“Feeding and guarding so many captives was often beyond the logistical means of even the largest armies in the New World, so commanders routinely freed these captured amateurs, often within hours of the end of a battle.”
EUROPEAN AND NORTH American armies turned to the militia to bolster troop levels during the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. But frequently, these amateur ‘citizen soldiers’ proved to be more trouble than they were worth once the bullets were flying.
During the many wars between England and France in North America, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and even the Civil War, about the only thing generals could count on the militia to do was to break and run in the face of more professional regular troops — that, or surrender.
After a battle, a victorious army might have hundreds of enemy militiamen as prisoners. Feeding and guarding so many captives was often beyond the logistical means of even the largest armies in the New World, so commanders routinely freed these captured amateurs, often within hours of the end of a battle. This system was known as parole, a French word meaning ‘on one’s word of honour.’
Paroled prisoners often swore an oath to their captors that in return for their freedom, they would refuse subsequent military service until the war ended or the opposing factions negotiated an exchange (i.e. each side might agree to release a certain number of paroled prisoners from their obligation to abstain from future hostilities).
Paroled militia typically returned to their farms, homes and families. Some received certificates from the general that exempted them from being pressed back into service. Surprisingly, militaries would abide by these agreements as a matter of course. Punishment for breaking one’s word could be severe.
Breaking the Rules
During the American Revolution, the South Carolinian patriot Isaac Hayne learned this lesson the hard way. After being captured and paroled by the British following the Battle of Charleston, Hayne returned to his plantation and his family. The following year, the British attempted to press the wealthy landowner into service for the Crown, something Hayne considered to be a violation by the British of the terms of his parole. Figuring that the breach absolved him of his obligation to stay out of the fight, so he promptly returned to his comrades and rejoined the rebellion. Unfortunately, Hayne was again captured and the British military who little sympathy for the unlucky patriot. A tribunal condemned him to death and he was hanged on Aug. 4, 1781. Many in the U.K. were outraged by the army’s decision. Despite being a rebel, the critics felt the sentence was unjust, particularly since the redcoats were themselves willing to ignore the terms of their own parole agreement.
Not all militiamen looked unfavourably upon parole. For many, it afforded them a chance to return home and to sit out the war either until armistice or until exchanged.
In the book Plunder Profits and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812, author and historian George Sheppard wrote that when troops from the United States seized the Upper Canadian capital of York in the spring of 1813, many citizen soldiers were only too happy to surrender to the Americans. Delighted colonists from the neighbouring countryside who were none-to-keen to fight anyway flooded into the occupied capital to seek parole from the invaders. Many of these settlers were themselves recent arrivals from the United States, lured north by the promise of free land, and had little interest in taking up arms against their former countrymen on behalf of England. According to Sheppard, U.S. commanders issued hundreds of parole certificates to settlers, many of whom hadn’t even been involved in the defence of the town.
The End of Parole
The practice of paroling prisoners had to be suspended by the Union army during the American Civil War. Generals found that too many soldiers, knowing that they might be sent home for the duration, willingly turned themselves over to the enemy. The armies themselves tried to circumvent the terms of the parole agreements by reclaiming sidelined troops immediately and putting them to work garrisoning rear echelon areas, using them as guards or even sending them west to fight Indians. Because of the difficulty locating and recalling paroled troops from their homes after exchanges, armies established holding camps where their own paroled troops would await redeployment. These camps were poorly provisioned and life in them was miserable.
By 1863, the North began imprisoning captured Confederate troops rather than releasing them Regular exchanges of paroled troops were becoming the South’s main method of maintaining troop levels. Union commanders saw prisoner exchanges as something that was prolonging the war.
The 19th Century saw the rise of large standing professional armies among the world’s great military powers. Paroling would give way to prisoner-of-war camps in future conflicts.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on May 24, 2012)