Prisoner Exchange System "The Cartel Resumed"
The breakdown of the prisoner exchange system that had existed between Union and Confederate military leaders early in the Civil War caused tremendous hardship and many deaths among the prison populations of both sides. The great battles of 1864 sent tens of thousands of soldiers into hastily built and overcrowded prisons and brought about a wave of suffering that became an embarrassment for both governments. Disease, starvation, lack of adequate shelter and clothing, and cruel guards were as common at Elmira, NY, and Fort Delaware, DE, as they were at Andersonville, GA, and Salisbury, NC.
Though the North refused to allow regular exchanges to take place, sporadic limited exchanges occurred. An exchange of sick prisoners in April 1864 resulted in the return terribly emaciated Union soldiers to the North. Once photographs of the "living skeletons" were circulated, there was an outcry for revenge that resulted in drastic reductions in the rations issued to Rebel prisoners. There was also a more strident call for the North once again to allow exchanges. The call came not only from the South but also from Northern citizens. Inmates from Southern prisons were freed to carry petitions signed by their fellow prisoners to Washington, where they pleaded for a renewal of exchanges. Lincoln's refusal to allow exchanges hurt him in the 1864 presidential election; local Republican leaders reported that many of their compatriots would "work and vote against the President, because they think sympathy with a few negroes, also captured, is the cause of a refusal" to exchange.
The primary reason for the breakdown of the exchange system was the South's refusal to treat captured black soldiers as prisoners of war. In January 1865, the Confederacy finally gave in on that point and offered to exchange all prisoners, regardless of race. Exchanges began once again and continued for several more months until the ending of the war freed all the captured soldiers.
Fascinating Fact: Lamenting the plight of Union prisoners, a Southern woman wrote: "And yet, what can we do? The Yankees themselves are really more to blame than we, for they won't exchange these prisoners, and our poor, hard-pressed Confederacy has not the means to provide for them, when our own soldiers are starving in the field."
Back to index page