American Prisoner Of War Exchanges

American Prisoner Exchanges

••• Official Air Force Photo

In recent years, there have been American Prisoners of War and since the attacks on September 11, 2001, our country has taken hundreds of suspected terrorist and battlefield combatants and imprisoned them in Guantanamo Bay Cuba during the Bush Administration.

Throughout the Bush and Obama Administrations prisoners from the War on Terror were released or transferred to another country for detaining and some even used as bargaining chips to release Americans. Some 500 suspected terrorists were released or removed from Guantanamo Bay Cuba facilities. 

During the Obama Administration nearly 300 terrorists were released or removed to a host country, but the swap of five Taliban fighters for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, came with all the various exclamations of outrage both pro and con along military and political party lines, and ranting about the conditions of Sgt.

Bergdahl’s capture. 

Despite it all, though, President Obama’s decision to make the trade was not really a departure from history or U.S. law.  A quick look at the past, starting with the beginning of our country will yield precedent to make trades for our soldiers and citizens throughout the ages.

The American Revolution, War of 1812, and the Civil War

During the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), exchanges of prisoners were made in the field or at higher levels of organization - usually high-ranking officer exchanges were negotiated for specifically named people. There were also some exchanges based on numbers for random lower-ranking people, but these were on a more limited basis. 

During the War of 1812, a provisional agreement was amended and accepted (Cartel for the exchange of prisoners of war between Great Britain and the United States of America) that addressed prisoner exchanges.

According to the History Channel, in the first year of the Civil War (1861 to 1865), prisoner exchanges were conducted primarily between field generals on an ad hoc basis after battles - the Union being reluctant to enter any formal agreements, fearing that it would legitimize the Confederate government. 

However, on December 11, 1861, the US Congress passed a joint resolution calling on President Lincoln to "inaugurate systematic measures for the exchange of prisoners in the present rebellion."

In July 1862, Union General John Dix and Confederate General Daniel H. Hill reached an agreement in which each soldier was assigned a value according to rank. For example, one private was worth another private; corporals and sergeants were worth two privates; and lieutenants were worth three privates. A commanding general was worth 60 privates. Under this system, thousands of soldiers were exchanged rather than languishing in prisons like those in Andersonville, Georgia, or Elmira, New York.

The National Archive has Records of the Commissary General of Prisoners. Record Group 249 - which is dated for 1861-1905 – has a note that the Records of the Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners is listed as being 4 linear feet.  (“normal” file cabinet capacity is about 2 linear foot per drawer)

During World War II and the Cold War

During WWII (1939 to 1945), Americans were swapped in the exchange of prisoners between Germany and the United States. 

During the Cold War, spy swaps were quite common practice  - the most well-known (or at least, well-publicized) being that of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers released by the Soviets in exchange for Soviet Colonel Rudolf Abel, a senior KGB spy.

February 1986 - Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky (now Natan Sharansky) was swapped for Communist spies arrested in the West in 1984: Karl Koecher and Hana Koecher.

In 2010, the United States and Russia conducted the biggest spy swap since Cold War - ten alleged Russian spies that had been arrested in the US were traded for four detainees convicted of espionage in Russia.

Beyond those found on Amazon and similar sites (for example, Mercy Ships: The Untold Story of Prisoner-of-War Exchanges in World War II), there have been various publications on the topic of Prisoners of War (including prisoner exchanges).  For example:


Naval War College – International Law Studies – Volume 59, Prisoners of War in International Armed Conflict, Chapter II:  The Regime of the Prisoner of War