Thursday, May 7, 2015

150 years ago: Arrest of Capt. Henry Wirz began assignment of blame for Andersonville

Harper's Weekly illustration of Capt. Wirz stomping on prisoner, based on testimony at his trial in 1865 (NPS)

On this day, 150 years ago, the commandant of the stockade at Andersonville prison was arrested, setting off a chain of events that remains controversial to this day.

Union cavalry Capt. Henry Noyes took Confederate Capt. Henry Wirz into custody at the site at war’s end. Wirz was sent to nearby Macon, Ga.; Nashville, Tenn.; and then Washington, D.C., where he was tried and convicted of conspiracy and murder.

Accounts by prisoners during the Civil War are full of stories of horror, heroism and extraordinary efforts to survive. At Andersonville alone, nearly 13,000 men died over 14 months -- an average of more than 30 a day. 

Conditions at Andersonville deteriorated quickly by the summer of 1864. Food often was scare and the staff was always short of supplies – matters not directly under Wirz’s control. And the Union army had largely ended prisoner exchanges.

But Union survivors testified he was cruel and would order some of them shot when he became enraged, or did the shooting himself.

“Wirz was unable to control the bureaucracy that plagued the Confederate military prison system, so he controlled the prisoners in the only way he could – through intimidation and punishment,” says a National Park Service article.

The officer was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865, after insisting those higher up the chain of command were responsible for the prison’s appalling conditions. He was punished for matters he could control – his own inconsistent behavior, actions and dehumanizing of prisoners.

Wirz has his defenders, and a statue in his memory still stands in the small hamlet of Andersonville near the national site.

The Georgia historian for the United Daughters of the Confederacy wrote an essay in 1921 about what she termed an injustice – suborned testimony and exaggerations at the trial.

She wrote that Wirz did not fearing going to Macon with Noyes because “he was conscious of having done all for the prisoners that was possible under the conditions.

Before they left, Wirz invited Noyes to share a small meal of bacon and cornbread with his family.

“With a woman's instinct, Mrs. Wirz did not like the ominous silence of Captain Noyes, and became greatly agitated when her husband bade her goodbye. Wirz tried to comfort his weeping wife and children, assuring then that all would be well. After an affectionate goodbye, he left for Macon.

This portrayal of a hospitable man just following orders did not match the memories of many who were guards or prisoners at Andersonville.

One Confederate soldier testified that Wirz ordered a prisoner into the stocks during a rainstorm. The soldier, observing the prisoner was drowning, placed an umbrella over the prisoner and approach Wirz, who was said to reply, "Let the damned Yankee drown."

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