Civil War Prison Made Headlines
By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; Page VA18
The prison was crowded and unsanitary, and there was not enough food or medical attention. Guards punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. Men died of starvation, illness, bullet wounds or complications from dog bites.
This was Andersonville, built in a rural area of southwest Georgia. The questions now being asked about personal responsibility for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were raised at the end of the Civil War when former Andersonville inmates told their stories.
Although Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter, has become permanently linked with cruelty, the same could be said about several dozen other prisoner of war camps, including some in the North. For Confederate prisoners, their Andersonvilles were Point Lookout, Md., and Elmira, N.Y.
But immediately after the war, it was Andersonville that made the headlines. In the 14 months between February 1864, when the partially completed prison opened, and April 1865, when federal troops arrived at the door, nearly 13,000 of 45,000 prisoners had died of neglect and starvation, according to the National Park Service at the Andersonville National Historic Site.
Congress and the public demanded that someone be held accountable. That someone was Capt. Henry Wirz, the man in charge of the prisoners for most of the time Andersonville operated.
Wirz seemed an easy guy to dislike. He was known for his gruff manner and excessive use of profanity. Former prisoners testified at his military trial that Wirz physically assaulted prisoners and took shots at them, purposely crowded the stockade and withheld rations.
His defenders -- including several former prisoners -- said he was in constant pain from a serious war injury to his right arm and had inherited a badly designed camp. They said he was forced to accept thousands of extra prisoners and was unable to get sufficient food for them at a time when Confederate troops in the field were starving.
Listed as co-conspirators in the charging documents were Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and military officers Howell Cobb, John H. Winder, Richard B. Winder, W. S. Winder, Isaiah H. White, R. Randolph Stevenson and others.
Only Wirz stood trial.
It was held at the Old Capital Prison in Washington, on the site of the current Supreme Court, and lasted two months with about 140 witnesses called to testify.
After much contradictory testimony, Wirz was convicted of murdering prisoners and conspiring to "impair and injure the health and destroy the lives . . . of a large number of federal prisoners."
Reportedly, he refused an offer to incriminate Davis in exchange for his life, and he was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865.
Was Wirz railroaded? Maybe.
Having read the transcript and several books about the prison, I think there's enough gray area to argue it either way. Certainly he took a hit for many other, higher-ranking officials.
I became interested in knowing more about Wirz after visiting the prison site in February. Now a national park and a museum to all American prisoners of war, it is a lonely, somber and depressing place. As when the prison was operating, the ground is swampy and flat and the landscape drab. A portion of the stockade fence has been rebuilt, and so have a few of the hovels the prisoners might have built, mostly sticks strung with old shirts and jackets.
In a field beyond the footprint of the original prison, row upon row of small, white military gravestones make up the national cemetery. Many bear the names of those who died at the prison. The cemetery covers more acres than the prison did.
Andersonville was but a tiny settlement when the prison opened -- over the objections of many of its residents -- and is still very small, with a couple of museums and a few places that serve food.
The center of town is dominated by a tall stone memorial to Wirz, built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy of Georgia in 1909, and their inscription defends him. It says in part: "Discharging his duty with such humanity as the harsh circumstances of the times, and the policy of the foe permitted, Captain Wirz became at last a victim of a misdirected popular clamor. He was arrested in time of peace while under protection of a parole. Tried by a military commission of a service to which he did not belong, and condemned to an ignominious death on the charges of excessive cruelty to federal prisoners. . . . To rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice, this shaft is erected" by the Daughters.
Wirz was buried at Mount Olivet cemetery in Northeast Washington, where Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Mary Surratt had been buried a few months earlier.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company