1862: “A Fair Exchange Of Prisoners”

Headquarters Cavalry, etc.

Major General John Pope

Commanding, etc.

General.

You have my hat and plume. I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for a fair exchange of the prisoners.

Very Respectfully

J.E.B. Stuart

Maj. Genl. C.S.A.

General JEB Stuart, wearing a fine uniform and displaying a hat with an ostrich plume.

General Stuart’s Hat

General James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart had charisma. But he wasn’t all talk and no action like some Civil War generals. No, Stuart had a reputation. He’d managed to ride all the way around McClellan’s Union army and had become the hero of the Confederate papers…and the ideal cavalryman of the South.

Part of Stuart’s successful act included his fine uniform – and to complete that fine uniform in 1862 was an iconic hat with a wonderful ostrich plume. Seriously – Stuart’s hat set a standard for all “fashionable” Confederate cavalrymen. So…it was a comic tragedy when Stuart was surprised one day and had to leap off the front porch of a civilian home onto his horse and gallop away, leaving that beloved hat behind.

Remember Union General John Pope? He seems to have had special affection for some of his military attire too. Well, his best coat was captured, hauled off to Richmond, and put on public display. With a notice sign boasting that Pope’s coat had arrived in the Confederate capital, but the general himself had yet to appear before the city limits.

General John Pope

Prisoner Exchange In 1862

Now, I suppose we should talk about some serious history for a moment. So – put aside the details of the clothing exchange – and let’s talk briefly about real prisoner exchange during the Civil War.

During 1861, both sides had comparatively few prisoners and stashed them away in old prisons or forts before they were exchanged. However, two months into 1862, the Union army captured a significant number of Confederate prisoners at Fort Donelson. Then the Confederate got Union prisoners during the Peninsula Campaign. Pressured by their civilian populations, Union and Confederate governments and armies reached an agreement during July 1862 for an exchange cartel. The Federal government carefully worded the document, making it clear they were dealing with any enemy army, but not a separate government – thereby continuing their refusal to see the Confederacy as a governor and keeping it only in the role of rebellious states.

In the 1862 exchange system, military rank played a role. For example, a lieutenant was worth four soldiers while a general was worth sixty privates. Privates were just worth privates. Other prisoners could be released the respective sides on parole – meaning they could go “home” but weren’t supposed to fight until notified that they were formally exchanged.

The exchange system worked for about ten months, then halted in 1863. The Confederacy refused to respect or exchange African American soldiers and that played a major role in the break down of the exchange system.

Historical Musings

Why did I choose a simple document requesting the exchange of a hat for a coat? Honestly, because it’s funny. While I would not want to make jokes about war, it is interesting to find dashes of humor in primary sources. (Like Barlow and the pig pen!)

It reminds us that these were real people – coping, adventuring, or cracking jokes between the battles. It lends a human quality and remembrance to our history studies.

And – if it made you smile or chuckle – my first goal for the week is accomplished.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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