Prisoner Exchanges

A Short Look Back in History - American Prisoner Exchanges

Official Air Force Photo

You’ve seen it if you follow the news – the swap of five Taliban fighters for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, with all the various exclamations of outrage pro and con, 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.  But I’m not going to get into whether I think it was necessarily a good decision, nor what I may or may not think of Sgt.

Bergdahl (don’t know him, never met him).  I’m just going to take a look at the past, and see what I find…  starting with the beginning of our country.

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 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:


Congressional Report, “PRISONERS OF WAR: REPATRIATION OR INTERNMENT IN WARTIME - American and Allied Experience, 1775 to Present”. 

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

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