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War Years

The Breakdown of the Prisoner Exchange System

The American prisoner exchange system collapsed in 1863 due to U.S. black enlistment and attrition strategy. For the first two years of the war there was an informal and consensual trade of prisoners. One-hundred and twenty Salisbury prisoners, captured in Virginia, were exchanged September 5, 1862 for an equal amount of Confederate soldiers at Washington DC.[1] On January 1, 1863, however, the Emancipation Proclamation enlisted African American soldiers into the US Army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that captured black soldiers be re-enslaved or executed while their white officers could be tried for leading a servile insurrection, a capital offense.[2] In reaction US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton warned that any black soldiers re-enslaved or killed would be matched by a Confederate prisoner treated similarly. The advantage of numbers lay with the United States, which had significantly more Confederate prisoners than the Richmond had US prisoners.[3] Stanton’s order was part of an attrition strategy: denying soldiers to the Confederacy could hasten the war’s end. Each position provided no protection for the men caught in the middle. The cost of these two decisions would be felt most deeply by the soldiers now trapped in prisons like Salisbury.

[1] Louis Brown, The Salisbury Prison: A Case Study of Confederate Military Prisons, 1861-1865 [Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing, 1980], 42.

[2] “Proclamation of Jefferson Davis, December 1862” War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series 2, vol. 5, [Washington: National Archives, 1888], pp. 795-797.

[3] Charles Sanders, While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005], 261.