As in all wars, the victors tend to write the history, and Confederate prisons have become notorious for a litany of horrors. But the simple truth is that neither side could fully claim the moral high ground.
The June 19, 1861, editorial in the Charleston Mercury newspaper warned: “War is bloody reality, not butterfly sporting. The sooner men understand this the better.” During the four-year course of the Civil War, the entire country—North and South—would come to the same grim realization. There were seemingly endless lists of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in battle or dead of disease. Thousands more, both Union and Confederate, languished in prisoner of war camps, enduring hardships that previously it had been inconceivable for civilized people to inflict upon one another.
From 1861 to 1865, more than 150 prison camps were established by the Union and Confederate governments. Estimates of the total numbers of prisoners taken and deaths that occurred in captivity vary widely, and Confederate records are incomplete. However, the Official Records of the war cites a total of 347,000 men—220,000 Confederate and 127,000 Union—who endured the privations of being prisoners of war. These privations ranged from inadequate shelter and clothing, poor hygiene, and the monotonous passage of time to outright starvation, intentional cruelty, harsh summary justice, swarming vermin, and rampaging disease. More than 49,000 prisoners died in captivity, at least 26,440 Confederate and 22,580 Union, an overall mortality rate of 14 percent. Twelve percent of Confederate prisoners and 18 percent of Union captives never returned from incarceration.
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As in all wars, the victors tend to write the history, and Confederate prisons have become notorious for a litany of horrors. But the simple truth is that neither side could fully claim the moral high ground. Neither side was prepared to accommodate the large numbers of prisoners taken during the war, which many believed would be of short duration but which dragged on for four years of incredible misery.
The Burden of Prisoners of War
From the outset, the South suffered shortages of basic commodities such as medicines, foodstuffs, and textiles due to the strangling Union blockade that stretched from the major ports of the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf coast of Texas. The war on land was fought largely in the South, soaking rich farmland with blood. Thousands of Southern farmers left home to serve in the Confederate Army, and few able-bodied men remained behind to tend whatever crops could be produced in straitened circumstances.
With threadbare Confederate soldiers serving in the field without shoes, subsisting on a handful of cornmeal or a few peanuts, the Southern government faced a virtually insurmountable task to provide adequately for thousands of Union prisoners. Nevertheless, early in the war the Confederate Congress resolved that the rations furnished prisoners of war “shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy.” It sounded good on paper.
In the North, more plentiful food supplies, the availability of medical care, and the relative abundance of resources should have weighed positively on the treatment of prisoners. In too many instances, however, conditions were scarcely better than the worst of the prisons in the South. Administrative indifference, ineptitude, and corruption combined with a desire to mete out the same treatment to Confederate prisoners that was rumored to exist in Southern prisons. Camp Douglas in Chicago and Elmira in upstate New York—prosperous communities both—left horrible legacies of their own.
The burden of feeding and sheltering prisoners steadily increased as the war progressed. Early in the conflict, a system of parole and exchange was utilized extensively, and thousands of soldiers were returned to their units. Patterned after a similar system that had seen widespread use in Europe, officers of equal rank were exchanged one for another, while enlisted men were exchanged on a number-by-number basis. When an even exchange was not immediately possible, officers were exchanged for a certain number of enlisted men, such as one captain for six enlisted soldiers. Parole was sometimes extended to prisoners when a timely exchange was not expected. Parole often took place within 10 days of capture, and the system worked reasonably well for a while as prisoners were returned to their respective sides and rejoined the ranks when notified that a proper exchange had occurred. At times parolees went home to await the official exchange; however, these individuals were often reluctant to return to service. Therefore, paroled prisoners were frequently kept near their units until word of an exchange was received.
The Dix-Hill Cartel
Over time, the system became increasingly untenable due to the sheer weight of numbers. With the surrender of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862, nearly 12,400 Confederate prisoners were captured by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces. The Confederate commander at Fort Donelson, Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, a personal friend of Grant’s, was imprisoned in Boston until he was exchanged. Another 7,000 captured soldiers were sent to the infamous Camp Douglas; the rest were scattered throughout other prisons in the North.
On July 22, 1862, the Confederate and Union governments agreed to a formalized program of exchange known as the Dix-Hill Cartel, named for its principal negotiators, Union Maj. Gen. John A. Dix and Confederate Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill. Prior attempts to formalize exchange protocol had been complicated by several factors. Since the North viewed the conflict as a civil insurrection rather than a war between two sovereign nations, Abraham Lincoln wanted to avoid any action that might legitimize the Confederate government. A formal agreement to exchange prisoners, in the eyes of many observers, particularly those in foreign governments, might do just that.
Fragile from the beginning, the Dix-Hill Cartel survived with limited interruption for only five months. On December 28, 1862, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton suspended the exchange of commissioned officers in response to a proclamation by Confederate President Jefferson Davis that labeled Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the forces occupying New Orleans, “a felon deserving of capital punishment.” The Davis proclamation followed Butler’s execution of William B. Mumford, a civilian resident of New Orleans who reportedly had pulled down the U.S. flag that had been raised above the city’s former mint and torn the banner to shreds. A harmless act of vandalism was raised to a fatal act of treason.
By the spring of 1863, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, general-in-chief of the Union Armies, halted all major exchanges. This action was in response to Confederate assertions that Southern soldiers captured by Grant at Vicksburg and subsequently paroled would be considered unilaterally exchanged. A May 1, 1863, joint resolution of the Confederate Congress rendered the decision to continue the exchange program absurd. The resolution asserted that captured African American soldiers who had once been slaves would be treated as runaways rather than soldiers and would be returned to their former owners if possible. It further threatened that “every white person being a commissioned officer who shall command Negroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall if captured be put to death or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the Court.”
Grant’s War of Attrition
By then, the protracted war had significantly drained Southern manpower, and the exchange of prisoners was the primary method by which the Confederates replenished the depleted ranks of their field armies. An effort to revive a formal exchange system fell apart after representatives of the U.S. government refused to receive Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in Washington, D.C., under a flag of truce. Sporadic prisoner exchanges did continue as Butler negotiated with the Confederates under the watchful eye of Secretary Stanton. Butler and Confederate exchange agent Robert Ould arranged the transfer of large numbers of prisoners in the autumn of 1864, particularly those who had been held for the longest time or were in poor health and deemed unfit for further duty. Significant exchanges took place at Savannah and Charleston.
The relentless Grant recognized the fact that continued prisoner exchanges would actually prolong the war. Grant believed that the South could be subdued most efficiently through attrition, as evidenced by his continuation of the Army of the Potomac’s offensive in Virginia in the spring of 1864 despite horrendous casualties. In April of that year, Grant halted exchanges on the basis of the Vicksburg disagreement and the proposed mistreatment of black prisoners by the Confederates. Grant stated his pragmatic perspective in an August 18, 1864, dispatch to Butler, noting: “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 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.”