Late War Prisoner Exchange Policy
The following article concerning the late war prisoner exchange cartel was written by Capt. Armand L. Derosset of Wilmington, North Carolina. It appeared on page 455 of the October 1907 issue of Confederate Veteran.
The article raises questions regarding Northern policy – and humanity – toward their own soldiers suffering and perishing in Southern prison camps late in the war. Northern raids into north Florida, Georgia and South Carolina decimated food production which left little for prisoners. Medicines intended for civilians and soldiers (and prisoners) were “contraband” and taken from captured blockade runners. Northern troops from occupied Key West landed at Tampa and drove inland to disrupt cattle production, carrying off beef that was intended for Andersonville prisoners and guards.
Noteworthy is the avoidance of Andersonville by Sherman’s 65,000-man army in late 1864 when prisoners were starving there. Those prisoners could (and should) have been liberated, fed and taken to waiting hospital ships on the Georgia coast. They were not.
Later, Sherman’s right wing passed close to the stockade at Florence, South Carolina in early 1865 and once again ignored the many starving prisoners in blue held there. On February 22, 1865, Northern troops confronted the entrenched Major-General Robert F. Hoke’s division at Forks Road in Wilmington. There Hoke sent a message to the enemy commander requesting he accept 10,000 starving and sick Northern prisoners in an exchange. His offer was initially turned down and nearly a month passed before Northern authorities approved the exchange. How many Northern prisoners died before a humane decision was rendered?
As noted below, it was Grant’s decision to refuse to accept Northern prisoners, many of whom he condemned to death in crowded prison camps with poor sanitation, little food and no medicine.
Capt. Derosset writes in the Confederate Veteran:
“The officials in the Confederate States in 1863-64 were greatly hampered by the necessity of feeding the large number of federal prisoners, some 270,000, which were distributed throughout the South. The enemy had in prison at various points in the North some 220,000 of our men.
Through correspondence and treaty and interview a conference between the Confederate States and the United States was arranged at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Judge Robert Ould of Richmond was the commissioner of exchange of Southern prisoners and the conference was held aboard a steamer. Present were Lincoln, his Secretary of War Stanton, and Gen. Grant, and perhaps others on one side – Judge Ould and perhaps one or more gentlemen represented the South.
The information that now follows was given to me by Judge Ould in the parlor of a well-known Richmond clubhouse immediately after his return from Hampton Roads. Also present in the clubhouse was Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge and Secretary of the Treasury Mr. Seddon, both of whom I knew well.
The Judge told me in substance that he opened the conference with Mr. Lincoln by representing to him the difficulty the South had in supplying the prisoners with food and medicine, and then tendered to the US authorities the whole 270,000 prisoners in return of the 220,000 Southern men he held as prisoners. Mr. Lincoln seemed pleased with the proposition and was favorably inclined to accept, but was met with a preemptory and flat refusal from Grant. “Well, General,” said Lincoln, “the offer seems reasonable but let us hear your objections.”
Grant replied that “if we get back those 270,000 men not a single one of them will return to the army; but if you return those 220,000 Southerners, every one of them will go back to the ranks and the war will have to be fought all over again.”
This proposition by Mr. Ould being rejected, he then proposed that the US government send South physicians, medicine and food for their men in prison under proper guarantees. This was rejected. He then tendered Lincoln 40,000 of the sick Northern prisoners, which was accepted, and in compliance therewith 10,000 men, the sickest of them all, were delivered to US transports at Savannah and Port Royal.
The US authorities refused to receive any additional sick prisoners; when the batch reached Northern points these sick men were photographed. The conference ended without the accomplishment of any further good.”