoners from Atlanta at Chattanooga.

Hood’s proposal was simple, with “the exchange to be made man for man.” He suggested that both he and General Sherman send staff officers to work out the details.

Initially, Sherman agreed, but feared “most have already gone North” to Union prisoner camps. Nevertheless, he promised to figure out how many were still around, and to send an officer to the town of Rough and Ready to talk thinks over with Hood’s.

The next day, Sherman wrote Chief of Staff Henry Halleck in Washington, telling him about the exchange. “I have about 2,000 on hand, and will exchange if he will make a fair deal.” One of the stipulations was that Hood also make some sort of arrangements “for the exodus of citizens” from Atlanta. “I am not willing to have Atlanta encumbered by the families of our enemies,” wrote Sherman. “I want it a pure Gibraltar, and will have it so by the 1st of October.”

To Hood, Sherman explained further. On hand, he had “28 officers and 782 enlisted men, and en route for Chattanooga 93 officers and 907 men, making 1,810 on hand that I will exchange for a like number of my own men, captured by you in this campaign, who belong to regiments with me and who can resume their places at once, as I take it for grantd you will do the same by yours.”

This seemed obvious, but it had to be made clear. Some regiments in Sherman’s forces had already had their terms of service expire. If Hood exchanged a prisoner from such a regiment, he was no good at all to Sherman, and vise versa. So the exchange would only be between prisoners from regiments who would still be able to fight.

In the South, all men of legal age were considered fit for duty and thus could be used by Sherman in the exchange. As Sherman went on to explain, he didn’t seem to be offering Hood a creme of the Confederate crop.

“We found in Atlanta about a thousand of these fellows [men of age, though not officially soldiers] and I am satisfied they are fit subjects for exchange, and if you will release an equal number of our poor fellows at Anderson[ville] I will gather these together and send them as prisoners. They seem to have been detailed for railroad and shop duty, and I do not ask for them an equal number of my trained soldiers, but will take men belonging to any part of the U.S. Army subject to your control.”

Sherman also suggested that since he had as prisoners so very many Confederate deserters and stragglers that they could exchange those as well – one Confederate deserter for one Union deserter. Almost in passing, he mentioned that Hood should find a place where Sherman could deliver “the citizens, male and female, of Atlanta who elect to go South.”

This was an incredibly loaded offer. Unlike the Union army, the Confederate army had been hemoraging soldiers and a good many of them had been picked up by Sherman’s cavalry. A fair exchange based upon sherkers and deserters simply couldn’t happen.

Though Hood should have realized this, on the 9th he wrote to Richmond: “General Sherman agrees to exchange all prisoners on hand – some 1,500 or 2,000.” But two days later, on this date, Hood laid it all out. The staff officers had met and things did not go well.

It was during that meeting that Sherman’s message detailing the stipulations of the exchange was received by Hood. “I regret to inform you,” wrote Hood to Sherman, “an exchange of prisoners impossible.” And Hood went on to explain why.

“Your refusal to receive in exchange your soldiers belonging to regiments whose times are out and who have been discharged discloses a fixed purpose on the part of your Government to doom to hopeless captivity those prisoners whose terms of service have expired or will soon expire.” This was something that Hood could not sanction.

He argued that the terms of service set forward by the Federal government had no bearing at all on what the Confederate government did. And then he got indignent:

“Your avowal that this class of your soldiers will not be exchanged, but will be rewarded by the sufferings and privatiosn incident to military imprisonment, because their boldness and courage subjected them to capture, althought their term of service had nearly expired, is deeply regretted by me, as I share the earnest desire of my Government to release from prolonged confinement the large number of prisoners held by both parties.”

They were obviously at an impass, but the next day, Sherman replied, giving Hood an out, if he chose to take it. He allowed that Hood couldn’t possibly know which prisoners were from regiments with expired terms. In that light, he was willing to accept the last 2,000 taken prisoner. To Hood’s sass, Sherman replied with a bit of his own.

“I think I understand the laws of civilized nations and ‘customs of war,’ but if at a loss at any time I know where to seek for information to refresh my memory. If you will give our prisoners at Anderson[ville] a little more elbow room and liberty to make out of the abundant timber shelters for themselves, as also a fair allowance of food to enable them to live in health, they will ask nothing more until such time as we will provide for them.”

An impasse there may have been, but even through the snark, there seemed to be some hope for at least 2,000 prisoners on each side. There was still, however, the question of Atlanta’s citizenry. This would soon be answered.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 7, p784, 791-792, 797, 799. []
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‘I Regret to Inform You, an Exchange of Prisoners Impossible’ by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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