Military History Prisoners
Thomas J. Ward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0085


How to deal with captured combatants is a problem as old as warfare itself. Execution, slavery, conscription, imprisonment, and even assimilation have historically all been means that societies have utilized to deal with warriors taken in arms. Some societies held prisoners for ransom, while others brought them into their societies to increase their numbers. The ancient Greek and Roman Empires both used captured foes for labor or sold prisoners into slavery. The first formal call for the humane treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) came in 1625 from the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius in The Laws of War and Peace. Drawing on Greek and Roman philosophy, Grotius sought to convince European nations to treat prisoners mercifully, often arguing that it was in their own interest to spare the lives of their captives, who could be used for labor or exchange. While Grotius’s appeals for a uniform code of prisoner treatment were not enacted, his work did provide the basis for later models on the treatment of POWs. Beginning in the mid-18th century, numerous attempts were made among nations to standardize protections for soldiers taken in combat. During the Seven Years’ War, the British and French established cartels to deal with the exchange of prisoners, although no formal treaty establishing rules for exchange or the treatment of prisoners was developed. The first formal treaty among nations to codify treatment of enemy prisoners was the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1785 between the United States and Prussia; the two nations agreed not use the infamous “prison hulks” that the British held Americans in during the War for Independence. In 1863, at the behest of President Abraham Lincoln, Francis Lieber, a professor of international law, developed a set of rules for both the Union and the Confederate forces to adhere to regarding the treatment of captured soldiers. Influenced by Lieber’s work, during the 19th and 20th centuries, European nations came together numerous times to try to develop international agreements on the treatment of enemy prisoners, most notably at Geneva in 1864, 1906, 1929, and 1949. The Geneva Accords created standard protocols for the treatment of incapacitated men in the field of battle, at sea, and in prison camps and for the protection of civilians during wartime; they remain the standard rules of war to which most of the world’s nations adhere. While this article deals mostly with the experiences of POWs, that is, armed combatants captured by an enemy force during battle, attention is also given, in some cases, to noncombatants imprisoned during wartime.

General Overviews

Little historiography exists on the treatment of POWs before the 19th century. Keeley 1997 devotes a small section to the treatment of captives and prisoners in ancient war, while the brief article Webb 1948 argues that there is ample evidence that knights were bound to treat their defeated enemies humanely. More recently, an excellent essay by Peter H. Wilson on prisoners in early modern Europe appears in Scheipers 2010. Garrett 1981, a broad study, also traces the history of captured combatants back to the Hundred Years’ War. In the wake of World War I, the author of Fooks 1924 undertook the first full-length study of POWs, and since then the study of POWs has expanded rapidly to examine all aspects of the POW experience—capture, imprisonment, abuse, escape, release, repatriation, and psychological effects. Doyle 1994 examines the similar experiences of American POWs, and Dean 1997 compares the psychological effects that captivity had on prisoners from different wars. The mistreatment of prisoners, despite the protections of international agreements, is covered in Wallace 2015, while debates over balancing the needs of national security with the established legal rights of POWs, especially in nonconventional wars, such as the War on Terror, in which combatants are not identified by a uniform, rank, or military or even a sovereign nation, is the focus of Carvin 2010 and Springer 2010.

  • Carvin, Stephanie. Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    A legalistic approach to examining American war policy from the colonial era to the present. Carvin focuses on the ways that the US government and military have tried to abide by international laws of war, especially as such laws relate to the treatment of prisoners, and the difficulties that the changing nature of war has presented in dealing with prisoners.

  • Dean, Eric T. Shook over Hell: Post-traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Dean takes a comparative approach to studying the postwar effects of captivity on POWs by looking at the experiences of veterans from both the American Civil War and the Vietnam War.

  • Doyle, Robert C. Voices from Captivity: Interpreting the American POW Narrative. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

    In the now-classic study of the POW experience, Doyle examines the narratives of American POWs from the colonial era through the end of the 20th century, finding similar experiences—such as capture, “death marches,” escape, and release—among prisoners across the centuries. Doyle also provides an excellent historiographical account of American POWs.

  • Fooks, Herbert C. Prisoners of War. Federalsburg, MD: J. W. Stowell, 1924.

    The first major work to study POWs, Fooks takes a topical approach to examining the treatment of prisoners throughout history, starting with defining who POWs were and ending with liberation.

  • Garrett, Richard. P.O.W.: The Uncivil Face of War. Newton Abbot, UK: David and Charles, 1981.

    A broad, chronological study that examines the status of POWs from the Hundred Years’ War to Vietnam.

  • Keeley, Lawrence. War before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    One of the only works to deal with subject of wartime prisoners in the ancient world, Keeley examines the treatment of captives in a number of early societies from around the globe, including Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas.

  • Scheipers, Sibylle, ed. Prisoners in War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    A collection of essays from some of the world’s leading POW scholars, including Allen Kramer and Bob Moore, that examine issues from the status of prisoners in the Crusades and early modern Europe to current issues such as the status of prisoners in irregular conflicts and extraordinary rendition.

  • Springer, Paul J. America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.

    In this broad overview of the history of POWs held by the United States, Springer focuses on how American policy toward POWs compares to the actual practice the nation has shown to its captives. His introduction contains an excellent bibliographical essay as well.

  • Wallace, Geoffrey P. R. Life and Death in Captivity: The Abuse of Prisoners during War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.

    Focusing mainly on World War II, but looking at examples form the Spanish-American War through the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Wallace examines the systematic mistreatment of prisoners per government policies in violation of the Geneva Accords or other international agreements.

  • Webb, Henry J. “Prisoners of War in the Middle Ages.” Military Affairs 12.1 (Spring 1948): 46–49.

    DOI: 10.2307/1982524

    One of the few significant works to deal with the status of POWs before the 19th century, Webb argues that a number of authors of the Middle Age—lawyers, priests, and poets—all asserted that captured men should be dealt with honorably and humanely by knights.

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