Olde Kinston Gazette: Hanging the Andersonville jailer
Editor’s note: Neuse News is reprinting selected articles from the archives of the Olde Kinston Gazette. Some light edits have been made from the original reports.
Original story by Ted Sampley
Originally published: December 1988
Retyped by Ethan Cahoon / Neuse News Intern
Before the war between the states was fully over, Northern newspapers were already labeling him the “Andersonville savage” — a barbarian, they sensationalized, who orchestrated “rebel brutality” against helpless Union prisoners of war (POWs).
When the last of the Confederacy finally collapsed in early May 1865, United States government officials wasted no time in ordering his arrest. The “laws of civilized warfare” must be vindicated, they demanded.
Former Union POWs who survived the infamous Andersonville prisoner of war camp in Georgia had no doubt about his crimes. In less than 14 months, nearly 13,000 of their number had perished inside the filthy, overcrowded, vermin- and disease-laden camp. They knew they were victims of “the most infernal crime of the century,” and someone was going to pay for it.
On May 7, Confederate Capt. Henry Wirz, whose name is today stamped deeply into the pages of American history synonymous with brutality and murder, was taken from his family and arrested. He was the former commander of the interior of Andersonville, and it was he who was being held personally responsible for the suffering of more than 45,000 men and boys of the Union Army during their imprisonment in Andersonville.
The man most responsible for the treatment of the Union prisoners held by the Confederacy was Brig. Gen. John Winder. He was the commander of all Confederate prison camps east of the Mississippi.
Gen. Winder’s headquarters were located at Andersonville. If he had not succumbed to a fatal heart attack in February 1865, he would have probably been the one the federal government arrested for the deaths in Andersonville.
Instead, the North chose for its retribution Capt. Wirz, a subordinate who commanded the prisoner stockade at the Andersonville complex.
Confederate Captain Henry Wirz
A native of Switzerland, Wirz had practiced medicine in both Kentucky and Louisiana prior to the war. When war broke out between the states, he enlisted as a sergeant in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry, where he served until he was seriously wounded in the right wrist at the Battle of Seven Pines His wound was a continuous source of pain and considered incurable.
Later, a partially recovered Sgt. Wirz was promoted to the rank of Captain and assigned to the staff of Gen. Winder, where he commanded several different prison facilities in the Richmond area.
While there, he was given a mission to Paris and Berlin as an agent of the Confederate government. He returned from Europe in 1864 and was assigned to the command of the interior stockade of the Andersonville prison on March 27, 1864.
When Northern newspapers learned of Capt. Wirz’s arrest, the intensified their pre-trial condemnations of the rebel jailer.
“We desire to see the author of these crimes submitted to an exemplary punishment … the most bloodthirsty monster which this or any other age has produced … the inhumane wretch,” wrote one newspaper.
It was under such inflammatory press the trial of Capt. Wirz began in front of a military commission in Washington, D.C. on August 23, 1865. United States prosecutors continued to present evidence against him until Oct. 16.
Capt. Wirz faced the charge of conspiring to impair the health and destroy the lives of prisoners of war. Under this charge, a single specification set forth that he had conspired to subject prisoners to torture and suffering by putting them in unhealthy and unwholesome quarters, exposing them to the weather, compelling them to use impure water and furnishing them with insufficient food.
Murder, “in violation of the law and customs of war,” was another accusation lodged against Capt. Wirz.
Capt. Wirz was charged with 13 specific cases:
Charge 1: That Capt. Wirz shot a prisoner on July 8, 1864, with his own hand, the prisoner dying the following day.
Despite a pool of more than 30,000 potential witnesses, the federal government was unable to determine the name of the prisoner who was allegedly shot.
Charge 2: That Capt. Wirz maliciously stomped, kicked and bruised a prisoner on Sept. 20, 1864.
Despite thousands of potential witnesses in the camp, the federal government was unable to determine the name of the prisoner who was allegedly assaulted.
Charge 3: That Capt. Wirz shot a prisoner with his own hand, on June 13, 1864.
Despite a pool of thousands of potential witnesses, the federal government was unable to determine the name of the prisoner who was allegedly shot.
Charge 4: That Capt. Wirz shot a prisoner with his own hand, on June 13, 1864.
Despite thousands of potential witnesses, the federal government was unable to determine the name of the prisoner who was allegedly shot.
Charge 5: That Capt. Wirz placed a prisoner in stocks for punishment for Aug. 20, 1864.
Capt. Wirz was on sick leave during the month of August 1864, and not present at the time of the alleged event. Also, the federal government was unable to produce the name of the alleged victim. Furthermore, the use of stocks was an acceptable punishment in the U.S. Army at that time.
Charge 6: That Capt. Wirz caused a man to be placed in stocks, which resulted in his death on Feb. 1, 1864.
The first reported Union prisoners arrived at Andersonville on Feb. 17, 1864. It is unlikely there were prisoners at Andersonville on that date.
Capt. Wirz was not present at Andersonville until his arrival on April 12, 1864, nearly eight weeks after the alleged incident.
Charge 7: That Capt. Wirz, on July 20, 1864, chained several prisoners together and made them carry around large iron balls fastened to their feet. The result was that one of the prisoners died.
None of the names of any of these alleged victims were determined by the federal government.
Charge 8: That Capt. Wirz, on May 15, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, which resulted in the prisoner’s death.
Even though this shooting was described as having occurred in daylight before thousands of witnesses, the federal government could not determine the name of the prisoner.
Further, the prisoner shot had crossed the Dead Line, a line 18 feet from the prison walls that prisoners were forbidden to cross.
All prisoners knew that any prisoner that crossed the line was subject to being shot without warning.
Dead Lines were standard features in virtually all Civil War prison camps, both in the North and South.
Charge 9: That Capt. Wirz, on July 1, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, which resulted in the prisoner’s death.
All prisoners knew that any prisoner that crossed the line was subject to being shot without warning.
Charge 10: That Capt. Wirz, on August 20, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, which resulted in the prisoner’s death.
All prisoners knew that any prisoner who crossed the Dead Line was subject to being shot without warning, but further, Capt. Wirz was on sick leave and not present at Andersonville on this date.
Charge 11: That Capt. Wirz, on July 1, 1864, allowed bloodhounds to attack and wound a prisoner which resulted in his death six days later.
Despite the testimony that the man allegedly survived for six days and was cared for by his fellow prisoners, the federal government was unable to determine the name of the victim.
Charge 12: That Capt. Wirz, on July 27, 1864, ordered a sentry to shoot a prisoner, which resulted in the prisoner’s death.
All prisoners knew that any prisoner who crossed the Dead Line was subject to being shot without warning.
Charge 13: That Capt. Wirz, on Aug. 3, 1864, beat a prisoner with his pistol to the extent the prisoner died the following day.
Despite a pool of more than 30,000 potential witnesses, the federal government was unable to produce the name of even one alleged victim.
Capt. Wirz made a plea to the commission that out of the 160 witnesses against him, 145 stated they had not seen him murder anyone, that there was no evidence of a conspiracy and that the trial had not been conducted unfairly.
The military commission, untouched by Capt. Wirz’s claims, found him guilty. He was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.
No appeals were allowed
President Andrew Johnson approved the sentence on Nov. 6.
The hanging of Capt. Wirz
Four days later, on the morning of Nov. 10, 1865, a federal detail marched a pale and solemn Henry Wirz into the yard of the Old Capitol Prison in Washington and up the 13 wooden steps of the hangman’s gallows. He was accompanied by two priests.
The New York Times reported the event: “Stepping upon the trap, he seated himself upon a stool. The noose, so soon to be his fatal snare, dangling over his head. Major Russel then proceeded to read the order reciting the finding of the Court and the approval of the sentence by the President.”
As the greased noose was placed around his neck, Capt. Wirz turned to the Union Major, extended his hand and offered his forgiveness for the thing which the major had orders to do.
“I know what orders are, Major,” Capt. Wirz said. “I’m being hung for obeying them.”
The two men shook hands, and the federal major stepped clear of the trap door.
Moments later, the trap sprung open with a loud klunk. Capt. Wirz’s body plunged down. The rope snapped taut crushing his neck. His body thrashed about.
Then it was over.
The rebel jailer was dead, his body dangling at the end of the Yankee rope.
Capt. Wirz’s body was removed from the gallows and buried next to the grave of George Azterodt, one of the men convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Of the 160 witnesses who testified against Capt. Wirz, former Union POW Felix de la Baume, who claimed to be the nephew of Revolutionary War hero Major General Marquis de Lafayette, gave the most believable and specific details of the murders.
His testimony was accepted without question, even though for him to witness all that he testified to, de la Baume would have to have been all over the overcrowded prison yard.
Interestingly, de la Baume had been appointed to a position in the Department of the Interior shortly before the Wirz trial began.
On November 21, 11 days after Capt. Wirz was hanged, de la Baume was exposed as a deserter whose real name was Felix Oeser, formerly of the 7th New York Volunteers. He was quietly dismissed from his government job and disappeared from public view.
Inside the Stockade
Andersonville Prison, which the Confederates called Camp Sumter, was established in February 1864, near the village of Andersonville squatted on the South Western and Georgia Railroad, 60 miles southwest of Macon, Ga.
The prison was originally designed to hold no more than 10,000 prisoners.
However, when President Lincoln intensified the North’s war of attrition against the Confederacy in 1863, he ended the practice of exchanging and paroling prisoners of war.
His strategy was effective. The already hungry South quickly found itself straining to house and feed thousands of Union prisoners of war.
“Paroling” had been an “honor system” under which men captured in battle were returned to their homes on parole where they were “not to bear arms or aid” directly or indirectly in the war effort until they were officially exchanged for parolees of the opposing army or otherwise released from the parole.
To alleviate overcrowding of other southern POW camps, especially around Richmond where the Confederates were staggering and falling back as the well-armed and supplied Union Army pressed forward, Union prisoners were prematurely moved into the unfinished Andersonville stockade at a rate of 400 a day.
At that time, there were no buildings in the prison, which consisted of 16 1/2 acres enclosed by a stockade constructed of pine logs 20 feet in length and planted 5 feet in the ground.
The earlier arrivals had been able to construct small lean-to huts for shelter as protection from the hot Georgia sun by scrounging for leftover logs and branches within the stockade. To build the stockade, the Confederates had taken all the usable logs from inside the camp.
In late June, the stockade was enlarged by an additional 10 acres, and the number of prisoners in the stockade was 26,000.
By July, the prison population reached its peak at 31,678 prisoners. The rapid and unexpected influx quickly rendered the camp’s still uncompleted kitchen insufficient. Rations had to be issued to the POWs uncooked.
To compound the problem, the bake house was located just outside the stockade on the banks on a stream of pure water that flowed to the camp and from which the prisoners drew their drinking water. The result of this location was disastrous because all the cooking waste passed into the stream, polluting the only source of drinking water for the prisoners.
Soon, the stream turned into a 3 1/2-acre swamp loaded with not only waste from the kitchen but human waste from prisoners themselves. Prisoners were left to attempt to dig small wells to retrieve drinking water.
The swamp became a breeding ground for maggots, exposing the entire population and their guards to life-threatening diseases. At one point, 50 percent of the camp’s guards remained at home sick.
From March 1 to Aug. 31, 1865, 42,686 cases of the disease were reported. Many of the prisoners died.
This situation was irreversible. The Confederacy, unable to properly feed its own armies, did not have money to purchase lumber and materials to rectify the disaster.
Union POWs Sacrificed
The deadly overcrowding of Andersonville resulted from a secret Union-orchestrated plot to further cripple the already retreating Confederacy at the expense of their own soldiers.
Because the North was holding more rebel POWs than the South was holding Union POWs, the manpower shortage was far more hurtful to the Confederacy than to the Union.
President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was very much aware of this human resource advantage over the south, and in the early months of 1884, he moved to exploit it.
Sec. Stanton confided, “We will not exchange able-bodied men for skeletons” and “We do not propose to reinforce the rebel army by exchanging prisoners.”
Sec. Stanton ordered Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to cease all forms of prisoner of war exchanges.
Gen. Grant was delighted. His armies were already suffering serious losses because many Union soldiers were purposely lagging behind after battles hoping to be captured by the Confederates and sent home on parole. Gen. Grant believed that ending POW exchanges would end the tendency of his troops to allow themselves to be captured.
Gen. Grant later explained in his memoirs that POW exchanges meant reinforcement of the rebel army and that the exchanged rebel soldier back in their fighting line behind fortification fighting on the defensive was equivalent to three union soldiers attacking him.
During the summer of 1864, when no prisoner exchanges were taking place, Union POWs in the Confederate prisons began to feel deserted. Their unhappiness soon turned to bitterness, and they drew up petitions asking to be exchanged.
Sgt. John Ransom, a POW in Andersonville and member of the 9th Michigan Calvary wrote in his diary: “I am a fair writer and besieged by men to write letters and to the rebel officers praying for release, and I do it, knowing it will do no good, but to please the sufferers. Some of these letters are directed to Capt. Wirz, some to Gen. Winder, Jeff Davis and other officers. As dictated by them some would bring tears to a stone. One goes on to say he has been a prisoner of war over a year, has a wife and three children destitute, how much he thinks of them, is dying with disease., etc. All kinds of stories are narrated and handed to the first rebel who comes within reach. Of course they are never heard from. It’s pitiful to see the poor wretches who think their letters will get them out, watch the gate from day to day, and always are disappointed. Someone has much to answer for.”
Among some of the Union prisoners, a bitter hatred developed for the Secretary of War. One prisoner asserted there were organizations among the POWs at the Andersonville and Macon camps formed to assassinate Sec. Stanton upon their release.
When the people of the North began clamoring for their loved ones who were languishing in POW camps to be exchanged, the Lincoln administration responded by accusing the Confederates of being responsible for the collapse of the exchange system.
Washington officials whipped Northerners into a frenzy by releasing sensationalized reports of “atrocities” they alleged the Southerners were committing against Union POWs.
In response to Northern press reports about the atrocities, the Union commander of Rock Island Barracks, a POW camp in Illinois, ordered the rations of his rebel prisoners to be cut.
He prevented them from using the barracks building, which forced them to sleep outside in makeshift shelters, exposing them to a northern winter.
As a result of this retaliation, 1,922 Southern POWs out of a total prison population of 2,484 died of starvation and exposure. The death rate of Southern prisoners in Rock Island Barracks was 77.4 percent of Union prisoners at Andersonville.
At a POW camp for captured Confederates at Elmira, N.Y., 25 percent of the inmates died in a 12-month period.
There is no indication that any Union POW camp commanders were ever punished for their intentional neglect and abuse of Confederate POWs.
Capt. Wirz was the only Confederate connected with Southern prisons to be convicted of such charges.
In 1906, Northern historian James Ford Rhodes determined the South held 194,000 Federal POWs and the North held 215,000 Confederates. He concluded the death rate was about 12 percent in Northern camps and 15.5 percent in the South.
Thousands of American men and boys, held as prisoners of war by the North and South, were left to die needlessly because of President Lincoln’s belief that exchanging prisoners of war meant trading “able-bodied men for skeletons.” Never mind that it was his own men, and they were dying by the thousands from dysentery, typhoid, malnutrition and despair. It was “regrettable, but unavoidable.”
Unavoidable? There are 12,290 white marble headstones standing somber in neatly arrayed lines across the landscape of Andersonville National Cemetery that is graphic testimony as to whether or not Lincoln’s “unavoidable” decision was justified.
Sources for this piece include: “Civil War Prisons and Escapes” by Robert E. Denney, the New York Times, “Civil War Prisons” by William B. Hesseltine, “The Civil War” by Bruce Catton and the Internet