To the modern ear the term “parole” is associated with the criminal justice system, but in the 19th century the term was almost exclusively associated with prisoners of war, not the criminal law. The practice of paroling prisoners of war had been in common practice since the Roman Empire and was a well understood and widely accepted practice before and during the Civil War. The system had several benefits: it eliminated the expenses of men and materials to house, feed, and guard prisoners, and it generally benefitted the health and well being of the paroled prisoner. However, it relied on good faith and equity between the warring parties, which caused the process to break down during the Civil War.
During the early years of the conflict, paroling and exchange of prisoners after a battle was common but piecemeal. Due to public pressure, a formal “exchange” system was eventually negotiated in 1862 to allow soldiers who were bound by their parole to return to active duty when an equivalent number of soldiers and officers were released by the other side. This system was eventually terminated in 1863 after the Confederacy refused to treat African American soldiers serving in the United States Colored Troops as soldiers. Instead of being paroled, Confederate officials announced that African American soldiers would be enslaved as laborers (regardless of whether the soldiers were enslaved before their service), and the officers commanding them would be executed for “inciting” a slave rebellion. This policy led Federal forces to suspend paroles and prisoner exchanges for the rest of the war, a move that resulted in the death of tens of thousands of prisoners suffering brutal conditions in both Southern and Northern camps.
Sensing the war was at its end and that the South was exhausted, President Abraham Lincoln believed it was a time for a changes in policy that would foster healing, so he directed Grant and other army leaders to “let ‘em up easy” in accordance with his principle of “malice toward none, with charity for all” expressed in his second inaugural address a few weeks earlier. Grant took Lincoln’s principles to heart, and his terms to Lee were generous, especially in the way he chose to revive the parole system.
In the surrender terms, Grant required that Confederate forces surrender the arms, munitions, and other supplies issued to them by the Confederate government. Lee’s officers were explicitly allowed to keep their horses, side arms, and personal baggage, and he made similar arrangements for horses and mules for enlisted men. Grant also wrote into the formal terms that all Confederates who surrendered would be considered paroled prisoners who would be free to “return to their homes not to be disturbed by United States Authority so long as they observed their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” This line would protect any man in Lee’s army, including Lee, from future prosecution, provided they not take up arms again or violate the terms of the surrender in some other way. This set a precedent for the subsequent surrenders of most of the other Confederate forces over the following months.
In a second meeting between Grant and Lee on April 10, Lee requested that Confederates be given proof of their status as paroled prisoners, since many would return to areas that had not yet surrendered. Grant agreed. Maj. General George Sharpe, chief of the Bureau of Military Information, took charge of printing and issuing parole passes for Confederate officers to sign and distribute to the men under their command. Starting on April 10th, printers worked around the clock to produce over 30,000 paroles, and Confederates officially signed and issued 28,231 at Appomattox before April 15th.
In addition to legal protection, the parole passes also allowed the former Confederates to draw rations from the Federal government, a process Grant started at Appomattox. Additionally, it allowed the soldiers to get free passage on any federally operated railroad or steam ship, making transport home safer and faster. It is hard to know how many Confederates were able to take advantage of these benefits, but Grant provided these services in good faith to help start the process of reunification.
When you visit the park, stop by the Clover Hill Tavern to see a tableau of parole pass printing, or catch a printing demonstration in the warmer months.