Myth: Grant Stopped the Prisoner Exchange

General Ulysses S. Grant

Library of Congress

"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 we hold, when 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. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here." – General Ulysses S. Grant, August 18, 1864.

This quote from General Grant is often cited as evidence that he stopped prisoner exchanges and that he did it because of the callous arithmetic of the war – calculating that by stopping exchanges the Union armies could simply outlast the Confederates. His statement is so ingrained into the common interpretation of Civil War prisons that it was engraved on the Wirz Monument in the town of Andersonville. However, the prisoner exchange issue was far more complicated, and the timeline of exchanges does not support the notion that Grant stopped the prisoner exchange.

President Abraham Lincoln suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel in retaliation for the Confederacy's refusal to exchange black soldiers captured in the summer of 1863.

Library of Congress

The prison exchange system, codified on July 22, 1862 by the Dix Hill Cartel, called for equal exchanges of all soldiers captured, and these soldiers could return to their units. The balance remaining after equal exchanges were to be paroled, and not to take up arms again until they were formally exchanged. Then in September of 1862, President Lincoln called for the enlistment of black soldiers into the Union Armies as part of the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. In December 1862, President Davis responded by issuing a proclamation that neither captured black soldiers nor their white officers would be subject to exchange. In January 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation became official and the United States began the active recruitment of black soldiers. The Lieber Codes, also known as General Order 100, were issued in April 1863 and stipulated that the United States government expected all prisoners to be treated equally, regardless of color. In May of 1863, the Confederate Congress passed a joint resolution that formalized Davis' proclamation that black soldiers taken prisoner would not be exchanged. In mid-July 1863 this became a reality, as several prisoners from the 54th Massachusetts were not exchanged with the rest of the white soldiers who participated in the assault on Fort Wagner. On July 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued General Order 252, which effectively suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel until the Confederate forces agreed to treat black prisoners the same as white prisoners. The Confederate forces declined to do so at that time, and large scale prisoner exchanges largely ceased by August 1863, resulting in a dramatic increase in the prison populations on both sides.
Wirz Monument
Grant's quote is inscribed on the Wirz Monument in an effort to shift blame for Andersonville from Wirz to Grant.

NPS/C. Barr

Part of the issue with attributing this breakdown in the exchange to General Grant is that when it occurred, in the summer of 1863, Grant was an army commander in the west and would have had little influence in the matter. He was not promoted to command of all Union armies until the spring of 1864, well after the exchanges had stopped and prisoners had begun arriving at Andersonville. Thus the breakdown occurred not because of Grant but because of politicians on both sides who were unwilling to compromise their policies.

Grant's statement was made in a different context. In the late summer of 1864, a year after the Dix-Hill Cartel was suspended, Confederate officials approached Union General Benjamin Butler about resuming the cartel and exchanges, including black prisoners. Butler, the Union Commissioner of Exchange, contacted Grant for guidance on the issue. Grant responded on August 18, 1864 with his now famous statement. In their conversation, Grant informed Butler that he approved an equal exchange of soldier for soldier, but did not approve a full resumption of the Dix-Hill Cartel. His issue was with the cartel's stipulation that the balance after equal exchanges were to be paroled and sent home to await formal exchange. By August 1864, Confederate prisoners far outnumbered Union prisoners, so a resumption of the cartel would release thousands more Confederates. Grant also felt that once released, Confederate prisoners would likely violate their paroles and rejoin their units. Many of the Union prisoners, on the other hand, had already fulfilled their enlistments and would likely go home. An agreement for resuming prisoner exchanges would not be reached until the winter of 1864-1865.
This photograph of Andersonville was taken before Grant's comments about the prisoner exchange.

NPS Archival Image

Grant was not in command when the exchanges stopped in the summer of 1863. When he made his famous statement the following year, there were already more than 30,000 prisoners at Andersonville. The photographs taken of Andersonville Prison were taken just a few days before Grant wrote his letter. In that letter, Grant made it clear that he would support equal prisoner-for-prisoner exchange but not the full resumption of the Dix-Hill Cartel.

Even if exchanges were resumed in late August 1864, Andersonville would still be the deadliest prison of the war with some 8,000 dead by that time. It is therefore inaccurate to attribute the breakdown of the prisoner exchange and all of the sufferings of prisoners of war to a callous military directive by General Ulysses S. Grant.

Although Grant was not responsible for the cessation of the Dix-Hill Cartel, he does bear a portion of the responsibility for the failure to resume the exchange. The United States government's policy was to halt the cartel until the Confederacy agreed to include black prisoners. When the Confederacy finally agreed to do so after more than a year, Grant failed to fulfill the Union's end of the agreement by refusing to fully resume the Dix-Hill Cartel as it existed in 1862-1863.

Last updated: November 27, 2017

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