No Distinction Whatsoever
Nothing is ever simple. Complex issues are too often boiled down and reduced to a single factoid or a talking point. The real story can only be pieced together by plowing through mounds of seemingly tedious routine paperwork. In fact, historians are often the only people to appreciate the beauty of bureaucracy.
The correspondence of the War Department, a lot of which was conducted by telegraph and is now contained in the USMT ledgers, is a prime example of the extraordinary value of seemingly mundane and boring government paperwork.
A case in point: on April 17, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, who had assumed the command of the Union armed forces a month before, suspended prisoner of war exchanges. It is very tempting to take any pronouncement by a general of Grant’s caliber for a straightforward order.
Yet April 17, 1864 was just an installment in a long and convoluted story of the prisoner exchange. Both sides of the Civil War divide believed that they were fighting a just war and professed their commitment to the norms of civilized warfare. Equitable exchange of prisoners, accomplished by a cartel or agreement between the belligerents, was one of these norms.
The cartel, codified on July 22, 1862, called for equal exchange, man for man, as matched in the rank, branch of service, and the state of health. The exchanged soldiers and officers would return to the ranks. Those men for whom no exact match could be found, were paroled; the parolees were barred from taking up arms until the formal exchange could be arranged.
The cartel ambled along, punctuated by claims of breaches of trust, retaliations and counter-retaliations, until the Union army started recruiting African American soldiers. The Confederates refused to apply the “man-for-man” exchange to black soldiers. The act of the Confederate Congress of May 1, 1863 mandated that black Union troops were to be “delivered” to the authorities of the state where they had been captured “to be dealt with according to the present or future law” of the state, which meant either death or slavery.
In response, Stanton’s War Department halted all exchanges. In early July, Grant and Nathaniel P. Banks ignored this directive to parole the entire garrisons of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The War Department had to remind the generals that all exchanges were suspended until “the rebel authorities” demonstrated a “better understanding in relation to the cartel.”
The negotiations were resumed in December 1863, after Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, appointed Benjamin F. Butler as a special agent. Butler’s instructions directed him to ensure “the protection of the Government” for “colored soldiers of the United States and the officers commanding them.”
On April 9, 1864, Butler submitted a lengthy memorandum to Stanton. He acknowledged that there were many issues with the process but insisted that the United States must honor the cartel, for the sake of “the good sense of the country, the justice of the Government, or humanity toward our suffering brother soldiers in the Confederate prisons.”
Yet there was a red line. The United States could not permit to have “those black men whom we have made free, uniformed and armed, and put in our service, when captured, being treated as slaves.” If the Confederate authorities refused to exchange black soldiers “man-for-man,” the entire cartel would have to be set aside. Butler then proposed to negotiate away all outstanding problems, so that this one crucial issue “may be left standing sharply alone.”
Somewhat taken aback, Stanton referred Butler’s memorandum to Grant. Grant responded on April 17, in a letter to Butler which is often miscast as an order.
Grant agreed with Butler: “no distinction whatsoever shall be made between white and colored prisoners; the only question being where they, at the time of the capture, in the military service of the United States.”
On August 10, 1864, the Confederate commissioner agreed to a “man-to-man” exchange. When Butler inquired whether the exchange would cover black troops, there was no reply.