The horrors detailed in the press were hard to believe.
Detainees described overcrowding so severe that “it was difficult to move in any direction without jostling and being jostled.” The water provided them was foul, “of a dark color, and an ordinary glass would collect a thick sediment.” The “authorities never removed any filth.” A detainee wrote that the “only shelter from the sun and rain and night dews, was what we could make by stretching over us our coats or scraps of blanket.” As for the food, “Our ration was in quality a starving one, it being either too foul to be touched or too raw to be digested.”
Such were the conditions of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, where, as the historian James McPherson wrote, 13,000 of the 45,000 men imprisoned “died of disease, exposure, or malnutrition.” The images of the captive, emaciated Union troops are shocking, evoking a form of suffering 21st-century viewers will likely associate with the Holocaust. The images so traumatized the Northern public that after the war, the warden of the prison, Henry Wirz, became one of the only people tried for war crimes. The Swiss-born Wirz was an easy scapegoat for Northern anger, which spared most of the former Confederacy’s military and political leadership.
The former Confederate captain was arrested in 1865, shortly after the close of the Civil War. The Union accused him of intending to “impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives [of the prisoners], by subjecting [them] to torture and great suffering, by confining in unhealthy and unwholesome quarters.” Wirz was charged with conspiracy to murder Union prisoners by offering them spoiled food, fouled water, and inadequate living conditions and medical care.
Wirz didn’t see it that way—he insisted that he was just following orders. The conditions at the prison camp at Andersonville were not deliberate, he argued, but the result of the Confederacy’s lack of resources. “I think I may also claim as a self-evident proposition, that if I, a subaltern officer, merely obeyed the legal orders of my superiors in the discharge of my official duties,” Wirz wrote in response to the charges, “I cannot be held responsible for the motives which dictated such orders.”
This was true, but also not truly a denial of culpability. [Continue reading…]