The Prisoner Exchange Restarted – Black Prisoners Now Included

January 24, 1865 (Tuesday)

The exchange of prisoners had broken down in late 1863 for several reasons. First, it more greatly aided the South than the North, as far as percentages were concerned. Second, the South refused to treat black prisoners as equal to white prisoners. Instead, they often sold them back into slavery or returned them to their owners.

Camp Chase
Camp Chase

But now things were changing. The Confederacy was kicking around the idea of forcing their own slaves into the army, dangling the promise of emancipation over them should they win the war. While the details were still in the development stage, this very idea cast a new light on exchanges. Originally, the South refused to exchange captured black soldiers because they didn’t believe black people were in fact soldiers. But now that they were in the process of making them so, some saw this as an opportunity to restart the prisoner exchange.

And so on this date, Robert Ould, the Confederacy’s exchange commissioner, proposed that “all of them [prisoners] be delivered to you in exchange, man for man and officer for officer, according to grade, for those of yours whom you hold.” No mention was made of color being a deciding factor, though black soldiers were not mentioned specifically.

This would all take time, of course. First those prisoners held in irons and close quarters by both sides were to be freed and held as normal prisoners of war. Then, Ould made an argument to first exchange those held since August of 1863.

Even through this, however, prisoners were being exchanged. There had been 600 or so Confederate prisoners who accompanied Francis Blair, Sr. to Richmond a couple of days past. But as this happened, a discrepancy was noticed. The Rebels were shorting the exchanges by more than 500 prisoners. The matter was turned over to General Grant, who then specifically required the Confederate authorities to acknowledge the “right of the colored troops to be treated as prisoners of war.” If they refused, Grant would once again halt the exchanges.

In fact, this matter would hardly be resolved even by March. On the 4th and again on the 6th of March, General Robert Taylor, Confederate commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana insisted that “negroes captured from the enemy are, under the laws of the Confederate States, considered the property of their respective owners, and are either restored to them, or impressed, under act of Congress (hire being paid their owners for their services), to work for the Government.”

Libby Prison
Libby Prison

Taylor insisted that he had “never been notified of any agreement on the part of the Government of the Confederate States to exchange negroes as prisoners of war.” Taylor then requested that if Union General Gordon Granger (commanding the District of West Florida and South Alabama, to whom he was writing) had any further information concerning such an agreement, that he pass it along.

Finally, by the middle of March, General Granger had contacted Washington and Grant, who had ordered the exchange to resume under the cartel of 1862, which recognized “no distinction of color.” And so the Confederates were to exchange “all officers and men of our Army, whether white or black, whom you have captured and now hold.”

The exchange of black prisoners, it seems, took months to be resolved due to beaurocracy more than anything. The edict banning irons and close quarters, for example, took just as long and for much the same reason. And yet, prisoners were already being exchanged, and would continue to be until the end of the war to the tune of roughly 3,000 each week.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 8, p130, 136, 150, 361-362, 396; The Collapse of the Confederacy edited by Mark Grimsley, Brooks D. Simpson. I really wanted to find out more about this, but the information I could uncover was so vague and almost useless. []


View all posts by