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Title: What Stops the General Exchange of Prisoners of War?

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: December 27, 1864

Whitman Archive ID: per.00211

Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 27 December 1864: [2]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, and Kevin McMullen

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What Stops the General Exchange of Prisoners of War?—Three-fourths of Our Men Already Exchanged by Death, or Mental and Bodily Ruin, and the Rest will soon Follow.

To the Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle:1

The public mind is deeply excited, and most righteously so, at the starvation of the United States prisoners of war in the hands of the Secessionists. The dogged sullenness and scoundrelism prevailing everywhere among the prison guards and officials, (with, I think, the general exception of the surgeons,) the measureless torments of the forty or fifty thousand helpless young men, with all their humiliations, hunger, cold, filth, despair, hope utterly given out, and the more and more frequent imbecility, I have myself seen the proofs of in so many instances, that I know the facts well, and know that the half has not been told, nor the tithe either. But there is another and full as important side to the story. Whose fault is it at bottom that our men have not been exchanged?2 To my knowledge it is understood by Col. Mulford,3 our capital Executive Officer of Exchange,4 and also by those among us who have had longest and nearest contact with the secession exchange officers, that the Government of the latter have been and are ready to exchange man for man as far as prisoners go, (certainly all the whites, and, as I understand it, a large proportion of the blacks also.)

Under the President (whose humane, conscientious and fatherly heart, I have abiding faith in,) the control of exchange has remained with the Secretary of War,5 and also with such personages as Major General Butler and Major General Hitchcock.6 In my opinion the Secretary has taken and obstinately held a position of cold-blooded policy, (that is he thinks it policy,) more cruel than anything done by the Secessionists. Ostensibly and officially saying he will not exchange at all, unless the Secession leaders will give us, on average terms, all the blacks they capture in military action, the Secretary has also said (and this is the basis of his course and policy,) that it is not for the benefit of the Government of the United States that the power of the Secessionists should be repleted by some 50,000 men in good condition now in our hands, besides getting relieved of the support of nearly the same number of human wrecks and ruins, of no advantage to us, now in theirs.

Major General Butler, in my opinion, has also incorporated in the question of exchange a needless amount of personal pique, and an unbecoming obstinacy. He, too, has taken his stand on the exchange of all black soldiers, has persisted in it without regard to consequences, and has made the whole of the large and complicated question of general exchange turn upon that one item alone, while it is but a drop in the bucket. Then he makes it too much a personal contest who shall conquer, and an occasion to revenge the bad temper and insults of the South towards himself.

Of Major General Hitchcock, the public may judge what a valuable contribution he brings to this matter of exchange, from a remark he has made not long since, that "none but cowards are ever taken prisoners in war."

This is the spirit in which the faith of the Government of the United States towards fifty thousand of its bravest young men—soldiers faithful to it in its hours of extremest peril—has been, for the past year, and is now handled. Meantime, while the thing has been held in abeyance in this manner, considerably more than one-fourth of those helpless and most wretched men (their last hours passed in the thought that they were abandoned by their Government, and left to their fate,) have indeed been exchanged by deaths of starvation, (Mr. Editor, or you, reader, do you know what a death by starvation actually is?) leaving half the remainder closely prepared to follw, from mental and physical atrophy; and even then the remnant cannot long tarry behind. So that the Secretary and the Major-Generals mentioned, may find their policy work out even more than they calculated.

In my opinion, the anguish and death of these ten to fifteen thousand American young men, with all the added and incalculable sorrow, long drawn out, amid families at home, rests mainly upon the heads of members of our own government; and if they persist, the death of the remainder of the Union prisoners, and often worse than death, will be added.



1. Whitman wrote a virtually identical letter to the editor of the New York Times entitled The Prisoners, published on the same day as this article (December 27, 1864). [back]

2. In April 1864, General Grant halted all prisoner exchanges. Whitman's letter was one of many appeals to resume these exchanges. [back]

3. Major John E. Mulford was the Assistant Agent of Exchange in 1864. [back]

4. The head Federal official for prisoner exchange was General Hitchcock (see note below). [back]

5. The Secretary of War was Edwin M. Stanton. [back]

6. Major General Ethan A. Hitchcock was appointed Commissioner for Prisoner of War Exchange in 1862. In December 1863 he appointed General Benjamin F. Butler special agent for exchange of prisoners. [back]


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