The Delayed Prisoner Exchange
On the question of prisoner exchange in mid-1864, Grant was concerned about releasing Southern prisoners as they might "compromise our safety here." In May 1864, Northern authorities reported that Grant had 141,160 effective troops (plus a reserve of 137,672 men) arrayed against General Lee’s force of 50,000 with little or no reserve. Though he speaks of humanity, Grant seemed to have no moral dilemma about sending his soldiers to certain death, losing nearly 100,000 in the Wilderness Campaign alone. He knew Lincoln’s draft, substitutes, bounties and immigrants would quickly refill his depleted ranks.
But President Davis’ proposal for exchange below was based on compassion for the Northern prisoners, cut off from medical and food supplies by the Northern blockade. It is clear on which side compassion resided, and it appears that Andersonville was later used to the advantage of the Republican party in demonizing Americans in the South.
Cape Fear Historical Institute
The Delayed Prisoner Exchange:
"Jefferson Davis made several proposals for the exchange of prisoners, but his plea met deaf ears in the North. Grant, who had paroled 29,000 Confederate prisoners at Vicksburg on their word alone, did a turnabout on Davis’ question and was heartily opposed. During the mid-summer of 1864 Grant wrote an indirect reply to Davis:
"On the subject of exchange of prisoners, however, I differ from General Hitchcock. It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man released on parole, or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commnce a system of exchange, which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold on to those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat, and would compromise our safety here."
As it appeared to Davis, able-bodied prisoners need not be exchanged. To relieve the Confederacy of the responsibility of taking care of the sick and wounded prisoners, Davis offered to return without equivalents, 15,000 sick and badly wounded prisoners at an arranged meeting place at the mouth of the Savannah River. This offer would stand if transportation were supplied by the North.
In the meantime pictures by the Confederate photographers of the conditions at Andersonville were sent to the Northern government to stimulate action on Davis’ proposal. An eyewitness to the taking of these photographs was a soldier of the North….(who) wrote: "I was a prisoner of war in that place during the summer of 1864 and I well remember seeing a photographer with his camera in one of the sentinel boxes near the south gate during July or August…I have often wondered in later years what success this photographer had and why the (Northern) public never had the opportunity of seeing a genuine photograph of Andersonville."
The pictures were sent to Washington. Who received them, or for what purpose they were to be used, was never made public. There is no record of them in Northern journals. But that they were used is indicated by Jefferson Davis who in writing about the incident states:
"The photographs were terrible indeed, but the misery they portrayed was surpassed by some of those we received in exchange in Savannah. Why was this delay between summer and November in sending vessels for sick and wounded, for whom no equivalents were asked? Were the Federal prisoners left to suffer, and afterward photographed to aid in firing the popular heart of the North?"
(Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man: Matthew B. Brady, Roy Meredith, Dover Publications, 1974, pp. 187-188)