Friday, April 17, 2009

This Day in Civil War History (Grant Halts POW Exchanges With South)

April 17, 1864—Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant announced a change in the Union’s policy toward prisoner exchanges with the South that had extremely important consequences for the future course of the war:

* The end of one-for-one exchanges meant that a practice that had disproportionately benefited the numerically outnumbered Confederacy would end.

* The new policy put the Confederacy on notice that African-American servicemen had better be treated the same as whites, as far as their treatment when captured was concerned—or the South had better be prepared for retaliation.

In Grant’s Personal Memoirs, you can tell that he was still a bit testy about the notion that he enjoyed a manpower advantage over Robert E. Lee. After enumerating all the assets his Confederate counterpart had—a friendly citizenry, familiarity with territory, no need for rear guards or large wagon trains—Grant concluded wearily, “All circumstances considered we did not have any advantage in numbers.”

That was true—but only up to a point. Musing on his successfully strategy for seizing Vicksburg, Grant observed, “As long as we could hold our position the enemy was limited in supplies of food, men and munitions of war to what they had on hand. These could not last always.” Here was a commander who preferred a war of movement and outflanking, but also one who would take the situation at hand, assess his needs and strength, and adapt accordingly.

That spring’s Richmond campaign would subsequently upend Grant’s strategy, but he was already preparing for anything. From past practice, he knew that many of the soldiers who rejoined the Confederate Army would be back in battle in no time.

But the notion of POW exchanges took on a whole different cast after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest captured Fort Pillow, Tenn. News reports began to circulate after the April 12 attack that, in its chaotic aftermath, African-American soldiers serving in the Union Army had been shot after surrendering.

What was the truth? Shelby Foote, in his magisterial three-volume history of the war, dismissed the idea of a massacre, likening what happened to the “Rape of Belgium” propaganda circulated by the British at the start of WWI. At the same time, Foote is honest enough to mention a fact that goes a long way toward contradicting his point: More than 60% of black prisoners were killed after surrendering, while the percentage was only 20% for whites.
The Confederacy’s own words and actions before the battle also foretold a predisposition to deal harshly with Union African-American soldiers, many of whom were escaped slaves. The prior year, Lincoln had had to issue an executive order that, for every Union soldier enslaved, a Confederate would be placed at hard labor. The measure was meant to counteract an order from Jefferson Davis, subsequently endorsed by the Confederate Congress, that captured black soldiers would be turned over to their original states “to be dealt with according to the laws of said states.”

In considering predisposition to slaughter, there is also the matter of Forrest himself. It might be true, as Foote notes, that none of the inquiries initiated by Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, or any other body pursued action against the Confederate general. But in the postwar period, Forrest was elected the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

More telling were the words from Forrest’s own mouth. In his memoirs, Grant cites the following post-battle dispatch from the Confederate:

“The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

For the most part, Grant’s narrative is a model of a clear yet unemotional voice. He also knew how to get out of the way when the facts spoke for themselves. That’s why, in this case, the sentence he appends to Forrest’s account is especially damning: “Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part which shocks humanity to read.”

Grant’s feeling that prisoner exchanges merely prolonged the war, along with the bloody campaign he waged in the summer of 1864 against Lee, has led some to conclude that he decided to end the POW exchange as another means of wearing the Confederacy down. The thinking was that, by saddling the Confederate Army with so many extra mouths to feed, they would have that much less to feed itself, and that that army would not be able to rely again on freed soldiers rushed back into battle.

But in his history Ordeal by Fire, James M. McPherson disputes this contention, noting how Grant reacted to a later Confederate offer for an exchange. Grant was ready to accept Robert E. Lee’s October offer for a man-for-man exchange in Virginia, but insisted that black soldiers be included. The deal fell apart but Lee refused.

It wasn’t until the winter of 1864-65 that movement began to develop on releasing POWs again. In the meantime, some of the most intense fighting of the war had produced a heavy load of prisoners.

The South was already experiencing food shortages (on the same date as Grant’s decision, Savannah had a bread riot to deal with), so in terms of food and shelter, Union prisoners ended up being comparatively worse off than Confederates in Northern camps. By the end of the war, readers in the North would be reading horror stories about the horrors of Andersonville and Belle Isle that would exacerbate already inflamed feelings about Southern culpability for starting the conflict.

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