When one turns on the television today they are made witness to all the crimes that are present in society. It is impossible to sit through thirty-five minutes of news without anger and rage becoming aroused. This is because society is bothered by infinitesimal paraphernalia. Society also believes in human rights and punishment for those who violate such rights. Yet what constitutes humanity? Ever sit there and watch the news and wonder just how far humanity reaches? When is it time to say this is a human rights violation? Every wonder when someones morals and ethics begin to effect their ability to do their job? Ever wonder why in every news story the bad guy always become caught? Ever wonder how many people on death row might not be guilt? Some of them could have even been used as scapegoats. Yet how does one become a scapegoat? Could someone out there have that much hatred and anger to blame one person for the faults of many? Is the need for blame significant? Does desire lead to more hatred and evil? What does it feel like to be blamed for something that might not be wrong, and to be put on trial knowing that the jury wants to blame someone? In society and in the United States since its founding, there has been a need to place blame. Imagine how the person being blamed would feel. Henry Wirz did not have to image it; he lived through it and died for it. Someone is always to be blamed, even if they were just following orders. Orders which can only go so far until humanity takes effect. Henry Wirz was used as a scapegoat for war crimes committed during the Civil War at Andersonville Prison, however that does not justify his acts or make him an American hero.
Ever take a midnight train to Georgia? No, well ever drive through Georgia? When driving through Georgia on State Road 49, there is a little town called Andersonville that is very easy to miss. To many it is just another town. Yet this town has its own trail.The Andersonville Trail is a small brown dirt road that leads visitors to the Andersonville National Historic Site (Roberts xi). This National Historic Site looks like a well- tended national cemetery. On closer examination, this cemetery is nothing like Arlington (Roberts xi). In this national cemetery, the marble headstones are so close together, they almost touch. The markers appear to be one long headstone, as if one grave grew out of the other” (Roberts xi). In these graves at Andersonville, the men are buried naked, shoulder to shoulder, under less then three feet of dirt. What is scene in the cemetery are the last vestiges of a great American tragedy (Roberts xi). This cemetery is one massive grave, were the remains of nearly 13,000 Union prisoners of war who died of disease and starvation between February 1864 and May 1865. This is Andersonville.
No person who comes to Andersonville can leave without profound soul searching. Moral, ethical and factual questions come to mind. How could something as horrible as this happen? Who was responsible? Have the guilty been punished (Roberts xii)? History books forget Andersonville, the American people want to forget Andersonville, and the government denies Andersonville, yet when an event is that horrific no one can forget or deny it. As much as America wants to forget what happened at Andersonville, they will never be able to, for the ghosts of Andersonville are all around.
When something this awful happens, there is a need to find a villain. There is the need to place the blame on the person whom society feels is responsible for the heinous acts. Society must be assured that the terrible events that happened at Andersonville were the work of one lone madman, who was adequately punished for his crime (Roberts xii). This punishment assures society that there is nothing wrong with the United States history, that there is nothing to hide. By punishing the madman, it proves that there is nothing wrong with our sense of justice, mercy and basic humanity (Roberts xii).
If things at Andersonville where only that simple. The town for which Andersonville Prison took its name, lies only a few feet away from the cemetery. This town has a history to be told, yet no one wants to listen. This town seems nice and quaint until one catches a glimpse at the tall granite monument that makes the town’s center. The only visible writing on the monument is big bold letter is the name WIRZ.
This monument is to commemorate the memory of Captain Henry Wirz. Wirz was the commander of Camp Sumter the official name for the prison that lies across the street (Roberts xii). This is the same prison that had buried men naked and shoulder to shoulder in shallow graves. The same man that society blames for these horrid acts, also has a monument dedicated to him. This man was also convicted of war crimes and became the sole murder at Andersonville. This so called murder has effect the lives of many and will effect the lives of all those who come to Andersonville.
For everyone involved in Andersonville, the good and bad, the villains and the saints, and winners and the losers, they all had one thing in common: they all were effected by a little well- tended piece of southern land, this land known as Andersonville. It is small out-of-the-way place that should be obscure and forgotten(Roberts xiii). Not all who are effected by Andersonville where born there, many died there, yet they all suffered there. Every one of them has taken an Andersonville Journey (Roberts xiii). This journey is a common bond that will forever haunt those who were affected by Andersonville.
During the civil war, there were many prisoners of war and not enough prisoners. The prison at Richmond was becoming over-crowded and had proved to benefited Richmond significantly. Thus the confederate army decided to open a new prison. This prison was called Andersonville.
Planning for Andersonville began in November of 1863. The Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon and Captain Sidney Winder set to work on scouting a location (Futch 3). They choose Andersonville because of the town, called Anderson at the time only had twenty people living in it, and the central location made Andersonville easily accessible. Once the land was selected the next step was to start the construction of Andersonville.
In late December 1863, Captain Richard Winder received orders to proceed to Andersonville in order to supervise the creation of Andersonville. Once Dick Winder arrived in Andersonville, he noticed the steepness of the bank of the creek, upon this realization he requested and received orders to increase the size of the stockade from six thousand to ten thousand prisoners (Futch 4). Winder was promised that supplies would soon be available for the completion of Andersonville. This increase in size angered many of the neighbors, however none of the neighbors were able to foresee the immense graveyard and the intolerable stench, which would emanate form the stockade(Futch 4). The main fear of the neighbors was the damage that the Confederate guards would inflict upon the community. However neighbors complaints did not deter the Confederate Army from building their prison, work on Andersonville began in January 1864.
In trying to prepare for the arrival of prisoners from Richmond, Captain Winder faced numerous difficulties. It began with is inability to obtain the food necessary for the prisoners (Futch 5). The Confederate Army, however did aid in this problem, but were unable to offer Winder enough food for one forth of the prisoners he was expecting (Futch 6). Winder assumed he would have no problem with corn and meal, however he had no beef to give his prisoners. The sugar and flour he was able to obtain was only enough to be used in the hospital (Futch 6), this caused even more of a problem. With all the millers in the Georgia Winder hoped that they would be willing to sell their meal to the confederate army, however this unsuccessful. Thus Winder lacked everything that was needed to provision for the prisoners. A week before the first prisoner arrived, Winder was begging the other Confederate prisoners to help him. The other prisons agreed to send supplies, however just because the supplies was sent, this did not mean that they would always get there (Futch 6). Just days before the first prisoner arrived, Winder wrote to the Confederacy asking for aid. He wrote, the prisoners arrive here today. Please make some arrangements at once about my supply of bacon which will ensure me against failure (Futch 6). It seamed as though Andersonville was doomed to a miscarriage even before it began.
These difficulties experienced by the architects and builders of Andersonville are suggestive of the troubles that continued to beset its administrators throughout its existence (Futch 9). Dick Winder may not have been the most suitable man for the setup of Andersonville, however it is unknown that if the failure of Andersonville was dependent on Winders own faults or the faults of the Confederate army. The prisoners of war who would die at Andersonville in the next few months would serve as a reminder of the governments attempt to do more then they were capable of doing.
During Andersonvilles brief existence, many men would walk through its door, however hardly any would leave. When the first prisoner arrived at Andersonville in February, the prison was not yet completed (Robertson 131). It was difficult to acquire tools and lumber due to the location of Andersonville and the shortage of supplies in Confederacy. Thus there was only a headquarters, hospital, and cookhouse (Robertson 129). The prison lacked furnishings and housing for the inmates. The prisoners had to make their own shelter; most of them fashioned rude lean tents out of blankets, sticks and whatever else they could salvage (Robertson 131). Winder did make a request to the Confederate army to supply him with more tents, however this was denied (Futch 11). Yet this did not stop the Confederate Army from pouring more prisoners into Andersonville. There were 7,500 inmates by March, 15,000 by May, and 29,000 by July (Robertson 131). In August there were 33,000 people at Andersonville and each had little more then enough space to lie down. At this time, there were only four cities in the confederacy had a greater population then Andersonville. Many of the inmates who arrived at Andersonville where amazed at their new home. Arriving prisoners saw death from the moment they set foot at Andersonville. One would see the sick lying amongst the healthy begging for food, yet there was no food to be given out. The location also shocked the Northerners. For they were on an isolated central plain in the south of Georgia. Many feared that they would never see civilization again. This was true for many of the prisoners at Andersonville.
The location also made it difficult for the commanders at Andersonville to accommodate to their prisoners needs. In fact Andersonville was far from a prison. It appeared to be more of a hospital. It lacked qualified guards, but was not short on doctor and medicine (Robertson 133). The hospital took up five acres of the prison. However this did not aid in the welfare of the prisoners. The patients at the hospital laid on bare boards in sheds without walls. So many prisoners were sick, that despite the fact that it was a hospital, they still had high mortality rates. This includes the 13,000 men who died at Andersonville in a single year. It was said that
from the crowded conditions, filthy habits, bad diet and dejected, depressed condition of the prisoners, their systems had became so disordered that the smallest abrasion of the skin, in some cases took on a rapid and frightful ulceration and gangrene (Robertson 117).
This was partially do to the water conditions are Andersonville. The only source of water at Andersonville was a stream called Sweet Water Branch, ironically named. There was nothing sweet about this river. Sweet Water Branch housed seepage from the latrines, thus contaminating the water (Robertson 133). The stream also served as a garbage dumb for the hospital and kitchen. This is the very same stream that the prisoners had to bath in and drink from. The contamination of the water did not help the prisoners, as the water died so did the prisoners. It could easily be said that the water and the prisoners where both effected the same way. Neither deserved what they got, but both must live with the consequences. The remoteness of Andersonville combined with the critical food shortages then plaguing most of the south, reduced the rations to the point where men were on the brink of starvation (Robertson 132). No one wanted to have to be sent to Andersonville. The stories of the atrocities at Andersonville, made it synonymous with hell (Murphy 37). A Union soldier, commenting on his fellow prisoners at Andersonville said Our feelings cannot be described as we gazed on these poor human beingsSuch squalid, filthy wretchedness, hunger, disease, nakedness and cold, I never saw before (Hillstrom 499). Yet this was partially because of the remoteness of Andersonville. The quartermaster complained that he did not even have enough wood to make coffins, thus men where thrown in the trenches to be buried (Levitt 132). For all Andersonville was, it is a cemetery.
However the physical look of Andersonville was not the only aspect that scared the prisoners. They were also afraid of the guards. Some of the guards were no more then school aged boys. One prisoner said that the guards at Andersonville were the worst looking scalawags, who were too young to hold a rifle or old men who ought to have been dead years ago for the good of the country (Robertson 119). The guards were paid on a commission, for every person they shot, they were able to obtain a small stipend. However, they could not shoot a person at random. The guards were told to shoot anyone who stepped across the dead line. The dead line was not actually drawn anywhere, but all the prisoners knew where it was (Robertson 129). During Andrsonvilles brief existence , many men would be killed beyond the dead line. One man died every eleven minutes. Many deaths were related to an attempt to obtain food or from a lack of food. This food shortage was partially to blame on the Confederate army, Winder attempted to obtain food for the prison, however this proved to be unsuccessful. Despite the fact that Winder did so little for the prisoners, he was only taking orders form the Confederate army. Included in these orders was the hiring of General Cobb and General Wirz. General Cobb was placed in charge of the guards and the army, while Wirz was in charge of the prisoners (Futch 7). All men were at the mercy of the Confederate army. Wirz was considered the person in charge of all the sins at Andersonville by the United States federal government. There is more to the man known as Henry Wirz then the world might see it to be. He was more then the only person hung for war crimes after the war, he was the commander of Andersonville Prison.
Henry Wirz was the commander of Andersonville Prison, a confederate prisoner of war camp that housed more then forty thousand Union soldiers (Hillstrom 499). At Andersonville and under the orders of Henry Wirz, twelve thousand prisoners died of diseases and hunger, making the prison the most notorious during the Civil War. In November 1865, Wirz was hanged by the federal government for crimes committed at Andersonville. He was the only official executed for his actions during the Civil War.
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born in Switzerland in 1823 (Hillstrom 499). He was educated in Europe, having attended schools in Zurich, Switzerland; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany. Wirz wanted to study medicine, but die to pressure from his father, he was forced to go into business (Hillstrom 499). Then in 1849, Wirz immigrated to America. Upon doing so, he changed his name to Henry and took a job as a doctors assistant in Kentucky (Hillstrom 500). Once the Civil War broke out in 1861, Wirz was working on a plantation, providing medical care (Hillstrom 500). When the Civil War began, Wirz sided with the South, who he called his homeland. Then in June of 1861, he joined the Confederate forces in Louisiana as a private. Over the next fifteen months, he rose through the ranks of the army to captain. In March of 1864, he became commander of Andersonville.
Due to the fact that Wirz was in charge of the prisoners, he was the commander who they dealt with the most. Prisoners say that he was a most savage looking man, who was as brutal as his looks would seem to indicate (Robertson 131). Combined with his accent, his foreign birth, his temper, and the miserable conditions of the camp all combined to make Wirz a hated man (Robertson 132). It was said that when Wirz was meeting new prisoners, he would wave a huge pistol and shout, Whatd you came down here for? First got-dam man that falls out of line I blow him to hell. I make you wish you stay at home! (Robertson 132). It was because of Wirzs personality that he was hated by all the prisoners. Many said that his heavy accent which made it hard for him to be understood added to their apprehension towards Wirz (Robertson 131). The prisoners hatred towards him, made Wirz an easy target for public scrutiny.
Upon the end of the war, the Union needed to blame someone for heinous acts committed at Andersonville, Wirz was the perfect candidate. The fact that Winder had already died set the stage for the farcical Wirz trial (Futch 121). He was not American, which made him all the more of a target, and throughout Andersonville he never once went against the judgment of the Confederacy. For these reasons and many more, Wirz became the target for Northern rage (Murphy 37). With the publicity and propaganda associated with Andersonville it was inevitable that someone pay a price for what happened there (Murphy 135). In May 1865, Wirz was arrested and taken to Washington to appear before a military tribunal (Robertson 135). That same month, Wirz wrote to Union officials asking for permission to return to Switzerland. The duties I had to perform were arduous and unpleasant and I am satisfied that no one can or will justly blame me for things that happened here and which were beyond my power to control, Wirz stated (Hillstrom 504). But he was instead arrested and sent to Washington to be tired for war crimes. Many people plead to President Johnson to spare Wirzs life, one even came form the consul general of Switzerland. For they all believed that Wirz was not solely responsible for the deaths at Andersonville. For he was not the highest in command, just the one who interacted the most, and known by the most prisoners. Wirz was essence being charged with murder in accordance to orders.
Wirz was then charged with thirteen different accounts of murder. The charges and there validity are as follows (Denny 371-2):
Charge 1: That he shot a prisoner on July 8, 1864 with his own hand, the prisoner dying the following day. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 2: That Wirz maliciously stomped, kicked, and bruised a prisoner on September 20, 1864. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 3: That Wirz shot a prisoner with his own hand, on June 13, 1864. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 4: That Wirz shot a prisoner with his own hand, on May 30, 1864. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 5: That Wirz placed a prisoner in the stocks for punishment on August 20, 1864. However Wirz was not present at Andersonville in August of 1864 and the prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 6: That Wirz caused a man to be placed in the stocks, which resulted in his death on February 1, 1864. Wirz did not arrive at Andersonville until April 12, 1864.
Charge 7: That Wirz, on July 20, 1864, chained several prisoners together and made them carry large iron balls fastened to their feet. One prisoner died as a result. Again, the prisoners names were never determined by the court.
Charge 8: That Wirz, on May 15, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, this resulted in his death. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 9: That Wirz, on July 1, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, this resulted in his death. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 10: That Wirz, on August 20, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, this resulted in his death. Wirz was not present at Andersonville in August of 1864 and the name of the prisoner was never determined by the court.
Charge 11: That Wirz, on July 1, 1864, allowed bloodhounds to attack and wound a prisoner which resulted in the death of the prisoner six days later. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 12: That Wirz, on July 27, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, this resulted in his death. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
Charge 13: That Wirz, on August 3, 1864, beat a prisoner with his pistol, this beating led to the prisoners death. This prisoners name was never determined by the court.
He was also accused of conspiring to injure the health and destroy the lives of the soldiers in the military service of the United States (Robertson 135). The major charge against Wirz was: murder in violation of the laws and customs of war (Robertson 135). Basically, Wirz was accused of every sort of atrocity.
Wirzs trial began on August 25, 1965 (Denny 370). The prosecutors manipulated evidence to suit their case and the defense was denied motion after motion (Robertson 135). The main witness in Wirzs trial was a prisoner named Felix da la Baume. Everything he said was trusted and never questioned. In fact he was appointed to the Department of Interior even before the trial began (Denny 372). This witness however was actually a federal deserter, however his testimony was never questioned, but he was dismissed form the Department of Interior and was never heard from again (Denny 375). This is only one example of prosecutorial misconduct. They did not care about who was making the statement, but they cared about what they statement said.
The prosecution would do anything to get what they wanted. Another example came in a report made by Dr. Joseph Jones. He wrote a report on the conditions of Andersonville for the Confederate Surgeon General. Jones was not allowed to testify and only parts of the report were entered into evidence. The government used what they wanted to so they would be able to incriminate Wirz (Denny 375). For all his faults, Wirz could hardly be accountable for the acute shortage at Andersonville of every necessity: food, clothing, shelter and medical care (Robertson 132). However Wirz was found guilty of all charges.
In general, the trial was a witch hunt and Wirz was the witch (Denny 375). Wirzs outcome was never in doubt form the moment the trial began. The trial was gross miscarriage of justice and no apology was ever given.
On Monday November 6, 1865, President Andrew Johnson approved the sentence of hanging for Major Henry Wirz. On Friday November 10, 1865, Wirz climbed the scaffold erected near the US Capital. It was here that Wirz made his final address to the public. He said I know what orders are Major. I am being hanged for obeying them (Murphy 38). Wirz declared his innocents until the very second he was hanged. As Wirz was making his final plea, below there was a carnival like atmosphere, with people chanting Andersonville over and over again until the trap dropped and Wirz was dead. In a sense he was the last casualty of the prison camps (Robertson 135). Wirz is buried beside the conspirators involved in the assassination of President Lincoln, yet he is the only one who has a monument.
Southerners have never been unanimous in venerating Wirz (Futch 121). In 1909 the Georgia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy unvailed a monument to Wirz in the center of Andersonville (Roberts 321). They strongly felt that Wirz was condemned for following orders. However, this is not the opinion of the majority in the south. The Daughters might argue this fact, yet one can follow orders but still respect humanity.
Many historians, seeking to be completely fair to both sides, have argued that the tragedy at Andersonville is simply an example of the fact that war is hell and that no one should be blamed for it. It is true that war in and of itself is one great evil, yet even though the United States was divided in a war, that does not allow the Confederate government to permit the terrible conditions that existed at Andersonville. What happened at Andersonville had a lot to do with the scarcity of men, provisions, tools, and supplies, this due to the antiquate organization of the Confederacy. What happened at Andersonville was not the fault of one person but a result of the incompetent Confederate army. If the nation had not just reunited, then the odds of any trial in relation to Andersonville would be slim. The United States government saw what happened at Andersonville as an opportunity to reunite the nation. Neither side wanted something as horrid as Andersonville to happen again. This decision was the first that put northerners and southerners on the same side. Henry Wirz was not the sole person responsible for what happened at Andersonville, he was used as a scapegoat. What happened at Andersonville is the fault of the Confederacy. In attempting to fix the responsibilities for Andersonville, one should weigh the comment of prisoner David Kennedy: What a degraded nation to hold prisoners and not provide for their wants (Futch 122). The Confederacy should face the truth as did Eliza Frances Andrews, who wrote of Andersonville: it is horrible, and a blot on the fair name of our Confederacy (Futch 122). That is exactly it, Andersonville was a blot on the Confederacy not on just Wirz, yet Wirz was blamed. Does this seam fair? Hardly. What happened at Andersonville was a repercussion of the Confederacys inability, not on the inability of Henry Wirz.
Denny, Robert. Civil War Prisons and Escapes. New York, New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1993.
Futch, Ovid. History of Andersonville Prison. Indiantown, Florida: University of Florida Press, 1968.
Hillstrom, Kevin. American Civil War Biographies. Michigan: The Gale Group, 2000
Levitt, Saul. The Andersonville Trial. New York, New York: Random House, 1960.
Murphy, Richard. The Nation Reunited. Canada: Time-Life Books, Inc. 1987
Roberts, Edward. Andersonville Journey. Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press, 1998
Robertson, James: Tenting Tonight: A Soldiers Life. Canada: The Time-Life, Inc. 1984.
Shaw, William B., et al. A Photographic History of the Civil War. Six Volumes. New York, New York: The Blue and Grey Press, 1987.
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