- Historic Sites
Prison Camps Of The Civil War
Andersonville was merely the worst of a bad lot; North and South alike, they were more lethal than shot and shell
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
On the tenth day of November, 1865, a pale, black-whiskered little man named Henry Wirz, a used-up captain in the used-up army of the late Confederate States of America, walked through a door in the Old Capitol Prison at Washington, climbed thirteen wooden steps, and stood under the heavy crossbeam of a scaffold, a greased noose about his neck. On the platform with him—with him, but separated from him by the immense gap which sets apart those who are going to live from those who are about to die—there was a starchy major in the Federal Army. To this major Captain Wirz turned, extended his hand, and offered his pardon for the thing which the Federal major, detailed to take charge of a hanging squad, was about to do.
“I know what orders are, Major,” said Captain Wirz. “I am being hung for obeying them.”
The two men shook hands and drew apart. The drop was sprung, Captain Wirz dangled briefly at the end of a rope, died, and the thing was over. And across the northern part of the recently reunited United States many people took note and rejoiced that a villain who richly deserved hanging had finally got what was coming to him.
If the people of the North in the fall of 1865 had used the language of the late 1940's they would have said that Captain Wirz was a war criminal who had been properly convicted and then had been hanged for atrocious war crimes. Today, with the more sober perspective of nearly a century of peace, the business looks a little different. The language of the Old Testament would have been better; Wirz was a scapegoat, dying for the sins of many people, of whom some lived south of the Potomac River, while others lived north of it.
Indeed, the sins were not really sins at all, but simply wrongs—grievous wrongs against humanity, done by people who had meant to do no wrongs at all; wrongs done because of hasty action taken under immense pressure, growing out of human blundering and incompetence and the tangles of administrative red tape, with final responsibility traceable to the blinding passions born of a bewildering war. They took place in the South and they took place in the North, and some 50,000 Northern and Southern boys died because of them. In the fall of 1865 Captain Wirz died because of them too, and this did not help anybody very much except that it did provide a scapegoat.
Wirz had been commandant of Andersonville Prison, the hideous prison pen set up in February of 1864 by the dying Confederacy as a proper place to keep Union prisoners of war. First and last, more than 30,000 Union prisoners were kept there, and about 12,000 of them died, and the ones who did not die had a miserable time of it, so when the war ended there was a great clamor to punish someone. Henry Wirz stood in the path of that clamor, and he swung from a scaffold for it, leather straps about his arms and legs, a black mask over his contorted face; and somehow that was not quite the end of it.
The end of it could not come until enough years had passed to enable people to take a more detached view. The view that can be had now shows, quite simply, nothing much more than the fact that dreadful things happen in time of war, that these dreadful things are the fault of war itself rather than of individual people; and that when the business is all over, there is apt to be enough accumulated ill will lying around to create an explosion.
Wirz was born in Switzerland and by profession was a doctor. He came to America in 1849 after the death of his first wife, lived in Kentucky and then in Louisiana, remarried, and enlisted in a Louisiana volunteer regiment in1861 after the fall of Fort Sumter. He was wounded in the right arm and shoulder in a battle early in the war, and the wound never healed properly. Wirz went back to duty for a time, but in 1863 he got leave and went to Europe for what he hoped would be better medical treatment. An operation was performed on his arm but it was not successful; the arm remained weak and painful, and Wirz—who was brusque and something of a martinet to begin with—grew irritable and snappish. Returning to the Confederacy, eventually, he was assigned early in 1864 to duty at the newly established prison camp at Andersonville, in the heart of Georgia.
Andersonville was destined to become the horrible example of the Civil War prison camp system, but the system itself was basically monstrous. At a time when all prison camps, in the North and South alike, were extremely bad, Andersonville became the worst of the lot, but it differed from the others in degree rather than in kind. Wirz obviously lacked the administrative capacity that a man in his job ought to have had, but given the circumstances under which Andersonville was set up and operated, it would have taken a complete administrative genius to keep the place from becoming anything but a horror.