Friday, August 23, 2013

August 23, 1863: The parole and exchange system was breaking down

A photograph of Richmond's Libby Prison taken on August 23, 1863.
As bad as Civil War prisoner of war camps were in the first two years of the war, there was an important mitigating factor that reduced the suffering of captured soldiers to a great extent: the system of parole and exchange. When prisoners of war were captured in the field, instead of being transferred to a prison camp they were often issued a document called a "parole." These paroled soldiers could return home or to a designated camp in their own side's territory to wait until they were "exchanged"--traded for a paroled soldier on the other side. This arrangement ensured that captured soldiers could retain a large amount of freedom and the burden of their upkeep fell on their own side, which could feed, clothe, and care for their wounds with greater efficiency. Wounded soldiers that were captured were frequently exchanged via flag of truce steamboats along Virginia's James River.

The system worked reasonably well for the first two years of the war, but was highly dependent on trust that each side would hold up their end of the bargain. As the Confederacy grew increasingly short of fighting men, the was a strong incentive on the part of Confederate exchange commissioners to seek out reasons or excuses to argue that some violation of parole had occurred so that Southern paroled troops in Southern territory could be immediately returned to duty. Especially tempting to the South was the possibility of returning the 25,000 or so veteran troops that Pemberton surrendered at Vicks and Grant immediately paroled rather than shipping them to Northern prison camps. As Pemberton's former troops began popping up in action before the Union recognized them as properly paroled, the Union began to lose faith in the system of parole and exchange.

Another factor that would contribute to the break down of parole and exchange was the determination on the part of Confederate leadership to treat captured Black soldiers and and their White officers differently than other Union troops captured in battle. Union Black troops captured by the Confederates were subject to execution or re-enslavement; their officers faced the possibility of being tried for inciting servile insurrection--a charge that carried the death penalty.

As the Confederacy began to return its paroled troops to the line before they were properly exchanged, and as Black troops suffered abuse and different treatment in Southern captivity, the system of parole and exchange that had saved so many lives in the first two years of the war began to break down.

On this day 150 years ago, Confederate Major General Richard Taylor wrote to Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to dispute the status of certain prisoners he had released and threatening to consider the Confederates paroled at Vicksburg and Port Hudson as exchanged unless he was satisfied by Banks' reply.
August 23, 1863.

Major General N. P. BANKS,

Commanding U. S. Forces in Louisiana:

GENERAL: I have received your communication of the 17th instant notifying me that you have directed the immediate return to duty of all prisoners paroled by me during my recent occupation of the La Fourche country. You state generally that the paroles were in violation of exchange.

In the absence of any more specific statement from you I am at a loss to imagine in what particular the cartel of exchange has been violated by restoring these prisoners to their liberty upon the usual obligation not to bear arms against the Confederate States until regularly exchanged, after a careful observance of the forms requisite to give efficacy to the parole and in accordance with the practice repeatedly sanctioned and acted upon by both belligerents in this department. If under such circumstances your Government thinks proper to disapprove of the engagement thus solemnly made by these men, the common law and usages of war, as recognized by the Government of the United States in the rules in regard to paroles published by authority of its War Department, require their return and surrender as prisoners of war.

I shall expect, then, the return to me of all the captured men whose engagement has been disowned by the United States Government. Should this not be done, and the order you announce to me be persisted in, I have the honor to inform you that all the prisoners taken and paroled at Vicksburg and Port Hudson and now within the limits of my military district will be released from their paroles and ordered to duty.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,



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