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1865 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

April 2024
1min read

The first American tried for war crimes, Henry Wirz, was hanged on November 10 to the sound of four Union companies chanting, “Remember Andersonville!”

Whether or not the prison was viciously run, as charged in Wirz’s trial, Union soldiers at Andersonville, Georgia, certainly suffered there. Under Gen. John H. Winder and, later, under Wirz, crowding, dysentery, scurvy, and malnutrition killed upwards of thirteen thousand men. There was little protection from the weather, and the single stream running through the camp was a foul morass. “The swamp now is fearful,” one inmate told his diary, “water perfectly reeking with prison offal and poison. Still men drink it and die.”

By war’s end the camp crowded 31,678 prisoners onto twenty-six and a half acres. The guards, at one point outnumbered twelve to one and suffering themselves from measles, left the prisoners to police or rob one another.

Winder had worked himself to death the February before, and so his successor, Henry Wirz, became the first American war criminal. He may have been right to claim, as others have since, that he was merely a functionary. As they shook hands over the gallows, the Federal officer charged with Wirz’s execution expressed his regret at carrying out the order. “I know what orders are,” Wirz replied. “I am being hung for obeying them.”

On November 18 the New York Saturday Press published a short story by one Mark Twain called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” The tale had its genesis the winter before, when a twenty-nine-year-old California prospector named Samuel Clemens made a cryptic note from an evening of camp talk: “Coleman with his jumping frog—bet a stranger $50.—Stranger had no frog and C. got him one:—In the meantime stranger filled C’s frog full of shot and he couldn’t jump. The stranger’s frog won.”

Clemens had promised a story for his drinking friend the humorist Artemus Ward to include in a collection. None of the occasional sketches he was publishing in the California papers seemed right to Clemens for the book. Then “one dismal afternoon” Clemens was “about determined to inform Artemus that I had nothing appropriate” when “a still small voice began to make itself heard. Try me! Try me! O, please try me! Please do!’ It was the poor little jumping frog.”

Clemens wrote the story, but Ward’s publisher didn’t want it. After the Saturday Press ran it, however, the story got taken up by a variety of American and British newspapers and was finally entitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Twain himself later told his wife he thought it “the best humorous sketch America has produced yet,” and the “Jumping Frog” has lived in the anthologies since. Writing in his autobiography, Twain recalled that his story “certainly had a wide celebrity … but I was aware that it was only the frog that was celebrated. It wasn’t I. I was still an obscurity.”

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