Prison Atrocities Close to Home, Far From This Century

Convicted of war crimes, Wirz was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865, at what is now the site of the Supreme Court. Nearly 13,000 prisoners died at the stockade that he commanded.
Convicted of war crimes, Wirz was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865, at what is now the site of the Supreme Court. Nearly 13,000 prisoners died at the stockade that he commanded. (Library Of Congress)

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By Michelle García
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

Before the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay inspired horror and debate over prisoner abuse committed by U.S. troops, there was Camp Sumter. The Civil War camp better known as Andersonville and its commandant, Capt. Henry Wirz of the Confederate Army, stand apart as the epitome of cruelty toward prisoners.

About 13,000 Union soldiers wasted away in inhumane conditions at the Southern camp under Wirz's watch.

A military commission convicted Wirz of war crimes under charges of conspiracy to "destroy the lives of soldiers" and "murder in violation of the laws and customs of war." In 1865, the Swiss-born captain was hanged before hundreds of spectators at what is now the site of the Supreme Court.

Amid a period of national debate over prisoner abuse in a time of war, researchers at the Niagara County Historical Society in Upstate New York have discovered in a warehouse a book handwritten in 1910 by the last living member of the military commission. The 54-page manuscript penned by John Howard Stibbs offers a rare glimpse into a juror's recollections of the infamous trial and excerpts of trial testimony.

This year, the historical society published the manuscript, one of several copies Stibbs had drafted and distributed to Union Army veterans.

"It's the most complete account of the military commission trial I've ever seen," said Gary D. Solis, an expert on the law of war and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "Trying to find military commission records is very difficult, and when you're talking about records that are 100 years old, it's difficult."

This was perhaps Stibbs's concern. Stibbs, then 70, wrote that he decided to break nearly 45 years of silence about the trial because he feared that the passing years and revisionists might succeed in softening the image of the Confederate officer.

From the very beginning, wrote Stibbs, Union soldiers stood little chance of surviving Andersonville, and many began dying soon after arriving at the stockade in the middle of the Georgia woods. The camp, designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, was crammed with more than 30,000 starving and disease-ridden prisoners.

"Think of it! Picture it, if you can!" wrote Stibbs. "A great field so filled with men that there was scarcely enough room for all of them to lie down at the same time -- without shelter of any kind to shield them from a southern sun or frequent rains. . . ."

Andersonville became a symbol of the nation's rejection of inhumane treatment of prisoners, military historians say. And it was through Wirz's trial that the "I was only following orders" defense was rejected as an excuse for cruelty.

"It's a reminder of our commitment to the rule of law and our recognition that, when people mistreat prisoners, the law will come down on them," said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

Wirz doled out such punishment as "stopping of rations, establishing a deadline (prisoners who crossed it were shot down), use of the stocks, the chain gang . . . use of hounds, bucking and gagging, tying up by the thumbs, flogging on the bare back and the chaining to the posts," Stibbs wrote, on the basis of evidence given at the trial.

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