Civil War Prisoner Exchange

Changing Rules Concerning Prisoner Exchange During the Civil War

African-Americans nicknamed contrabands before a signal tower in 1864.
Over time, the Confederacy would not exchange African-American soldiers captured during the Civil War. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B8171-2594 DLC

During the U.S. Civil War, both sides participated in the exchange of prisoners of war who had been captured by the other side. Although there was not a formal agreement in place, prisoner exchanges had taken place as a result of kindness between opposing leaders after a hard-fought battle. 

Initial Agreement for Prisoner Exchanges

Originally, the Union refused to formally enter into an official agreement that would establish guidelines pertaining to the structure of how these prisoner exchanges would occur.

This was due to the fact that the U.S. government had steadfastly refused to recognize the Confederate States of America as a valid governmental entity, and there was a fear that entering into any formal agreement could be viewed as legitimizing the Confederacy as a separate entity.  However, the capture of over a thousand Union soldiers at the First Battle of Bull Run in late July 1861 created the impetus for public push to conduct formal prisoner exchanges.  In December 1861, in a joint resolution the U.S. Congress called for President Lincoln to establish parameters for prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy.  Over the next several months, Generals from both forces made unsuccessful attempts to draft a unilateral prison exchange agreement.

Creation of the Dix-Hill Cartel

Then in July 1862, Union Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D. H. Hill met in the James River in Virginia at Haxall's Landing and came to an agreement whereby all soldiers were assigned an exchange value based upon their military rank.

 Under what would become known as the Dix-Hill Cartel, exchanges of Confederate and Union Army soldiers would be made as follows:

  1. Soldiers of equivalent ranks would be exchanged on a one to one value,
  2. Corporals and sergeants were worth two privates,
  3. Lieutenants were worth four privates,
  4. A captain was worth six privates,
  1. A major was worth eight privates,
  2. A lieutenant-colonel was worth ten privates,
  3. A colonel was worth fifteen privates,
  4. A brigadier general was worth twenty privates,
  5. A major general was worth forty privates, and
  6. A commanding general was worth sixty privates.

The Dix-Hill Cartel also assigned similar exchange values of Union and Confederate naval officers and seamen based upon their equivalent rank to their respective armies.

Prisoner Exchange and the Emancipation Proclamation

These exchanges were made to alleviate the issues and costs associated with maintaining captured soldiers by both sides, as well as the logistics of moving the prisoners. However, in September 1862, President Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that provided in part that if the Confederates failed to end fighting and rejoin the U.S. prior to January 1, 1863 then all slaves held in the Confederate States would become free. In addition, it called for the enlistment of black soldier into service in the Union Army. This prompted Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis to issue a proclamation on December 23, 1862 which provided that there would be no exchange of either captured black soldiers or their white officers.

A mere nine days later – January 1, 1863 – President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which called for the eradication of slavery and for the enlistment of freed slaves into the Union Army.

In what has historically been considered President Lincoln’s reaction to December 1862 Proclamation of Jefferson Davis, the Lieber Code was put into effect in April 1863 addressing humanity during wartime with the provision that all prisoners, regardless of color, would be treated alike.

Then the Congress of the Confederate States passed a resolution in May 1863 that codified President Davis’ December 1862 proclamation that the Confederacy would not exchange captured black soldiers.  The results of this legislative action became evident in July 1863 when a number of captured U.S. black soldiers from a Massachusetts regiment were not exchanged along with their fellow white prisoners.

The End of Prisoner Exchanges During the Civil War 

The U.S. suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel on July 30, 1863 when President Lincoln issued an order providing that until such time as the Confederates treated black soldiers the same as white soldiers there would no longer be any prisoner exchanges between the U.S. and the Confederacy. This effectively ended prisoner exchanges and unfortunately resulted in captured soldiers from both sides being subjected to horrific and inhumane conditions in prisons such as Andersonville in the South and Rock Island in the North.