From the Emancipation Proclamation to Andersonville

History is cause and effect—most often, cause and unintended effect—as the following example attests.  This week (Jan. 1) in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (EP), which freed all slaves in states then in rebellion against the Union.  One of the starkly unintended effects of this proclamation was the most notorious prison camp in American history, the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, in which 15,000 Union soldiers died in horrible conditions.

Recall that one purpose of the EP was to encourage slaves in the Confederate states to run away and head north, after which, Lincoln hoped, many of them would join the Union Army — which is exactly what happened.

Also recall that, prior to the EP, one aspect of the Civil War had been a very functional prisoner-exchange program in which equal numbers of Union and Confederate prisoners were exchanged for one another, and allowed to return to their regiments.  When unequal numbers of prisoners were captured in a battle, a “parole” system was established.  If, for example, 200 Confederate prisoners were captured, but only 150 Union prisoners were captured, then 150 would be exchanged on both sides and the extra 50 Confederate soldiers not exchanged would sign a parole document pledging not to fight against the North until 50 Union soldiers were subsequently captured and exchanged for them.

This worked fairly well until the EP resulted in black soldiers joining the Union Army’s ranks.  Furious at this, Confederate President Jefferson Davis decreed that any black soldiers captured by Confederate armies would not be treated as prisoners of war, but rather would be considered runaway slaves and sent back to their former states to be dealt with according to the laws of those states.  Further, any captured white officers commanding these black Union regiments would be subject to execution for “inciting negro rebellion.”

In response, Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, issued a proclamation saying every Union officer executed would be matched by the execution of a captured Confederate officer, and in June of 1863 the prisoner exchange system broke down, meaning prisoners on both sides went into prison camps.  The result was camps such as Andersonville and its Union counterpart, Elmira in New York.

Speaking of cause and unintended effect, the decision by Jefferson Davis that resulted in the breakdown of prisoner exchanges produced a military advantage for the Union.  The Union’s population was far larger than the Confederacy’s, meaning it could replenish its military ranks far more easily.   By losing so many soldiers to prison camps, rather than preserving an exchange system that allowed them to fight again, the Confederacy helped ensure its ultimate defeat — which, we can suppose, was clearly unintended.