Death of Prisoners


Confederate Veteran, Vol. IV, No. 1, Nashville, Tenn., January, 1896.


John Shirley Ward, Los Angeles, Cal.

Prejudice is said, by one of out modern writers, to be unlike Achilles in that it has no vulnerable part. Prejudice is often transmitted from sire to son and based entirely on hereditary transmission, regardless of the facts of co-temporaneous history. Majority do not like to have the dreams of their lives dispelled, even by the light of truth; they are ready, like the Jews of old, to cry out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" and take the chances of believing a lie.

The treatment of "prisoners" during our Civil War, except so far as it may be necessary to establish the responsibility for the thousands of deaths which occurred in our prisons, will not be discussed in this article. The question as to who was responsible for most of the deaths of prisoners, is specific, and can only be answered by the facts and official actions of both Confederate and Federal Governments at that time, and we propose to treat of the authoritative acts of each government, including such acts of officials as have been endorsed and sanctioned by their government.


The South made no preparation for keeping prisoners. Her idea was to, as far as possible after every battle, exchange the captured, man for man, and officer for officer, thus avoiding the necessity of prison-life with all its attendant horrors. The United States Government, believing the war would be over in ninety days, and knowing, from its population, it could put three or more men in the field to each one of the Confederates, expected, by holding every prisoner, to close the war by having captured the entire Confederate Army. With this idea dominating the Federal Government, the question of exchange of "prisoners" was hardly thought of. This theory was based on the supposition, afterwards verified by the facts, that, with an enlistment of Union soldiers of 2,778,304, after capturing the entire Confederate Army there would still be a United States Army of 2,168,304 soldiers. This was a fine theory, if the 600,000 Confederates had made up their minds to be captured, but their protests against this idea at First and Second Manassas, around Richmond, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Chickamauga, proved that they would not submit to being captured upon that plan.

From the inception of the war, the South thought it better to fight her enemies than to feed them, and she began paroling Union prisoners before any Cartel for their exchange was agreed upon by the respective governments. A proposition to exchange prisoners was first made by the South, and at the time the Cartel was signed by the two governments the South held a large excess of prisoners over the North. The Cartel was dated July 22, 1862, and its terms were to exchange "officer for officer of same rank, and man for man, and to parole all officers and men then left in prison on either side, till they should be regularly exchanged." The South, holding at that time a large preponderance of Northern prisoners, was the loser by such agreement; but she liberated her excess of Northern prisoners and sent them home. By this means the prisons were empty, but, governed by her sense of honor and common humanity, she stood by the Cartel.

Exchange went on with some degree of regularity till July 3, 1863, when it was known that on the next day the entire Confederate Army in Vicksburg would become prisoners, and thus give the North an excess of prisoners; then the following order was issued:


WASHINGTON, D.C., July 3, 1863.

"It is understood that captured officers and men have been paroled and released on the field by others than commanders of opposing armies, and that the sick and wounded in hospitals have been so paroled and released, in order to avoid guarding and removing them, which in many cases would have been impossible Such paroles are in violation of general orders and the stipulations of the Cartel, and are null and void. They are not regarded by the enemy and will not be respected by the United States. Any officer or soldier who gives such a parole will be returned to duty without exchange, and moreover, will be punished for disobedience of orders."

(Signed) E. D. Townsend, A. A. G.

In regard to the above order from the Federal War Department, we deny that the Confederate authorities eve; failed to recognize the validity of paroles given by their sick and wounded when captured in Confederate hospitals by the Federal Army, and demand the proof. If such a thing occurred during the war, it is an easy matter to state time and place. An order from the War Department, while a Cartel for the exchange of prisoners, mutually beneficial to both sides, was still in existence, says that "Prisoners who have been paroled by other than the commander of an army," and that the "sick and wounded in hospitals"; who have been paroled, because, perchance, their captors could not remove them, "shall be disregarded," also that the poor wounded soldier who had done his best for his country, and the officer who led him, accepting such parole, shall be "returned to duty without exchange and, moreover, will he punished for disobedience." If the mere fact of surrender is a stain on a soldier's honor, then the bravest men who ever walked the sulphurous edge of battle in all the armies of the world, bear it.

International law, as laid down by Vattel and other recognized Publicists, have said that soldiers captured in battle and beyond the control of their government and beyond any relief from their government, had the right of self-preservation, and hence the right to give a parole not to fight against their captors till they were regularly exchanged. The laws of civilized warfare recognized the right of the captors to send sick and wounded prisoners to, the rear, even if at the cost of much suffering.

The United States Government, claiming not only to be a civilized nation, but a Christian Nation, assumed to absolve honorable soldiers captured on the field from their paroles given to an enemy recognized as belligerents by the usages of war! Moreover, these officers and soldiers, though they may have been captured when charging the guns of the enemy, and then paroled, were to be "punished for disobedience of orders."

Preposterous the idea that if a brave soldier, who had perhaps fought fifty battles with the stars and stripes in his hand, having always been ready to march upon the enemy at the tap of the drum, if in a great battle his eye should be shot out, or his leg should be taken away by a cannon-ball, that he should be "punished for disobedience of orders," simply because he gave his parole of honor not to fight against his opponents until he might be exchanged! It was Andersonville, or a parole, with the captured. Having done all that bravery and endurance could do, was it not adding insult to their condition to propose to punish them, because they preferred to give the parole of an honorable soldier, to taking their chances in prison life?

Under the order of the War Department, which was dominated by Secretary Stanton, neither officer nor soldier captured on line of battle was allowed the benefit of a parole, and if they accepted it they were dishonored for disobedience and sent back into the ranks to be treated by the laws of war, as traitors if they should be re-captured by the Confederates.

The Confederates captured nearly 6,000 prisoners at Gettysburg, and proceeded to parole them on the field, but when they had given parole to about 2,000, this order of the Dark Ages from Secretary Stanton came to hand, and the other 4,000 had to foot it to Richmond, a weary march of several hundred miles, to undergo the discomforts of Libby or Andersonville. Was this torture needed to make these brave men respect the dignity and power of their government, when each one knew that such an order was a violation of the solemn honor of his government, which it had willingly carried out whenever the South held more prisoners than it did?

After thousands of Union prisoners had been paroled and allowed to go home till they were exchanged, the War Department of the Federal Government modified the Cartel, under which a general exchange of prisoners was agreed on, and limited the exchange to "those held in confinement." This order could only mean, to people of ordinary common sense, that those who had been paroled are safe at home, and we will not allow the Confederates to use them as exchanges for prisoners afterwards captured. Had the Confederates not regarded the honor of these they would have kept them in prison. The Confederates expected that the United States Government would stand by the obligations of her soldiers, many of whom had been captured close by the cannon's mouth. But this order sending them back to the army, though their parole of honor was then in the hands of the Confederate War Department, and, if violated, would bring them to the gallows or other ignominious form of death, by the laws and usages of war.

The 4,000 prisoners captured at Gettysburg were marched back to Richmond under all the hardships of a Government unable to furnish anything, except the scantiest supplies to her own soldiers, and were sent to their necessary doom at Libby or Andersonville, when, according to the Cartel, they should have been sent home to their families, as brave soldiers of the Union, until the number of prisoners on each side justified an exchange.

We do not desire to avoid-any question which gave the Federal Government a plausible excuse for not carrying out the Cartel. One reason given by its authorities for a failure to carry out the conditions of the Cartel, was that the South had violated it in refusing to exchange Negroes equally with white soldiers. Did this refusal to recognize the late slaves of the South as legitimate prisoners of war justify the Federal Government in permitting her brave white soldiers in Southern prisons to die, in order to force the Confederate Government to exchange as prisoners some of their former slaves?

The South's position on this question is best established by a review of the expressed animus of the United States Government at the beginning of the war and its aims.

When Mr. Lincoln was on his way to be inaugurated, and also in his inaugural address, he denied any desire to interfere with slavery in the States, and his Proclamation of War against the South was not because of her acceptance and endorsement of slavery, but because of her effort to dissolve the Union. It was this call to save the Union which thrilled the heart of the North from Maine to the Pacific. If these thousands had been called to blot out Negro slavery there would never have been a Union Army. Even after the war was under full headway and the Federal Army had crossed into Kentucky, there was no evangel in its front, proclaiming the emancipation of the Negro, and there was not a day in the year 1862 when a Kentucky slave-holder, who was raising a regiment to save the Union, could not have sold his own Negroes on the block without molestation. Mr. Lincoln, in his first annual message, asked Congress to pass an Act for the abolition of slavery in the year nineteen hundred, each slave-holder to be compensated for his slaves. This he thought would save the Union. He closed this message with a paragraph that all the loyal of the South "should be compensated for all losses, by acts of the United States, including losses of slaves."

In the first part of this message, Mr. Lincoln was in favor of paying for all slaves emancipated, brought about by the United States Army, in addition to the value of the slaves. Mr. Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation did not offer to every slave the guerdon of freedom, as he excepted thirteen counties in western Louisiana, the City of New Orleans, all of West Virginia, and several counties in old Virginia. The fact that he did not offer freedom to the slaves in this territory is proof conclusive that any man or set of men who were enlisted in the War for the Union had the legal as well as the moral right to hold their slaves. To every mind capable of a logical deduction of this, it meant at that time the moral obligation of slavery depended on the loyalty of the owner to the Union. 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.

It follows, therefore, at the time of making the Cartel neither Congress nor Mr. Lincoln had made any movement looking to the emancipation of the slaves, and every reasonable mind must conclude that the Negro soldier, was under the law was yet a slave, was used as a mere subterfuge in order to prevent all exchanges. This may have been comforting to the captured Negroes, but it peopled the graveyards of the South with thousands of the North's best white soldiers. If the widows of those who died at Andersonville, or the children of those who died in Libby, can extract any comfort from their death, from the fact that they died as martyrs to preserve the military equality of the Negro with the white soldier, then a Pantheon should be erected to protect their remains when they die, as specimens of the loftiest self-abnegation the world has ever known.

General Butler, while Commissioner for exchange of prisoners, an intense hater of the South. knowing there were only a few hundred Negro soldiers who were prisoners, and knowing they were accustomed to a Southern climate, and the "hog and hominy" diet of the Southern soldier, insisted on the United States Government waiving their exchange in order to release thousands of her bravest white soldiers, leaving the question of the status of the Negro soldier to be settled in the future. We ask, was it better that ten white soldiers should die in prison the n one Negro should fail to be exchanged?

We propose to show who was to blame for failure to exchange prisoners, and consequently who is responsible for the thousands of graves under the pines of Georgia.

1st. The South was opposed to all prisons—preferring to exchange all prisoners on the field.

2nd. The South first proposed to enter into a Cartel for exchange of prisoners, and at a time when she had thousands more prisoners than were held by the North.

3rd. She carried out this Cartel faithfully—delivering thousands of prisoners, on their parole, because the North did not have prisoners to exchange for them.

4th. The North, then having many of her paroled prisoners at home, and on the eve of the surrender of Vicksburg, knowing the Confederates to be captured there the nett day would give her a preponderance of prisoners an order was issued by Secretary Stanton, disallowing and revoking all paroles by other than the commander of an army, of either sick, well or wounded, ordering them back into the ranks to be punished: for disobedience of orders.

5th. The North, after getting en excess of prisoners on hand, proposed to continue the exchange, confining it to prisoners then in confinement, thus attempting to evade an honest compliance with the Cartel by declining to exchange paroled prisoners for those of the Confederates then in their prisons.

6th. The South humiliated herself by parading before the United States Government the unhappy condition of Northern prisoners and which she was powerless to mitigate.

7th. The South, after confessing her inability to furnish Northern prisoners with proper food and medicine, and not wishing them to die in prison submitted to Major-General Hitchcock, the Federal Agent for exchange, the following proposition:


RICHM0ND, VA., January 24, 1864.

Sir: In view of the present difficulties attending the exchange and release of prisoners, I propose that all such on each side be attended by a proper number of their own surgeons, who, under rules to be established, shall be permitted to take charge of their health and comfort. I also propose that these surgeons shall act as Commissaries with power to distribute such contributions of money, food, clothing and medicine as may be forwarded for the relief of prisoners. I further propose that these surgeons be selected by their own governments, and that they shall have full liberty at any and all times, through their agents of exchange, to make reports, not only of their acts, but of any matters relating to the welfare of prisoners.



Confederate Commissioner of Exchange.

When Judge Ould offered the United States Government the right to send by her own surgeons and medicines for Union prisoners, the medica1 supplies in the South had long been exhausted.

Quinine was then worth in the South $60.00 per ounce, while it was worth only $5.00 in New York. As thousands of Union prisoners died from malarial diseases incident to the Southern climate, who might have been saved with the proper medicines, does not the refusal to furnish such medicine fix the responsibility of their deaths upon the United States Government?

This broad Christian offer was never noticed by the Federal Government. Finding that the United States Government paid no attention to this Christian proposition, then the Confederate Government ordered Judge Ould to propose to the United States Government to furnish, without equivalents, 15,000 of their sick ~nd wounded at the mouth of the Savannah [liver as soon as they would furnish transportation. This offer was made early in August, 1864, but not a vessel reached the mouth of the river to receive these prisoners till late in the following December, thus allowing death to reap its greatest victories during the months of September, October and November. The South turned over to the North on the arrival of the first ship 13,000 sick and wounded, and many strong, healthy men, receiving only 3,000 sick soldiers in lieu thereof.

Prompt acceptance of this humane proposition would have returned to their country and families thousands of those who now sleep under the pines around Andersonville.

8th. The South, moved by the sufferings of Union prisoners, and being utterly without medicine, proposed to the Federal authorities to buy medicines from them, paying in gold, cotton or tobacco, at even two or three prices for the same, for the Union prisoners, pledging the honor of the South not to use one ounce of it for Southern soldiers. This was declined or never accepted. Was it Christian to refuse to sell medicine to their own men who were dying for the want of it? If it was, the Sermon on the Mount ought to be relegated to the land of fable.

9th. We now come to the final reason why it was best that Union prisoners should die in prison, rather than to be released to their homes. It is the argument of military necessity. It was a question of the few dying for the many.

General Grant had said in his dispatch to General Butler, August 18, 1864:

"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. At this particular time, to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman's defeat, and would compromise our safety here."

Did any one ever think that if the 95,000 Confederate prisoners then in Northern prisons had been released, it also released 95,000 Union prisoners?

If General Grant regarded each Northern soldier equal on the field to each Southern soldier, what difference would this exchange have made in the relative numbers of the two armies? The truth is, General Grant never hoped for success except in overwhelming numbers. As a General he was wise, prudent and brave, and knew that the greater millstone must ultimately wear away the lesser.

Military necessity. The refusal to exchange prisoners and the enlistment of Negroes were a military necessity, and this won the fight.

The battle of Gettysburg ended on July 3, 1863. On the next day, General Lee, finding himself encumbered by many thousands of prisoners, addressed General Meade, proposing to exchange them. To this note General Meade replied by telegram to Major-General Halleck:

"A proposition made by General Lee, under flag of truce, to exchange prisoners was declined by me."



Gettysburg, July 4,10 p.m.

Was this not the day of all the days in the year, when a General, who, for three days, on inaccessible heights, with 95,000 men, had hardly held at bay an army of 65,000, should, knowing his inability to prevent General Lee marching these prisoners to Libby or Andersonville, have gladly accepted an opportunity to exchange them on the field, and thus save them from the long tramp and prison life?

In October, 1864, General Lee wrote to General Grant as follows: "To alleviate the sufferings of our soldiers, I propose the exchange of prisoners of war taken by the armies operating in Virginia man for man, upon the basis established by the Cartel."

On the next day General Grant replied as follows: "I could not of right accept your proposition further than to exchange prisoners captured within the last three days, and who have not yet been delivered to the commanding General of prisoners. Among those lost by the armies around Richmond were a number of colored troops. Before further negotiations can be had upon the subject, I would ask if vou propose to exchange these men the same as white soldiers?" General Lee said, in rejoinder: "Deserters from our service, and Negroes belonging to our citizens, are not considered as subjects of exchange."

Jefferson Davis in 1864, seeing the distress and death among the Union prisoners, which he had no power to avert, sent a commission of Union officers from Andersonville to Washington to present their situation to Mr. Lincoln and insist on an immediate exchange, but they failed to get an audience with Mr. Lincoln, it is believed by the influence of Mr. Stanton, and no satisfactory results were obtained. All the reasons heretofore given are subsidiary and lead up to the one reason in the mind of the United States Government against the exchange of prisoners.

It was set forth in General Grant's reply of April 1, 1864, in which he forbade General Butler, "To take any step by which any able-bodied man should be exchanged till further orders from him."

Taken in connection with his order to General Butler heretofore referred to, it was the enforcement of the idea of military necessity that last plea of despots all over the world. Here was the wisdom and cunning of a Bismarck allied to the utter disregard of human life or suffering which characterized many of the Generals of the Dark Ages. Here was the policy of the Spanish Inquisition to murder the innocent rather than give equal advantage to the enemy.

Mr. Lincoln, in his great heart, was ready to do justice to friend and foe alike, but back of him stood Phillip II of Spain in the person of Stanton who said by every act, "It is better to have every Union soldier die in prison than to turn loose an equal number of Confederate prisoners."

This military necessity grew out of the fact that, whereas the South had enlisted in her armies 600,000 soldiers, the North had only 2,778,304 soldiers on her rolls.

Search the annals of warfare from the days of Xenophon down to this, and there cannot be found one instance where an army numerically four times as strong as its enemy has deliberately allowed its own soldiers to die in prison rather than liberate an equal number of the captured.

Without any regard to the "treatment of prisoners" by either side during the war, and it was bad enough on both sides, we ask every sane, thinking man to fix the responsibility for deaths occurring in prison where it belongs. If the South held her captives in order to persecute and torture, she ought to be anathematized by the Nations, but if the South was always ready to live up and parole her captives, and the Union Government was not willing to receive them, because every Rebel released meant a recruit to the Southern Army, then history must affix on the United States Government its lasting condemnation.


Up ] Georgia Troops ] Obit Robert E. Lee Richmond ] General Jackson Funeral ] Hollywood Cem. Richmond, Va. ] Capt ] [ Death of Prisoners ] CSA Indian Records ] THE INDIAN TERRITORY 1861 to 1865 ] Sherman's Orders ] Life in a Civil War Camp ] Richmond Hospitals ] WTBS Concentration Camps ] CSA  Obits ] obtain records ] Ref. & Lookups ] The Madisonian ] Cemeteries ] Ft. Delaware ] Sherman's Scheme ] Clements Letter ] Prisons ] CSA Reunions ] Confederate Veteran Magazine ] Henry Wirz Innocent Man Executed ]

The Military page Coordinators are   Margie Glover-Daniels and Chuck Pierce  and Gloria Holback 

  This site  was last updated 06/10/2004 09:32:38 AM CDT

The page is part of The Georgia GenWeb