The Civil War Connections Blog

Memorializing Northern Aggression

As I was walking into work today, I encountered my supervisor on her way to a meeting. She asked what I was planning on writing about today, and when I replied that I was writing about Andersonville Prison, she chuckled and said how uplifting that would be. I replied that it was a shame I didn’t work on Mondays and save all of the good posts for the very start of the week. So while it’s not a Monday, it still is only Tuesday and I figured it would be better to write about it today then save it for Thursday and potentially put a downer on your weekend. This way I can save something more cheerful for later on in the week!

 

Officially called Camp Sumter, Andersonville Prison was a Confederate prison that opened at the start of 1864 as a holding place for Union POWs. Located in Georgia, Andersonville is infamous for its overpopulation and horrible conditions, along with the sheer number of Union prisoners who died there. At one point during the war, over 33,000 men were being held at Andersonville all at one time. Prisoners barely had enough room to lie down, and there was little to no shelter to protect them from the elements. Unfortunately, as the Confederacy grew weaker and struggled to continue the war, the prisoners at Andersonville faced worsening conditions as well. With little money and supplies for the army, the prison received less and less supplies as well. Following the end of the war, about 13,000 men had died there, typically from malnutrition, disease, exposure to the elements and poor sanitary conditions. [1]

 

Andersonville Prison, Camp Sumter, Ga., as it appeared August 1st 1864 when it contained 35,000 prisoners of war. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Andersonville Prison, Camp Sumter, Ga., as it appeared August 1st 1864 when it contained 35,000 prisoners of war. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 

The commandant of the prison, Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, received the brunt of the responsibility for the prison. Following the war, he was arrested and taken into custody by Union troops. Specifically Wirz, along with other Confederate leaders, was charged with the intent to “impair and injure the health and destroy the lives…of Federal prisoners” and “murder in violation of the laws of war.”[2] Wirz was found guilty of these war crimes, and was hanged in Washington, D.C. in late 1865. Southerners claimed that this was a case of judicial murder, and that the North was seeking justice following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Henry Wirz, accessed through Wikimedia.

Henry Wirz, accessed through Wikimedia.

 

While accounts of Wirz’s personality vary greatly, he was turned into a victim of Northern aggression by the South following the war. The United Daughters of the Confederacy defended him in later years, claiming that he had only fulfilled orders and if Ulysses S. Grant hadn’t have ended the prisoner exchange program in an attempt to deplete Confederate forces, then less prisoners would have died. Following an onslaught of monuments commemorating those who died at Andersonville, the Daughters constructed a monument in honor of Wirz as the only man who was tried, convicted and executed for war crimes in the Civil War. The controversial memorial still stands today, located in the center of Andersonville, Georgia not far from the Andersonville National Cemetery where those who died while imprisoned are buried. In an interesting juxtaposition, the monument has panels of text on all four sides, with some appealing more towards the North and South coming back together in harmony and forgiveness, and others discussing the victimization of the South.[3]  The text on the panels is included below, so that you can read for yourself the choice of quotes chosen by a nation struggling to reunify following the bloody conflict of its past.

 

North Side Panel
When time shall have softened passion and prejudice, when reason shall have stripped the mask from misrepresentations, then justice, holding evenly her scales, will require much of past censures and praise to change places.
Jefferson Davis, Dec. 1888

 

South Side
Discharging his duty with such humanity as the harsh circumstances of the times, and the policy of the foe permitted Capt. Wirz became at last the victim of a misdirected popular clamor. He was arrested in the time of peace, while under the protection of parole, tried by a military commission of a service to which he did not belong, and condemned to ignominious death on charges of excessive cruelty to Federal prisoners. He indignantly spurned a pardon proffered on condition that he would incriminate President Davis and thus exonerate himself from charges of which both were innocent.

 

East Side
In memory of Captain Henry Wirz, C.S.A. born Zurich, Switzerland, 1822, sentenced to death and executed at Washington D.C. November 10, 1865. To rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice this shaft is erected by the Georgia division, United Daughters of the Confederacy.

 

West Side
It is hard on our men held in southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.

Ulysses S. Grant, Aug. 18, 1864

 

 


[1] “Andersonville Prison,” Civil War Trust, Accessed February 19, 2013. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/warfare-and-logistics/warfare/andersonville.html

[2] “Andersonville Prison,” Civil War Trust.

[3] “Andersonville: The Wirz Monument,” National Park Service, Accessed February 19, 2013. http://www.nps.gov/ande/historyculture/wirz-mon.htm