02114 - Confederate prisoners; waiting at Chattanooga to be sent north, 1864 [LC-DIG-cwpb-02114]
During the early part of the war prisoner exchanges were common. The men from each side would typically be paroled on the condition that they would not take up arms until a man of equal rank was released from the opposing sides. This “unofficial” arrangement was often made between the commanding generals. Lee and McClellan even exchanged letters proposing that surgeons and wounded not be considered prisoners and be released immediately.
These types of arrangements worked well at the beginning, but soon presented a problem in Washington. A formal system of prisoner exchanges would mean that the United States would have to recognize the Confederacy. By doing so in effect the Confederate States would win the acknowledgement that they were a separate government and therefore help them to be recognized as a sovereign nation. This in turn might bring political and military support to the Confederacy, for this reason all exchanges were stopped just prior to Gettysburg in 1863.
For most of the rest of the war the Prisoner Of War population on both sides grew to alarming numbers, by some estimates as many as 400,000 men were prisoners at some point during the war. By not exchanging prisoners the United States succeeded not only in keeping the recognition the Confederacy wanted, but deprived them of soldiers that they desperately needed. With the end of the war in site exchanges did resume again in January of 1865, by this time it was too late for the South and there was little benefit to keeping them in the North.