Prisoner Exchange Considered by President Lincoln

October 5, 1864

President Lincoln talks about naval prisoners in a visit to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles at the Navy Department. They later meet with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at the War Department.   Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “The President came to see me pretty early this morning in relation to the exchange of prisoners. It had troubled him through the night. I was at no loss to perceive that behind the subject of exchange there were matters undisclosed to me. He read again this morning the closing remarks of a long telegram from Butler. I have no question there were improper remarks in that dispatch which they at the War Department were unwilling either Mr. Fox or myself should see, for I called Fox in to have all the facts disclosed. He and Webb had, by their correspondence, led to the late movement, which was, however, humane and right. The President said he wanted the subject to be got along with harmoniously, that they had no objection he would go and see Seward, tell him the facts, get him to come over, and bring the Secretary of War and all in interest to a consultation. I told him I had no objection, nor any feeling, as it affected myself, on the subject. All I wanted was our imprisoned men.”

In less than an hour the President returned with Seward. We went briefly over the question and read to him Mallory’s letter. After discussing the subject, went, by request of the President, with him to the War Department. General Hitchcock and General Halleck came in soon. Stanton was ill-mannered, as usual, where things did not please him, and on one or two occasions a little offensive. Did not know why there should be different exchanges; the Rebels would not recognize negroes. I told him that, while general cartel was neglected, the army were making exchanges here, and by Butler on the James, Sherman at Atlanta, Canby at New Orleans, and Foster at Hilton Head. I thought it proper and felt it my duty to see that the naval men were not entirely neglected. That no question as regards color had ever come up in regard to naval exchange; that colored men in our service were not a distinct organization, etc., etc. It was, he said, our duty to prevent Rebel masters from reclaiming slaves who had been in our service. He thought I ought not to write the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, recognizing him as Secretary. That the slaveowners would insist on retaining and reclaiming their slaves wherever and whenever they could, I had no doubt. It was a question of property, and of local and legal right with them which we could not prevent. It was a complicated and embarrassing question, but he must not suppose, nor would the country permit our countrymen to suffer in captivity on such a question. To absolutely stop exchanges because owners held on to their slaves when they got them was an atrocious wrong, one that I would not be a party to.

As regarded Mallory, I told him I had carefully avoided giving him a title, — that I had written to the Hon. Mr. Mallory in answer to a communication I had received.

The President said that the correspondence was a past transaction, — that we need not disturb that matter; the Navy arrangement must go forward, and the Navy have its men. He wrote and read a brief letter to General Grant proposing to turn over the prisoners we had sent to him. After reading it he asked for comments and opinions. General Hitchcock, .a man of warm sympathies but little moral courage, began a speech, sycophantic to Stanton, intimating that the War Department should have exclusive control of the cartel, etc. I told him I was perfectly willing and desired it, if they would not obstruct the exchange but get back our men. All assented to the President’s letter. Stanton and Seward preferred it should be addressed to General Butler instead of General Grant, but the President preferred addressing the General-in-Chief and I commended his preference. We telegraphed Capt. Melancthon Smith, to turn the prisoners over to General Grant to be disposed of.

In the course of the conversation, Stanton, who began to feel that his position might not stand, said he had known nothing about these exchanges. I told him we had written him requesting that the Rebel prisoners at different points might be sent to Fort Warren in order to be exchanged. General Hitchcock, his commissioner, had been consulted in the matter, and had communicated with Mr. Fox, to whom had been given the charge of details for the Navy, as General Hitchcock had them for the War Department. General Hitchcock himself had proposed that we should take some one or two army men on board the Circassian as a special favor. After this matter was disposed of, and before leaving the room, Seward spoke aside to the President and also to the Secretary of War, stating he had appointed a meeting between them and Weed and Raymond, who were in the building, he had no doubt. As I came out of the Secretary’s apartment, Weed was in the opposite room, and evidently saw me, for he immediately stepped aside so as not to be seen. It was not an accidental move, but hastily and awkwardly done. They waited half behind the door until we passed out.

President Lincoln writes General Ulysses S. Grant: “I enclose you copy of a correspondence in regard to a contemplated exchange of Naval prisoners through your lines and not very distant from your Head Quarters. It only came to the knowledge of the War Department and of myself yesterday, and it gives us some uneasiness. I therefore send it to you with the statement that as the numbers to be exchanged under it are small, and so much has already been done to effect the exchange, I hope you may find it consistent to let it go forward under the general supervision of Gen Butler, and particularly in reference to the points he holds vital in exchanges. Still you are at liberty to arrest the whole operation, if in your judgment the public good requires it.”

Former Illinois Senator Orville Browning writes in his diary: “At Presidents in the morning with Capt Black & Mr Poole.”

President Lincoln dispatches aide John G. Nicolay to Missouri to learn election sympathies of Union men there.

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