What would you have done, if you had spent your youth fighting for freedom as you saw it, settled in a new country with promise, built a career, and then found your adopted country embroiled in a fight for its life? Fought alongside it, no doubt. What would you have done then, if, wounded, useless in battle, you had been assigned the most thankless, impossible task of the war - overseeing 45,000 prisoners with a skeleton crew, a few cannon, and minimal supplies? The best you could, within your orders?
What if, the war lost, you had been put on trial by the victors? Would you have said, 'I made this situation, I am responsible', or would you have said, 'I did the best I could'? Who was responsible for this horror, anyway?
In our day, we are accustomed to international tribunals which try political and military leaders for war crimes, for what we call crimes against humanity. But Henry Wirz, the only man hanged for a war crime at the end of the US Civil War, was the first such 'war criminal'. Whether this was just - whether Wirz deserved to die for what he did or did not do during the last 14 months of this bitter internecine conflict - is a question that is still controversial.
For Henry Wirz was the commandant of the Confederate prison stockade called Camp Sumter - known to history as Andersonville.
The Problem with Prisoner Exchange
There is reason to fear, that many voluntarily surrender for the sake of gettng home.
- Edwin McMasters Stanton, Secretary of War (US)
Prisoner exchanges1, the main means of solving prisoner problems in most wars before the 1860s2, did not work very well during the US Civil War. The Confederacy - blockaded, strapped for resources, unable to guard or provide for the masses of prisoners they captured - urgently wanted these exchanges. The Union, with greater resources and manpower coming off the immigrant boats weekly3, did not.
As the Secretary of War, Edwin M Stanton - the primary opponent after Lincoln of prisoner exchanges - put it, there were two objections. One was that exchanging prisoners recognised the existence of the Confederacy as a nation. The other was that Union soldiers, who only served for a year, were sent home, whereas Confederates, fighting on their own turf, simply went back to the army. The Union felt it was getting the lesser bargain. This left tens of thousands of soldiers at any one time sidelined from battle, but fighting for their very existence under horrific conditions.
Prisoner exchanges broke down in 1863 over a disagreement on the disposition of black Union soldiers. When Ulysses S Grant became Union commander-in-chief, he concluded for policy reasons that prisoner exchanges were detrimental to the North, and declined to re-initiate them.
The Facts on the (Bloody) Ground
Not long after my arrival I heard a cry 'Rat call! Rat call!' I went out to see what this meant... The prisoners scrambled for the rats like school boys for apples... Of course but few were lucky enough to get a rat. The rats were cleaned, put in salt water a while and fried...
- Captain John S Swann, prisoner at Fort Delaware
Union prisons varied in quality - Elmira in New York had a 25% death rate for the year it was open. At Camp Douglas in Michigan, prisoners were deprived of clothing in a Great Lakes winter to discourage escape attempts, and 3-6,000 shivered and died in gunny sacks with holes cut for head and arms4. At Fort McHenry5 the prisoners were treated comparatively leniently, even being able to bribe the guards for a night out in nearby Baltimore, but Fort McHenry began as an internment camp for the prominent.
Conditions in Confederate prisons were bleak, though less cold in winter, a serious consideration in terms of survival. Libby Prison, a converted warehouse and chandlery in Richmond, Virginia, was overcrowded and disease-ridden, though surgeons visited there, and officers were brought food and comforts by Miss Elizabeth van Lew, the local Union spy in residence6. Prisons were often converted tobacco warehouses, or simply wooden stockades thrown up, with the prisoners living in tents, when available, or crude lean-tos constructed of materials at hand.
Estimates made about 40 years after the war indicate that in all, the South imprisoned 194,000 Union soldiers, while the North had captured 220,000 Confederates. Of these, 24,436 Southerners and 22,570 Northerners died in the camps. The total death toll of around 50,000 made the prison camps as deadly as the three days of Gettysburg, the most lethal battle of the war.
Andersonville was a stockade prison, constructed in desperation after prisoner exchanges had fallen through. In all, 45,000 prisoners were housed within the 26-acre enclosure. A creek7 ran through the camp, which quickly became clogged with effluvia. Food and water were scarce and disease was rife.
Conditions in Andersonville were horrendous, different in scale though not in quality from those in other prison camps on both sides in the conflict - of the 45,000 men imprisoned there, 13,000 died. What caused Andersonville in particular to become a byword for atrocity?
The Power of Public Opinion
We parted with our Alabama guards early in April. It was a disappointment to us, for we had found friends among them, real friends who shared with us their scant allowance. Others who had nothing 'gave all they had - a tear'.
- James Madison Page, 6th Michigan Cavalry, referring to the guards at Andersonville
The end of the war was time of heightened emotion on the part of the victorious North. Within a week of the surrender at Appomattox, President Lincoln was shot, and battle lines were drawn between those in the Administration who wished to continue Lincoln's policy of re-incorporating the rebel states 'with malice toward none, with charity for all', and those, like Edwin M Stanton, who most definitely did not. The new President, Andrew Johnson, was beleaguered from the beginning (he was later impeached, unsuccessfully). Johnson refused to allow the prosecution of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and General Robert E Lee for war crimes, but acquiesced in the case of Andersonville Commandant Henry Wirz.
When images from Andersonville were published along with an article in Harper's Weekly8, public horror at the excesses of war was focussed on this particular camp. Someone had to pay. General Lew Wallace9, fresh from the panel that had tried the 'Lincoln conspirators'10, was named to head the court martial of the 'Andersonville jailer'.
Who was Henry Wirz, and how much did he have to do with what happened in that Georgia stockade?
From Revolution to War
Henry obviously lacked the administrative capacity that a man in his job ought to have had, but given the circumstances under which Andersonville was set up and operated, it would have taken a complete administrative genius to keep the place from becoming anything but a horror
- Bruce Catton, 'Prison Camps of the Civil War', American Heritage Magazine (online version)
Heinrich Hartmann (or Hartmann Heinrich) Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1822. A trained physician, he came to the US in 1849, with a prison record of his own. Henry, as he now called himself, was a '48er - like his contemporary, the Union General Carl Schurz11, Wirz had been involved in the upheavals that rocked Europe in 1848. Many of these young European radicals later went west. When war broke out, Wirz joined the Confederate Army, being seriously wounded at the battle of Fair Oaks. Returning from a diplomatic mission to Europe, Wirz was assigned to General Winder, who had been placed in charge of war prisoners east of the Mississippi. Thus Wirz came in charge of the nightmare that was Andersonville.
Supervision on the part of Confederate guards was non-existent - crime existed within the camp, caused by 'raiders' who stole from fellow-soldiers, even committing murder. The raiders were finally stopped by fellow prisoners, who captured and hanged them. Deaths averaged about 100 a day. Cannon were placed outside the stockade in case of prison uprising. Prisoners were required to stay inside the 'deadline' - a word that first appeared during the war, and which meant exactly what it said.
Wirz himself was far from well. His shattered arm caused him intractable pain, which was treated with morphine. There is some question that this combination caused him to be both irascible and erratic. Accounts of his alleged cruelty - including the case of a mad prisoner who was shot after crossing the deadline - vary and cannot be finally resolved.
In 1865, when Union troops liberated Andersonville, Wirz was arrested and taken to Washington, DC, for the world's first war crimes trial.
The Andersonville Trial
The vengeful thought that has root merely in the mind is but a dream of idlest sort which one clear day will dissipate; while revenge, the passion, is a disease of the heart which climbs up, up to the brain, and feeds itself on both alike.
- General Lew Wallace, Revenge
At his trial, it was alleged that Wirz behaved with wanton cruelty. Testimony was brought by former captives. Wirz offered in his defence a letter that he had written to his superiors complaining about the shortage of food for the prisoners. Some witnesses who wished to appear in Wirz's defence were excluded from the trial.
As Wirz continued to be unwell, he was brought into the courtroom on a stretcher and attended the proceedings from a chaise longue. He was convicted and condemed to death.
On 10 November, 1865, Wirz was executed in the courtyard of what is now the US Supreme Court building. The hanging was botched - it took Wirz two full minutes to die. Union soldiers stood around chanting 'Remember Andersonville'.
Vengeance or Revenge?
There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapless, endless damnation.
- Walt Whitman on the execution of Henry Wirz
I swear positively that I never heard of Captain Wirz kicking or shooting a prisoner, nor in any way maltreating him except as I have stated.
- Testimony of Augustus Moesner for the defence, from Andersonville Trial transcripts
The 250 ticket-holding spectators in Washington who joined in the chanting as Henry Wirz, formerly of Zurich, slowly writhed his way to death on the gallows probably shared Mr Whitman's sentiments. But do we?
Much has been said, and will be said, of individual responsibility for acts of atrocity in wartime. Less is said - and this will, perhaps, continue to be the case - of the responsibility of individuals in times of high political passions to fight against the tendency to seek a scapegoat.
The war is over. You have won - therefore your enemy was wrong. Completely, utterly, and definitively wrong. About economics, about social issues. About everything.
Wars do a lot of damage. Someone must pay for this damage. Guilt must be determined, blame assigned. Thus it has ever been, thus it will be.
The wheels of military justice grind swiftly. And sometimes they crush the guilty. Sometimes questions remain - the kind that niggle in the back of the historical conscience.
The transcripts of the Andersonville Trial are public record. They can be read. Where are the transcripts for Elmira, Fort Douglas, Fort Delaware? The graves of 13,000 dead stand in orderly rows in Anderson, Georgia - where are the graves in Michigan?
Afterthoughts and Practical Considerations
June 6, 1864 - Lively skirmishing today; caught and killed 17 or 20 lice, all fat and in good condition.
- Eugene Forbes, Sgt, Co. B, 14th New Jersey Cavalry, at Andersonville
Wirz had been ordered to keep more than 30,000 men at a time confined in a filthy, dangerous place in order to prevent their escape - and to use whatever military means he had at hand to do so. This, though terrible, was in keeping with the usages of that war. His qualifications as an administrator were doubtful, but there was a great deal of amateurism in that war.
His supply problems were enormous - he complained about this to his superiors. Shortages of food and equipment were common in the Confederacy - nobody was getting enough to eat as the war wore on. In fact, of the 1,000 guards at Andersonville, 226 died, of the same diseases and privations as those on the other side of the fence12.
Supplies were short in the South because the region was subject to naval blockade. Supplies were also short because almost every able-bodied man was fighting, leaving a serious shortage of agricultural labour. In addition, the war was being fought largely on Southern territory, causing damage to crops and disruption of rail services.
Union policy in refusing prisoner exchange was deliberate and based on a war strategy intended to exploit the advantage of greater available manpower. This policy - along with the policy of rendering Confederate prisoners unfit for further duty - essentially regarded the soldiers themselves as raw materials.
One could argue that such considerations prevail in wartime, particularly when so much is invested in the outcome. But by holding a postwar tribunal, the judges are inviting comparisons - a consideration of whether the victors had not, in fact, been doing exactly what they had accused their opponents of doing - deliberately exacerbating the suffering of prisoners of war.
It is perhaps impossible for any people to look at such questions dispassionately - certainly not in the aftermath of a bloody war which levied such a personal toll on all involved. Nor for a war in which ideology was used to such devastating effect.
The political reasons for holding a show trial of one man are evident. A century and a half later, the questions are there to be raised. Was the Wirz case one of clear-cut responsibility for an atrocity? Was this man guilty of 'wanton cruelty', of carrying out an expressed policy in contravention of the codes of war? Or was he a convenient scapegoat for a nation looking back in horror at what it had become?
Civil wars leave long-lasting scars. Long after the fighting is over, even when the shell craters have been filled in and the fields grow green over the burned-out homesteads, the memory remains of the ugliness of man's inhumanity to his fellow-man. That loss of faith is the deepest wound, and heals last, if at all.
Abraham Lincoln, himself a casualty of that war, had a vision of healing that he expressed in his Second Inaugural Address:
...let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
This is, of course, the legacy we want to believe in - the one in which we judge one another fairly, in which we are not drawn by our own fear, suspicion, and doubt to cast the blame on another. A review of the post-Civil War period will reveal many instances in which fear, suspicion, and doubt won out over Lincoln's vision of reconciliation.
For Further Reading
Written in 1959, Saul Levitt's play The Andersonville Trial, based on trial transcripts, ran on Broadway before being taped for a PBS special in 1970. A visit to Youtube will yield scenes from this performance, directed by George C Scott and starring Cameron Mitchell, Richard Basehart and William Shatner.
MacKinlay Kantor's novel Andersonville is rich in period detail, and earned the author the 1955 Pulitzer Prize.
Andersonville itself is open to the public and can be visited.