Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Civil War Prisoners of War-Not Always What You Thought

This is a guest post from my friend Debbie Carder Mayes. Enjoy!

When we think of Civil War prisoners of war, the images we see in our minds are men so starved that they look like living skeletons and the other horrors that took place at prisons such as Andersonville. What we’ve been taught is not the whole story. Yes, Andersonville and other such prisons did exist and shouldn’t have. Like anything else, the dreadful news is played up-sensationalism sells.

I’ve been a history lover since childhood and a Civil War buff ever since I had the good fortune to have a high school history teacher who also was and brought the Civil War alive within his classroom. However, I never heard of the other side of the coin until I discovered that my great, great grandfather, John Mahlon Carder and his brother-in-law, Nelson F. Dobbins were captured by Confederates near Nashville on August 18, 1862.

During my quest to learn about their experiences as prisoners of war, I discovered that the abominable prisons we’ve heard about did not exist until the latter half of the war. As any student of the Civil War or anyone who has seen the opening scenes in Gone With The Wind can tell you, no one expected the Civil War to last very long. Both Northerners and Southerners expected to whip the other side and be done with it in a few months so no plans were made by the Union or the Confederacy as to what would be done with captured soldiers. Informal exchanges of prisoners were made on the battle fields at the discretion of the commanding officers. This, of course, created more problems. It was time-consuming. Some officers discriminated against some of the captives, not being equally fair in making the exchanges, and some officers were jsut downright uncomfortable about exchanging prisoners with no approval or guidelines from the government.

President Lincoln refused to recognize the secession of the Southern states. In his mind, all of the states formed only one country, the United States. He did not want to put Americans in prisons and label them, “traitors” so he set up an exchange system. He was able to convince Jefferson Davis to agree to use this system. Davis mainly agreed because the Confederacy did not have the money to keep prisoners nor feed them. The system worked by trading one Union prisoner for one Confederate prisoner. Neither soldier could take up arms and return to their regiments until their counterparts were paroled and the exchange was officially made.

A formal agreement was put in effect on July 22, 1862 containing a set of regulations for making the prisoner exchanges. This agreement was called the Dix-Hill Cartel after the Union general and the Confederate general who negotiated and wrote out the articles of agreement.

The cartel itself is interesting reading. The first three articles state what is consoodered an even exchange. An even exchange was not simply one prisoner exchanged for another, but was based on the branch of the military the prisoner served in and his rank. A general was to be exchanged with another general, a private with another private. Knowing that this would not always be possible, Dix and Hill created a list of equivalents. The first item on the list reads, “A general commanding in chief or an admiral shall be exchanged for officers of equal rank, or for sixty privates or common seamen.”

One of the main points of the agreement were that no prisoners would be held for more than ten days. They must be paroled by the tenth day. When captured, the prisoners would be taken to designated prison camps; the main ones being Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio and Vicksburg and Port Hudson in Mississippi. On or by the tenth day, the prisoners had to be paroled. they were then place in special paroled companies. My great, great grandfather, John and his wife’s brother, Nelson were sent to Camp Chase where they were placed in Company A, a paroled company. While in these companies, a paroled soldier was allowed no contact with his regular company, was not allowed to serve in any active military duty, and was not to bear firearms or weapons.

The camps had not been established to be a prison. Camp Chase was a training ground for new recruits. The camps did not have the facilities nor the supplies to keep prisoners for any length of duration. So, what did they do with these paroled prisoners? They sent them home to wait for their exchanges to be made. They were told that they would be notified when their exchanges were made and when to report back to their regular company.

The exchanges involved a lot of paperwork and red tape. The generals on the front complained that they were too busy filling out the papers to plan and fight the battles.

The other big problem was that the men on the battlefields knew that paroled prisoners got to go home. The exchanges took months, frequently close to a year. They caught on. Many soldiers let themselves be captured so that they could go home away from the enemy fire on the battlegrounds and be with their wives and children.

The prisoner exchange system wasn’t working. On May 25, 1863, the system ended. All exchanges were stopped by April 17, 1864. After this date, capture soldiers were sent to the atrocious prisons made famous by the suffering and inhumane conditions in these places.

But the story doesn’t end here. Years later, when the veterans of the Civil War were old men no longer able to work for their incomes and government acts were passed to provide them pensions for serving their country, many of these men discovered that their records stated that they were absent without leave and deserters. The records were mostly muster rolls that only showed whether they reported for duty on given days. The records stating that they had been prisoners under the prisoner exchange system had either been misfiled or stored away in some forgotten place in Washington, D. C. Many of these old veterans spent years repeatedly applying for pensions and having them denied while their lawyers pushed to have clerks in Washington put to work to find the POW records. Some of the veterans probably never livved to see their pensions granted.

My own great, great grandfather, John M. Carder was shown as "absent without leave" on the muster rolls without his knowledge. The record was not corrected for nearly twenty-five years. He applied for his pension on October 1, 1881. It took him nine years and repeated attempts before his claim was granted on December 8, 1890 when he was allowed medical disability pay of twelve dollars a month.

And this, my friends, is the other side of the story of the prisoners of the Civil War.

© 2013 Deborah A. Carder Mayes All Rights Reserved.

Source for info on POW exchanges: Civil War Prisons and Prisoners (website title) "The Photographic History of The Civil War", Volume 4, Soldier Life and Secret Service, Prisons and Hospitals. Article by Holland Thompson.
The Dix-Hill Cartel: Wikipedia/Dix-Hill Cartel (

The actual text of the Dix-Hill Cartel: Wiki Source/Dix-Hill Cartel (

There is also an excellent book on this topic. It wasn’t published until I had already done all of my research, however, that’s a good thing because I may not have dug as deeply as I did, if it would have been.

The book is: Roger Pickenpaugh, Camp Chase And The Evolution of Union Prison Policy, (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2007).

(Roger Pickenpaugh is a fellow Ohioan.)

The sources above are only the ones I used for this article. I’ve read and researched a lot more on my great, great grandfather’s POW experiences and have written that section of my family history book (if I ever get that done) and developed a lecture on it called Prisoner of War Experiences of Two Union Soldiers.


Hildegard said...

This is great!

Debbie Mayes said...

I apologize for not replying earlier, but I just now saw your comment here on Derek's blog. Thank you for the compliment. I'm so glad that you enjoyed my article. You can read more posts by me on my blog at: (