The Demon of Andersonville

We have several items related to Civil War prisons, including John McElroy’s Andersonville (Toledo, 1879), John Russell Bartlett’s Barbarities of the Rebels (Providence, 1863), George A. Lawrence’s Border and Bastille (New York, 1863), John A. Kellogg’s Capture and Escape (Madison, 1908) and Life and Death in Rebel Prisons (Hartford, 1865), Frederico Cavada’s Libby Life (Philadelphia, 1865), Gilbert Sabres’ Nineteen Months a Prisoner of War (1863), D. A. Mahoney’s The Prisoner of State (New York, 1863), Charles Nott’s Sketches in Prison Camps (New York, 1865), and T. O. H. P. Burnham’s The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom (Boston, 1862).

I found this very nice and rather ephemeral piece recently. Henry Wirz was the only person ever to be executed in the United States for war crimes.

During the last 14 months of the Civil War, nearly 13,000 Union prisoners of war died at the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia—more than at Antietam, one of the war’s bloodiest battles, and more than at any of the other hundred or so Civil War prisons. Reports of atrocities at Andersonville and other Southern jails had been widely circulated in the North during the war, along with photos of severely emaciated inmates who to 21st-century eyes bear an unnerving resemblance to prisoners at Nazi concentration camps. Captain Henry Wirz was the commandant of the prison and, by the end of the war, he was one of the most infamous men in America. By a special military commission, he was convicted of conspiracy to intentionally harm Union prisoners and of personally murdering at least ten soldiers.

That thousands of men died in the prison camp he ran is well documented, but what’s less clear is whether Henry Wirz was a vicious war criminal or a convenient scapegoat. Scholars and Civil War buffs have debated his guilt for more than a century, their conclusions usually dictated by whether they live north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. But a majority of historians and legal experts agree on a critical point: Wirz was denied due process. “The Wirz trial wasn’t even in the spirit of the law,” says William Marvel, author of Andersonville: The Last Depot, a definitive book about the prison camp. “This was a highly charged, emotional witch hunt,” he observed recently. “Reason went out the window, right along with the rule of law and all of the principles we supposedly live under.”

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