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Race, Repatriation, and Galvanized Rebels: Union Prisoners and the Exchange Question in Deep South Prison Camps

From: Civil War History
Volume 53, Number 2, June 2007
pp. 117-140 | 10.1353/cwh.2007.0041

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The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion identifies thirty-two "principal places for the confinement of Union prisoners held by Confederate authorities." Of that number, sixteen camps were located in the three Deep South states of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. In many of these camps, Union prisoners of war (POWs) encountered great hardships as they faced incarceration without adequate supplies of food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment. Those who survived looked constantly to the possibility of being paroled or exchanged. For most, that dream occurred only after months of captivity and toward the literal end of the war.

This article will examine the Union prisoner-of-war experience in the Confederate prison camps in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina and will focus on how Union POWs understood the prisoner-exchange issue, who they blamed for their continued internment, and what coping mechanisms they employed to survive their ordeal. Interestingly, Union POWs of the enlisted ranks blamed Northerners more than Southerners for their continued incarceration. They criticized the administration of President Abraham Lincoln for its inaction, and concluded that the Federal government had allowed racial politics to impede and to delay a large-scale prisoner release. They also faulted the Northern home front for failing to express an appropriate degree of outrage over their plight and for failing to apply adequate pressure on the Lincoln-led government. Finally, the evidence indicates that during the later stages of the war some Union POWs took matters into their own hands and became "Galvanized Rebels." This extraordinary step contemplated by a band of desperate men entailed abandoning their oaths to the United States and pledging their allegiance to the Confederacy as a means of escaping the horrors of prison life.

The exchange question has held an important place within Civil War prison historiography. In those studies, however, the focus has been on how civilian and military leaders constructed and implemented prison policy and the consequences of those decisions. This top-down approach, which is essential, concentrates on the deliberate and systematic objectives of the decision makers, but it ignores the reaction to the cessation of the exchanges within the camps themselves. Thus, a bottom-up approach is necessary to improve the overall analysis of the exchange question. In addition, studies of camp life in general as well as specific studies of Southern prisons tend to examine living conditions, resource allocation, and death and survival rates. Far too little attention has been devoted to such areas as the inmates' political affiliation and their changing ideology during incarceration, the mock 1864 presidential elections held in many camps, or the response and reaction to the Galvanized Rebel recruiting process. Ultimately this article uncovers a set of beliefs within the prison community that helps us better understand the Union POW experience.

To appreciate fully the exchange issue, it is necessary first to examine the attitudes and policies of the Federal and Confederate governments regarding repatriation. When the war started, neither the North nor the South had made any substantive preparations for handling war captives. When the Battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861) confirmed the likelihood of a prolonged conflict, the warring parties were forced to respond to the POW problem. Initially, they followed precedents established during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. During those two conflicts, prisoners were exchanged man for man, rank for rank. Many of the early exchanges during the Civil War have been termed "special exchanges," because battlefield commanders conducted this type of exchange with practically no interference from civilian governments. The Lincoln government in particular endorsed the practice of special exchanges as a way to avoid conferring official recognition to the Confederate government.

During the first half of 1862, the number of POWs held by both sides increased dramatically, especially in the aftermath of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862), the fall of New Orleans (April 29, 1862) and Memphis (June 6, 1862), and the Seven Days' battles in Virginia (June 25–July 1, 1862). As a result, the Lincoln government finally relented and the two sides began to negotiate a comprehensive exchange policy. Their labors produced the Dix-Hill Cartel, which was signed on July 22, 1862...