Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Judge Ould's Vindication of the Confederate Government

Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

We next present the


The following paper was published by Judge Ould in the National Intelligencer in August, 1868. It is a calm, able, truthful exposition of the question, which has not been and cannot be answered:

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Richmond, Va., August 17, 1868.

To the Editors of the National Intelligencer:

Gentlemen—I have recently seen so many misrepresentations of the action of the late Confederate authorities in relation to prisoners, that I feel it due to the truth of history, and peculiarly incumbent on me as their agent of exchange, to bring to the attention of the country the facts set forth in this paper:


The cartel of exchange bears date July 22d, 1862. Its chief purpose was so secure the delivery of all prisoners of war.

To that end, the fourth article provided that all prisoners of war should be discharged on parole in ten days after their capture. From the date of the cartel until the summer of 1863 the Confederate authorities had the excess of prisoners. During the interval deliveries were made as fast as the Federal Government furnished transportation. Indeed, upon more than one occasion I urged the Federal authorities to send increased means of transportation. It has never been alleged that the Confederate authorities failed or neglected to make prompt deliveries of prisoners who were not held under charges, when they had the excess. On the other hand, during the same time the cartel was openly and notoriously violated by the Federal authorities. Officers and men were kept in confinement, sometimes in irons or doomed to cells, without charge or trial. Many officers were kept in confinement even after the notices published by the Federal authorities had declared them exchanged.

In the summer of 1863 the Federal authorities insisted upon limiting exchanges to such as were held in confinement on either side. This I resisted as being in violation of the cartel. Such a construction not only kept in confinement the excess on either side, but ignored all paroles which were held by the Confederate Government. These were very many, being the paroles of officers and men who had been released on capture. The Federal Government at that time held few or no paroles. They had all, or nearly all, been surrendered, the Confederate authorities giving prisoners as equivalent for them. Thus it will be seen that as long as the Confederate Government had the excess of prisoners matters went on smoothly enough, but as soon as the posture of affairs in that respect was changed the cartel could no longer be observed. So, as long as the Federal Government held the paroles of Confederate officers and men, they were respected, and made the basis of exchange; but when equivalents were obtained for them, and no more were in hand, the paroles which were held by the Confederate authorities could not be recognized. In consequence of the position thus assumed by the Federal Government, the requirement of the cartel that all prisoners should be delivered within ten days was practically nullified. The deliveries which were afterwards made were the results of special agreements.

The Confederate authorities adhered to their position until the 10th of August, 1864, when, moved by the sufferings of the men in the prisons of each belligerent, they determined to abate their just demand. Accordingly, on the last named day, I addressed the following communication to Brigadier General John E. Mulford (then Major), Assistant Agent of Exchange:

Richmond, August 10, 1864.

Major John E. Mulford,
Assistant Agent of Exchange:

Sir—You have several times proposed to me to exchange the prisoners respectively held by the two belligerents—officer for officer and man for man. The same offer has also been made by other officials having charge of matters connected with the exchange of prisoners.

This proposal has heretofore been declined by the Confederate authorities, they insisting upon the terms of the cartel, which required the delivery of the excess on either side on parole. In view, however, of the very large number of prisoners now held by each party, and the suffering consequent upon their continued confinement, I now consent to the above proposal, and agree to deliver to you the prisoners held in captivity by the Confederate authorities, provided you agree to deliver an equal number of Confederate officers and men. As equal numbers are delivered from time to time, they will be declared exchanged. This proposal is made with the understanding that the officers and men on both sides who have been longest in captivity will be first delivered, where it is practicable.

I shall be happy to hear from you as speedily as possible whether this arrangement can be carried out.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

Robert Ould,
Agent of Exchange.

The delivery of this letter was accompanied with a statement of the mortality which was hurrying so many Federal prisoners at Andersonville to the grave.

On the 22d day of August, 1864, not having heard anything in response, I addressed a communication to Major-General E. A. Hitchcock, United States Commissioner of Exchange, covering a copy of the foregoing letter to General Mulford, and requesting an acceptance of my propositions.

No answer was received to either of these letters. General Mulford, on the 31st day of August, 1864, informed me in writing that he had no communication on the subject from the United States authorities, and that he was not at that time authorized to make any answer.

This offer, which would have instantly restored to freedom thousands of suffering captives—which would have released every Federal soldier in confinement in Confederate prisons—was not even noticed. Was that because the Federal officials did not deem it worthy of a reply, or because they feared to make one? As the Federal authorities at that time had a large excess of prisoners, the effect of the proposal which I had made, if carried out, would have been to release all Union prisoners, while a large number of the Confederates would have remained in prison, awaiting the chances of the capture of their equivalents.


In January, 1864, and, indeed, some time earlier, it became very manifest that, in consequence of the complication in relation to exchanges, the large bulk of prisoners on both sides would remain in captivity for many long and weary months, if not for the duration of the war. Prompted by an earnest desire to alleviate the hardships of confinement on both sides, I addressed the following communication to General E. A. Hitchcock, United States Commissioner of Exchange, and on or about the day of its date delivered the same to the Federal authority:

Confederate States of America, War Department,
Richmond, Va., January 24, 1864.

Major-General E. A. Hitchcock,
Agent of Exchange:

Sir—In view of the present difficulties attending the exchange and release of prisoners, I propose that all such on each side shall be attended by a proper number of their own surgeons, who, under rules to be established, shall be permitted to take charge of their health and comfort.

I also propose that these surgeons shall act as commissaries, with power to receive and distribute such contributions of money, food, clothing and medicines as may be forwarded for the relief of prisoners. I further propose that these surgeons be selected by their own Governments, and that they shall have full liberty at any and all times, through the agents of exchange, to make reports not only of their own acts, but of any matters relating to the welfare of prisoners.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

Robert Ould,
Agent of Exchange.

To this communication no reply of any kind was ever made. I need not state how much suffering would have been prevented if this offer had been met in the spirit in which it was dictated. In addition, the world would have had truthful accounts of the treatment of prisoners on both sides by officers of character, and thus much of that misrepresentation which has flooded the country would never have been poured forth. The jury-box in the case of Wirz would have had different witnesses, with a different story. It will be borne in mind that nearly all of the suffering endured by Federal prisoners happened after January, 1864. The acceptance of the proposition made by me, on behalf of the Confederate Government, would not only have furnished to the sick medicines and physicians, but to the well an abundance of food and clothing from the ample stores of the United States.

The good faith of the Confederate Government in making this offer cannot be successfully questioned; for food and clothing (without the surgeons) were sent in 1865, and were allowed to be distributed by Federal officers to Federal prisoners.

Why could not the more humane proposal of January, 1864, have been accepted?


When it was ascertained that exchanges could not be made, either on the basis of the cartel, or officer for officer and man for man, I was instructed by the Confederate authorities to offer to the United States Government their sick and wounded without requiring any equivalents. Accordingty, in the summer of 1864, I did offer to deliver from ten to fifteen thousand of the sick and wounded at the mouth of the Savannah river without requiring any equivalents, assuring at the same time the agent of the United States, General Mulford, that if the number for which he might send transportation could not be readily made up from sick and wounded, I would supply the difference with well men. Although this offer was made in the summer of 1864, transportation was not sent to the Savannah river until about the middle or last of November, and then I delivered as many prisoners as could be transported—some thirteen thousand in number—amongst whom were more than five thousand well men.

More than once I urged the mortality at Andersonville as a reason for haste on the part of the United States authorities. I know, personally, that it was the purpose of the Confederate Government to send off from all its prisons all the sick and wounded, and to continue to do the same, from time to time, without requiring any equivalents for them. It was because the sick and wounded at points distant from Georgia could not be brought to Savannah within a reasonable time that the five thousand well men were substituted.

Although the terms of my offer did not require the Federal authorities to deliver any for the ten or fifteen thousand which I promised, yet some three thousand sick and wounded were delivered by them at the mouth of the Savannah river. I call upon every Federal and Confederate officer and man who saw the cargo of living death, and who is familiar with the character of the deliveries made by the Confederate authorities, to bear witness that none such was ever made by the latter, even when the very sick and desperately wounded alone were requested. For, on two occasions at least, such were specially asked for, and particular request was made for those who were so desperately sick that it would be doubtful whether they would survive a removal a few miles down James river. Accordingly, the hospitals were searched for the worst cases, and after they were delivered they were taken to Annapolis, and there photographed as specimen prisoners. The photographs at Annapolis were terrible indeed; but the misery they portrayed was surpassed at Savannah.

The original rolls showed that some thirty-five hundred had started from Northern prisons, and that death had reduced the number during the transit to about three thousand. The mortality amongst those who were delivered alive during the following three months was equally frightful.

But why was there this delay between the summer and November in sending transportation for sick and wounded, for whom no equivalents were asked? Were Union prisoners made to suffer in order to aid the photographs in firing the popular heart of the North?"


In the summer of 1864, in consequence of certain information communicated to me by the Surgeon-General of the Confederate States as to the deficiency of medicines, I offered to make purchases of medicines from the United States authorities, to be used exclusively for the relief of Federal prisoners. I offered to pay gold, cotton or tobacco for them, and even two or three prices if required. At the same time I gave assurances that the medicines would be used exclusively in the treatment of Federal prisoners; and moreover agreed, on behalf of the Confederate States, if it was insisted on, that such medicines might be brought into the Confederate lines by the United States surgeons, and dispensed by them. To this offer I never received any reply. Incredible as this appears, it is strictly true.


General John E. Mulford is personally cognizant of the truth of most, if not all, the facts which I have narrated. He was connected with the cartel from its date until the close of the war. During a portion of the time he was Assistant Agent of Exchange on the part of the United States. I always found him to be an honorable and truthful gentleman. While he discharged his duties with great fidelity to his own Government, he was kind—and I might almost say, tender—to Confederate prisoners. With that portion of the correspondence with which his name is connected he is, of course, familiar. He is equally so with the delivery made at Savannah and its attending circumstances, and with the offer I made as to the purchase of medicines for the Federal sick and wounded. I appeal to him for the truth of what I have written. There are other Federal corroborations to portions of my statements. They are found in the report of Major-General B. F. Butler to the "Committee on the Conduct of the War." About the last of March, 1864, I had several conferences with General Butler at Fortress Monroe in relation to the difficulties attending the exchange of prisoners, and we reached what we both thought a tolerably satisfactory basis.

The day that I left there General Grant arrived. General Butler says he communicated to him the state of the negotiations, and "most emphatic verbal directions were received from the Lieutenant-General not to take any step by which another able-bodied man should be exchanged until further orders from him;" and that on April 30, 1864, he received a telegram from General Grant "to receive all the sick and wounded the Confederate authorities may send you, but send no more in exchange." Unless my recollection fails me, General Butler also, in an address to his constituents, substantially declared that he was directed in his management of the question of exchange with the Confederate authorities, to put the matter offensively, for the purpose of preventing an exchange.

The facts which I have stated are also well known to the officers connected with the Confederate Bureau of Exchange.

At one time I thought an excellent opportunity was offered of bringing some of them to the attention of the country. I was named by poor Wirz as a witness in his behalf. The summons was issued by Chipman, the Judge Advocate of the military court. I obeyed the summons, and was in attendance upon the court for some ten days. The investigation had taken a wide range as to the conduct of the Confederate and Federal Governments in the matter of the treatment of prisoners, and I thought the time had come when I could put before the world these humane offers of the Confederate authorities, and the manner in which they had been treated. I so expressed myself more than once—perhaps too publicly. But it was a vain thought.

Early in the morning of the day on which I expected to give my testimony, I received a note from Chipman, the Judge Advocate, requiring me to surrender my subpœna. I refused, as it was my protection in Washington. Without it the doors of the Old Capitol Prison might have opened and closed upon me. I engaged, however, to appear before the court, and I did so the same morning. I still refused to surrender my subpœna, and thereupon the Judge Advocate endorsed on it these words: "The within subpœna is hereby revoked; the person named is discharged from further attendance." I have got the curious document before me now, signed with the name of "N. P. Chipman, Colonel," &c. I intend to keep it, if I can, as the evidence of the first case, in any court of any sort, where a witness who was summoned for the defence was dismissed by the prosecution. I hastened to depart, confident that Richmond was a safer place for me than the metropolis.

Some time ago a committee was appointed by the House of Representatives to investigate the treatment of Union prisoners in Southern prisons. After the appointment of the committee—the Hon. Mr. Shanks, of Indiana, being its chairman—I wrote to the Hon. Charles A. Eldridge and the Hon. Mr. Mungen (the latter a member of the committee) some of the facts herein detailed. Both of these gentleman made an effort to extend the authority of the committee so that it might inquire into the treatment of prisoners North as well as South, and especially that it might inquire into the truth of the matters which I had alleged. All these attempts were frustrated by the Radical majority, although several of the party voted to extend the inquiry. As several thousand dollars of the money of the people have been spent by this committee, will not they demand that the investigation shall be thorough and impartial? The House of Representatives have declined the inquiry; let the people take it up.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

Robert Ould.


We may add to the above statement that (through the courtesy of Judge Ould) we now have on our table the letter-book of our Commissioner of Exchange, containing copies of all of his official letters to the Federal authorities, and they prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, every point which he makes.