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Confederate prisoners (sitting) from Battle of Front Royal awaiting parole

Lacking means for dealing with large numbers of captured troops in the early years of the war, the U.S. and Confederate governments both relied on the traditional European system for the parole and exchange of prisoners. Any prisoner not exchanged within 10 days of being captured was to be released upon signing a pledge not to take up arms against his captors until he had been formally exchanged for an enemy prisoner.

The system operated on the good faith of the governments and the accompanying governmental paperwork, and sometimes several months would pass before the paroled soldier would be notified that he had been exchanged. During that time, the lucky soldiers would be allowed to go to their homes and wait until instructed to rejoin their units. When the failure of exchanged soldiers to return to their units became a problem, Union parolees would sometimes be held in military custody in federal detention camps until exchanged. The United States also attempted to give noncombat assignments to soldiers waiting to be exchanged or sent them west to fight Indians instead of Rebels. These measures were a violation of the intent of the system in that parolees were not to be given any duties that would free other soldiers for combat.

Although discussions of formal exchange began between the two governments in February 1862, no agreement came until Union Gen.John A. Dix and Confederate Gen.Daniel H. Hill established an agreement on July 22, 1862. The parole system grew increasingly complex and expensive as the war progressed. Hoping to be sent home on parole, soldiers would sometimes allow themselves to be captured. This became such a problem that one Confederate general notified his men that they would remain prisoners of war and not be paroled or exchanged until the honorable conditions of their capture were verified.

One of the largest paroles of the war came with the capture of Vicksburg, Miss. Union Gen.Ulysses S. Grant paroled about 31,600 Confederate defenders of the city at one time. Two years later, at Appomattox, he paroled the 28,231 members of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia-and they were never exchanged.