Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Henry Wirz: Monster or scapegoat? You can decide, talk about it as Andersonville NHS 'live tweets' stockade commander's trial

Beginning Wednesday, Capt. Henry Wirz will be retried for his actions as stockade commander at the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga.

The staff at Andersonville National Historic Site will begin “live tweeting” highlights of the proceedings against Wirz, considered a cruel, indifferent commander by some and a scapegoat by others. A military tribunal in Washington, D.C., began hearing the case against the Swiss-born officer on Aug. 23, 1865.

The staff will typically tweet 15-20 posts for each day the court was in session, said park guide Jennifer Hopkins. The tag will be #WirzTrial.

(Picket photo)
“We'll have discussion-prompting questions almost every day, at least once,” said Hopkins. “The questions will usually come after a testimony to try to get our Twitter audience involved in the trial and voice their opinions on the testimonies, objections, and rulings.”

(NON-SPOILER ALERT: This Picket post will not divulge the verdict in the case.)

Nearly 13,000 soldiers and civilian captives died at Camp Sumter over 14 months -- an average of more than 30 a day in that span. I visited the central Georgia site on Aug. 13. The 1864 tally for that day, during the heat of the summer, was 109.

Reporters who covered trial (Library of Congress)

Wirz’ controversial trial was a national sensation, covered by newspapers just a couple months after the trial of accused conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Officials who decided to try the officer in a military -- rather than a civilian -- court said the country was in some ways still in a state of war. The defense considered itself at a disadvantage on the rules of evidence.

A litany of accusations was made against Wirz for his management of the prison.

The first was a conspiracy charge, claiming he “maliciously, willfully, and traitorously conspired to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States, then held prisoners of war; in violation of the laws and customs of war.”

Did he, for example, wantonly withhold food and shelter and aid for those inside?

The second was murder, with specific allegations of personally killing or ordering guards to shoot prisoners.

A.J. Riddle photo of the prison in August 1864

One of the great paradoxes of the Wirz trial is that both prosecution and the defense sought to prove that Wirz was following orders,” the National Park Service says. “The prosecutors hoped to convict higher-ranking Confederate officials and Wirz hoped to absolve himself by passing responsibility up the chain of command.

This will be the first time the park will do a live tweet. The project will go well into the fall, and the hope is that it will help facilitate discussion on controversial topics. Some of the conversations also will be carried on the park's Facebook page.

Walking careful line on testimony

Hopkins said she and a few other staffers have spent a few months poring through testimony of about 140 witnesses, which included prisoners, guards, civilians and Confederate and Federal officials.

“We are trying to stay to as close to the transcript as possible so people will not accuse us of being biased,” she said.

Stocks along recreated wall (Picket photo)

There is no question that conditions at Camp Sumter were horrendous. Foul water, the heat, poor sanitation and contaminated water made life miserable for those held in the stockade. Wirz’ defenders say he did the best he could and he could not control decisions made by superiors outside the stockade, such as putting too many POWs on the site. Also, command at Sumter was compartmentalized, making it difficult to control all aspects of the camp.

The end of prisoner exchanges led to the rapid overcrowding.

The officer had a track record of inconsistent treatment of prisoners, even before he arrived in Georgia.

“At times, he proved helpful and sympathetic. On other days he flew into what one prisoner described as a ‘spasmodic rage,’ the park says of his tenure at Andersonville. “Unable to carry out his orders to maintain the stability and security of the stockade by military means, Wirz used his reputation and behavior to maintain order.” That included withholding rations or ordering harsh punishment for minor infractions.

The commandant was accused of personally killed or ordering the shooting or mistreatment of POWs. During his trial, some of that was found to be hearsay. On the stand, Wirz was asked about a guard shooting a prisoner. He said he issued the order, but meant it as a threat and thought the soldier would not do it.

“The guards hated him,” said Wade Barr, a volunteer on site.

Entrance to national cemetery at Andersonville (Picket photo)

The different sides of Henry Wirz

The officer also tried to help those suffering inside, said Hopkins. He wrote to superiors asking for help and tried to have dams placed in a stream to improve sanitation. That request was denied. Wirz testified he allowed captive drummer boys to be kept outside the stockade.

But then there was the other side of Wirz: “He turns away wagons full of supplies,” Hopkins said, including an offer of assistance from women living near the camp.

Paul Finkelman, a professor at Albany Law School in New York, told an audience in 2014 that defense lawyers said Wirz did the best he could under terrible circumstances and a lack of food.

“Georgia is full of food,” said Finkelman, adding that Wirz could have had prisoners bring in barrels of fresh water. “Instead, he thinks of new ways to harass prisoners and prevent them from getting basic nutrition and any kind of basic health.”

To this day, the fact that Wirz was the only officer to be tried over conditions at Andersonville remains controversial. Defenders said plummeting conditions in the Confederacy in the last year of the war and the lack of materiel assistance made the commandant the target of a vengeful nation.

A monument (right) in the small hamlet of Andersonville was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909. One panel said Wirz showed humanity under “harsh circumstances.”

Hopkins acknowledged many are passionate about the Civil War, Andersonville and Wirz.

She said the trial tweets are designed to have people do their own research. “Here is what the trial says. You can make your own decision.”

Coming soon: A closer look at the case for, against Wirz

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