Ramblings & ephemera

Henry Wirz, the Demon of Andersonville

From Carolyn Kleiner’s “The Demon of Andersonville” (Legal Affairs: September/October 2002):

During the last 14 months of the Civil War, nearly 13,000 Union prisoners of war died at the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia – more than at Antietam, one of the war’s bloodiest battles, and more than at any of the other hundred or so Civil War prisons. Reports of atrocities at Andersonville and other Southern jails had been widely circulated in the North during the war, along with photos of severely emaciated inmates who to 21st-century eyes bear an unnerving resemblance to prisoners at Nazi concentration camps. Captain Henry Wirz was the commandant of the prison and, by the end of the war, he was one of the most infamous men in America. By a special military commission, he was convicted of conspiracy to intentionally harm Union prisoners and of personally murdering at least ten soldiers. The noose was for him. …

Many captured Union soldiers were kept in and around Richmond, but as the front lines edged south and Dixie jails started to overflow, the Confederate government planned a new facility in the small, out-of-the-way town of Andersonville. The site was chosen for its easy railroad access, an abundance of pine forests, and a clear creek that ran across the property – and because the town’s 20 or so residents didn’t object. The first load of prisoners arrived in February 1864, before construction was complete. From that point on, the trains never stopped.

Built with the official name of Camp Sumter, the Andersonville prison consisted of a sixteen-and-a-half-acre dirt pen (later enlarged to twenty-six and a half acres), surrounded by a stockade made of rough-hewn, 15-foot-tall pine logs placed so close together it was impossible to see outside.

Though conditions were initially a vast improvement over Richmond detention centers, problems grew in proportion to the number of inmates. By late summer 1864, the prison population made Andersonville one of the largest cities in the Confederacy. At its peak in August, the “bullpen,” built to lodge up to 10,000 enlisted men, held 33,000 grimy, gaunt prisoners, each one crammed into a living area the size of a coffin. Their only protections from the sun were “shebangs,” improvised shelters constructed from blankets, rags, and pine boughs, or dug into the hard, red Georgia clay.

As the war dragged on and the Rebel government fell further into disarray, its resources and supplies depleted more each day, Andersonville became increasingly ill-equipped to provide for its wards. Daily prison rations usually consisted of coarse cornmeal with small bits of cob still in it (very rough on Northern stomachs accustomed to wheat bread), around two ounces of beef or pork, often served raw and moldy, and occasionally beans or molasses. (Guards got the same gruel.) Too many inmates meant not enough water to go around, as well as too much human waste, and the once-clear stream that ran through the camp became polluted, covered with a thin layer of green slime. The stench of the place carried as far as the town of Americus, ten miles away. Prisoners suffered from afflictions ranging from diarrhea and dysentery to scurvy and a condition described in death records as “nostalgia,” when men seemed to stop wanting to live.

Between March and June of 1864, the number of casualties per month more than tripled, reaching 2,994 at the end of the summer – or around 100 men a day. …

After arriving in Andersonville, Wirz initiated a record system and reorganized the prisoners into small details of 90 men each. A believer in strict discipline, he preferred forms of punishment like putting a prisoner in stocks or shackling him to a ball and chain. He was concerned about escapes, so he built a “deadline” of posts approximately 15 feet inside the prison walls; if inmates crossed the line, they were to be shot, no questions asked. Hungry dogs were sent after any who managed to break out. …

Andersonville closed for good the day after Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Twelve thousand, nine hundred and twelve of the 45,000 men who did time there as inmates remained behind forever, buried shoulder to shoulder in the prison cemetery. …

The Union government had been loath to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation during the war, but now that it was over the government made an exception, in order to prosecute Captain Wirz squarely. He was charged as a foreign enemy who had violated the international laws of war. The fact that he was born abroad may have made it easier for Americans to swallow the notion of a fellow citizen being tried for criminal behavior in a military commission. The rules of the commission provided more room to maneuver and allowed for a broader range of admissible evidence.

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