Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Statement of Junius Henri Browne

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Southern Historical Society Papers, April 1876

We clip the following from a Northern paper published not long after the close of the war:

{{fine block|General Butler said at Hamilton, Ohio, the other day, that while he never answered anonymous newspaper attacks, he felt it his duty here at Hamilton to refute a slander which had been circulated from this platform a few days ago by a gentleman of standing in advocating the election of the Democratic candidate.

He has chosen to say that I am responsible for the starvation of our prisoners at Belle Isle and Andersonville, by refusing to exchange soldiers because the Rebels did not recognize the negroes in our service as regular soldiers.

I don't propose to criticise anybody, or to say who was right or who was wrong, but I propose to state the exact facts, because it has been widely charged against me, that in order to rescue the negro soldiers I preferred that 30,000 of our men should starve rather than agree that the negro should not be exchanged.

Whatever I might have thought it best to have done, I am only here to-day to say that I did not do it. The duties of Commissioner of Exchange were put in my hands. I made an arrangement to have an exchange effected—man for man, officer for officer. I communicated my plan to General Streight, of Indiana, who is here to-day, and who had then just escaped from the Libby. I told him how I proposed to get our negro soldiers out of rebel hands.

We had 60,000 or thereabout of their prisoners. They had 30,000 of ours, or thereabout. I don't give the exact numbers, as I quote from memory; but these are the approximate numbers.

I proposed to go on and exchange with the rebels, man for man, officer for officer, until I got 30,000 of our men, and then I would still have had 30,000 of theirs left in my hands. And then I proposed to twist these 30,000 until I got the negroes out of the Rebels. [Applause.] I made this arrangement with the Confederate Commissioner. This was on the 1st of April, before we commenced to move on that campaign of 1864, from the Rapid Ann to the James, around Richmond. At that time the Lieutenant-General visited my headquarters, and I told him what I had done. He gave me certain verbal directions. What they were I shall not say, because I have his instructions in writing. But I sent my proposition for exchange to the Government of the United States. It was referred to the Lieutenant-General. He ordered me not to give the Confederates another man in exchange.

I telegraphed back to him in these words:

"Your order shall be obeyed, but I assume you do not mean to interfere with the exchange of the sick and wounded?"

He replied: "Take all the sick and wounded you can get, but don't give them another man."

You can see that even with sick and wounded men this system would soon cause all exchanges to stop.

It did stop. It stopped right there, in April, 1864, and was not resumed until August, 1864, when Mr. Ould, the Rebel Commissioner, again wrote me: "We will exchange man for man, officer for officer," and saying nothing about colored troops.

I laid this dispatch before the Lieutenant-General. His answer, in writing, was substantially: "If you give the rebels the 30,000 men whom we hold, it will insure the defeat of General Sherman and endanger our safety here around Richmond." I wrote an argument, offensively put, to the Confederate Commissioners, so that they could stop all further offers of exchange.

I say nothing about the policy of this course; I offer no criticism of it whatever; I only say that whether it be a good or a bad policy, it was not mine, and that my part in it was wholly in obedience to orders from my commanding officer, the Lieutenant-General.}}

Upon another occasion General Butler used this strong language:

"The great importance of the question; the fearful responsibility for the many thousands of lives which, by the refusal to exchange, were sacrificed by the most cruel forms of death; from cold, starvation, and pestilence of the prison pens of Raleigh and Andersonville, being more than all the British soldiers killed in the wars of Napoleon; the anxiety of fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, wives, to know the exigency which caused this terrible—and perhaps as it may have seemed to them useless and unnecessary—destruction of those dear to them, by horrible deaths; each and all have compelled me to this exposition, so that it may be seen that these lives were spent as a part of the system of attack upon the rebellion, devised by the wisdom of the General-in-chief of the armies, to destroy it by depletion, depending upon our superior numbers to win the victory at last.

"The loyal mourners will doubtless derive solace from this fact and appreciate all the more highly the genius which conceived the plan and the success won at so great a cost."

The New York Tribune will also be accepted as competent authority. Referring to the occurrences of 1864, the Tribune editorially says:

"In August the Rebels offered to renew the exchange, man for man. General Grant then telegraphed the following important order: 'It is hard on our men, held in Southern prisons, not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man released on parole or otherwise becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on till the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time, to release all Rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman's defeat, and would compromise our safety here.'"

Here is even a stronger statement from a Northern source:

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"New York, August 8th, 1865.

"Moreover, General Butler, in his speech at Lowell, Massachusetts, stated positively that he had been ordered by Mr. Stanton to put forward the negro question to complicate and prevent the exchange.  *   *   *   *   *  Every one is aware that, when the exchange did take place, not the slightest alteration had occurred in the question, and that our prisoners might as well have been, released twelve or eighteen months before as at the resumption of the cartel, which would have saved to the Republic at least twelve or fifteen thousand heroic lives. That they were not saved is due alone to Mr. Edwin M. Stanton's peculiar policy and dogged obstinacy; and, as I have remarked before, he is unquestionably the digger of the unnamed graves that crowd the vicinity of every southern prison with historic and never-to-be-forgotten horrors.

"Once for all, let me declare that I have never found fault with any one because I was detained in prison, for I am well aware that that was a matter in which no one but myself, and possibly a few personal friends, would feel any interest; that my sole motive for impeaching the Secretary of War was that the people of the loyal North might know to whom they were indebted for the cold-blooded and needless sacrifice of their fathers and brothers, their husbands and their sons.

"Junius Henri Browne."