Andersonville Journey, The Civil War’s Greatest Tragedy

Any book on this subject is disturbing, and this one is no exception. Much of the book is about the commandant of the horrid prison where Union prisoners of war died by the thousands. Captain Henry Wirz was tried and executed after the war after a sham trial. The story of the prison is a disgrace as evidenced by the nearly 13,000 marble headstones nearly touching one another at the Andersonville National Historic Site. There were more than 33,000 prisoners of war crowded into the eighteen acre filthy log stockade with no shelter. The men made tents out of anything they could find. Some dug caves in the red clay. The only water for the first several months was an inadequate stream. The rations consisted mostly of corn ground with the cobs and shucks to give it bulk and rancid raw pork. The same food was issued to Confederate guards, since Confederate law required that prisoners and soldiers would be given the same rations.

Henry Wirz was born in Switzerland Heinrich Hartman Wirz. He “got in over his head” in some financial deals, was convicted of the crime of being in debt, and was exiled by the Swiss government. He immigrated to America, changed his name to Henry, and worked in a variety of jobs. He worked for a doctor for a time and learned enough about health care to move to Kentucky and opened a practice as a homeopathic physician. When the Civil War began he enlisted as a private in a Louisiana Confederate infantry unit. He was a sergeant by the time he fought at the Battle of Seven Pines and was wounded by minie balls in his right arm and shoulder. He was commissioned as a captain and was assigned to a variety of administrative duties. He was assigned to Andersonville in March 1864.

Henry Wirz’s fate was settled by events in which he had no voice or control. General Ulysses Grant believed that the prisoner exchanges were prolonging the war and ended the practice in his command. The South suddenly found itself needing space to hold many prisoners of war. Andersonville was constructed to hold six thousand. Neither Wirz nor any other Confederate officer had any control over what went on in the confines of Andersonville, and bands of ruffians formed to beat and rob and even murder weaker prisoners. These bands called themselves “Raiders,” and it was estimated that there was as many as 500 members in several different gangs. A group calling themselves “Regulators” appealed to Wirz for weapons to fight the Raiders. He provided them with clubs and rope and sent his men into the camp with the Regulators. The leaders of the gangs were taken into custody after some violent confrontations. They were tried by other prisoners and were allowed to present a defense. Six of them were executed by hanging. Small American flags are placed on all of the grave sites at Andersonville each Memorial Day with the exception of the six graves of the Raiders.

The food given the prisoners was raw, and it wasn’t long before the area had been stripped of anything that would burn. Wood details were sent out and there were many escapes. The guards were mostly old men and young boys, and they were either powerless to prevent the escapes or felt badly for the prisoners and looked the other way. Wirz tried various unsuccessful methods to deal with the problem, but you have to wonder whether he really didn’t mind some prisoners leaving his overcrowded prison.

Nature provided relief for the prisoners of Andersonville in the form of torrential rains that flooded the lower areas that were used as latrines and washed out the filth. A spring that was named “Providence Springs” because the prisoners believed it was revealed as a divine intervention was also uncovered and provided the first healthy source of drinking water.

Sherman’s Union Army was moving closer to Andersonville as it approached Atlanta. I found it interesting that General Kilpatrik is mentioned for his “ill-thought out raids.” General Kilpatrik was the commander of the unit that included my Great Uncle Elijah Tilton and his two sons, and the wounding of Kilpatrik is mentioned in the journal Elijah kept until his death from dysentery in Atlanta.

Prisoners began to be sent to other locations further from Sherman’s reach. Many of them were too sick and weak to travel and died. Those men aren’t counted in the lists of casualties of Andersonville. Prisoners began to be sent north after the end of the war. There were 2000 released prisoners on the river steamer Sultana when its boilers exploded. It was estimated that 1400 died, and many of those had been released from Andersonville.

Wirz was arrested and transported to Washington D.C. for trial. He had to be constantly protected from lynch mobs, and he was beaten once. Secretary of War Stanton wanted Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, tried as war criminals. He hoped that Wirz would present a defense that he had been ordered to murder prisoners, which then could be used to try and convict his superiors. Wirz instead defended himself by saying he had done everything he could. The conviction and execution of the Lincoln conspirators, including Mary Surratt, caused a change in mood in the country that would eventually save Davis but not Wirz. Stanton’s case against Davis for treason ended when Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase wrote him a letter saying “…that in his legal opinion secession was not the same as treason…”

Wirz’s military tribunal included six generals and three colonels, and appeared to be chosen from fair-minded men. However, all were involved in politics in their home states and were unlikely to take the unpopular approach of finding Wirz innocent. The trial was brought to a sudden unexplained end before the defense could present all of its witnesses. Those who did testify included former prisoners who testified that Wirz had done all he could and that he had not mistreated prisoners except to met out punishment that matched the transgressions. Wirz was convicted of killing two prisoners and sentenced to death by hanging. The man who was in charge of his execution is said to have told Wirz that he was only following orders. Wirz supposedly replied, “I know what orders are Major, and I am being hanged for obeying them.” The drop through the trap door did not break Wirz’s neck, and he suffered for several minutes as he strangled. There were bizarre reports that parts of his body, including his head, were removed and sold or put on display to be viewed for a fee.

The author declared a prisoner of war named Dorence Atwater was a true hero of Andersonville. He had administrative skills, and diligently kept detailed records of the names of the dead prisoners and the location of their burials. He feared his records would be confiscated and kept copies. He made the acquaintance of Clara Barton, and she used her immense influence to organize a visit to Andersonville to properly bury prisoners, erect markers, and install a fence. Stanton did not want Atwater’s records released, because it would have put Ulysses Grant in a bad light for refusing prisoner exchanges while he was running for President. Dorence was court-martialed, convicted, and sentenced to eighteen months for his refusal to surrender all his copies of the records that were considered “stolen property.” Horace Greeley had become a fan of Dorence, and pressure on Stanton resulted in Dorence being released. President Johnson appointed Dorence to be the U.S. Council to the remote Seychelles Islands, which placed him out of Stanton’s reach. Greeley immediately published List of the Dead from a copy of the lists Dorence had provided him, and at twenty-five cents a copy it became a best seller. Stanton “…died suddenly under mysterious circumstances…There were rumors he cut his own throat like his older brother had done.”

Grant appointed Dorence Atwater to be U.S. Consulate of Tahiti, and he prospered. He married a member of the royal family, learned the language, earned the respect and admiration of the natives, and developed successful businesses that profited the island. That part of the book was fun to read, but I enjoyed Part IV very little. It provides perhaps useful information about both Union and Confederate Veterans organizations, but spends too much time and detail on “the myth of the honor of the South” (my words). Considerable words are written to describe the eventually successful efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to erect a memorial to Henry Wirz.

The book is overall worth reading with the warning that “history is interpretive.” It should be noted that some think the Union prisoner of war facility for Confederates at Camp Douglas in Illinois was worse than Andersonville based on the thinking that the North had the resources to treat prisoners well and didn’t.

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