Prisoner Exchange System "The Fate Of Black Soldiers"
By the summer of 1863, the prisoner exchange system that had been negotiated between Union and Confederate military leaders had ceased to function. The primary reason for the breakdown was the Southern policy of not treating captured black soldiers as prisoner of war, but returning them to slavery instead.
The Confederacy was enraged that the Union "stole" their slaves, armed them, and then used them to fight against their former masters. Indeed, black Union soldiers knew that they could expect to be reenslaved if captured, and with that incentive, they generally proved to be stalwart fighters. Once taken prisoner, those who survived the initial rage of their Confederate captors were often made to labor on Rebel fortifications until reclaimed by their owners; some were sold to new owners. The October 15, 1864, edition of the Mobile Advertiser and Register printed a list of 574 captured black Union soldiers who were assigned to hard labor while waiting for their Southern owners to claim them.
Incensed at the treatment of their captured men, the North initially threatened retaliation. "For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war", declared President Abraham Lincoln on July 30, 1863, "a Rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works." That was a "barbarous... inhuman policy", declared Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and after reflection, Lincoln relented. Realizing the retaliation he proposed would punish the innocent and not the guilty, Lincoln declared that "blood cannot restore blood, and government should not act for revenge."
The threat of retaliation did, however, cause the South to draw a distinction between black prisoners who were escaped slaves and those who had been free before the war. The freedmen, along with the white officers of black units- who had previously been threatened with execution- were generally held as prisoners of war.
Fascinating Fact: Black prisoners were most likely to be picked for onerous prison jobs such as latrine duty or burial detail.
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