The subject of prisons ranks high as one of the most controversial topics of the Civil War. It’s probably second only to the reason the war was fought. It’s hotly contested as to whether the treatment of Civil War prisoners was deliberately cruel or resulted from a lack of resources. Whatever your view researching the valiant men who populated those prisons should not be overlooked in our genealogy research.
There were more than 150 prisons used during the Civil War across both north and south. Some of those weren’t operated to capacity until later in the war. Large prisons of the day barely accommodated 100 men which did suffice early on. In the initial stages of the war both sides participated in an exchange program. Captured prisoners were either held a short time in a local prison and paroled or sent home and were not to rejoin their troops until an exchange of men was made with the other side. Generally this system worked although there were some prisoners of war who immediately rejoined their regiment upon release not abiding by the rules. It was even noted some prisoners were exchanged immediately after a battle, private for private and officer for officer, relieving both armies of the burden of dealing with prisoners of war.
This system didn’t last long though and fell apart. The Confederate government refused to exchange black prisoners. Any black prisoner of war was considered and treated as a slave by the Confederacy whether he had been a free man prior to the war or not. With this criteria in place the United States government made their own significant decision which secured the demise of the prisoner exchange system. I’ve seen it attributed to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1862 and General Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 but whoever made the final decision the result was devastating to future prisoners of war. No longer would the United States participate in any type of prisoner exchange program. Period. It was felt the paroling of Confederate soldiers was only prolonging the war by allowing them to rejoin their regiments and eventually fight Union troops again. Limiting the manpower in southern armies, it was felt, would bring an end to the war. Continue reading