Monday, January 24, 2011

Janaury 24, 1865

Though buried deep on today's This Day in History Page the event that took place 146 years ago today in the Civil War is quite telling. Apparently the Confederate government reauthorized the exchange of prisoners on this day in that year. I never knew that they resumed the exchange. As the site acknowledges, however, this decision so late in the war was rather useless (and probably driven mostly by the swelling numbers of Federal prisoners the Confederacy could not accommodate).

I don't know how widely known is the story black troops played in the Civil War. Black men in uniform made up 10% of the Union Army, which might not sound significant, but was. In a war of attrition where numbers mattered black men provided an extra 200,000 troops to the Union forces, hastening the demise of Confederate forces. Further, those 200,000 served at a rate far greater, proportionally speaking, than the percentage of blacks living in the Union would suggest. Many of these men were, in fact, runaway slaves, contraband.

Let me get to the point.

Opposition to slavery in the Civil War was not necessarily a moral viewpoint. Those who opposed it often did so on economic, social, or pragmatic grounds. Many of those who opposed slavery held viewpoints that today we consider quite racist. Even the Great Emancipator himself is on the record saying some deplorable things about black Americans.

But the whole prisoner exchange issue ironically shows a humanity toward blacks from the Federal government and military establishment that, in my opinion, was ahead of its time. Upon the Union's announcement allowing black men to enlist in their ranks, the Confederate Congress announced that it would not exchange black men captured in combat. Instead, blacks found in the employ of Federal troops would be returned to slavery; those captured and found in uniform would be summarily executed. In response, the Federal government declared that it would suspend the system of exchanging prisoners that the two sides to that point had carried out. Certainly there was a pragmatic consideration here: Confederate resources were thinner than were Federal, so the greater hardship would be for them to care for the prisoners they took. Yet, still, the Union's suspension of the prisoner exchange was a tremendous statement of equality: If you don't treat all our soldiers as soldiers, we'll discontinue this courtesy based on equality of soldiers.

Sometimes history turns on acts that seem innocuous or marginal at the time they took place. To me, the story of how race complicated prisoner exchanges in the Civil War demonstrates a foreshadowing of a day when our country would better understand the principle that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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