The Truth About the American Civil War's Terrible Prison of War Camps

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April 8, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: WarMilitaryTechnologyCivil WarHistory

The Truth About the American Civil War's Terrible Prison of War Camps

A horrible shame.

Although Lincoln had hesitated to authorize exchanges during the first year of the war, he had bowed to political pressure and to the rising concern of family members whose loved ones were held in Confederate prisons and allowed the Dix-Hill Cartel to become operative. Now he remained notably quiet on the topic, leaving it to Grant to publicly state that future prisoner exchanges would be suspended due to the exigencies of war.

The Horrors of Andersonville

While politicians and high-ranking military commanders debated, prisoners on both sides suffered. Escape attempts occurred with regularity and were infrequently successful. Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan and a few of his daredevil cavalrymen tunneled their way to freedom from the Ohio State Penitentiary. The largest escape of the war took place at Libby Prison in the Confederate capital of Richmond when more than 100 Union officers broke out on February 9, 1864, and 59 of them managed to elude recapture.

Within three months of Grant’s suspension order in April 1864, the population of Andersonville prison had grown to more than 20,000, twice its original capacity. At its peak in August, the stockade housed over 33,000 Union soldiers in utter squalor. In July 1864, then-Captain Henry Wirz paroled several Andersonville prisoners, who carried a petition to Washington, D.C., begging for the reinstatement of large-scale prisoner exchanges. Lincoln declined to meet with them, and no action was taken on their plea.

By far the most infamous of Civil War prisons, Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter, did not exist until the winter of 1863-1864. With defeats at Chattanooga and Atlanta in the West and expanding Union offensive operations in the East, the war was going badly for the Confederates. Union forces were penetrating ever farther into the heart of the Confederacy. It became necessary to construct a prison deep in Georgia to house increasing numbers of Union prisoners. A location near the town of Andersonville in Sumter County, approximately 60 miles southwest of Macon, was chosen because of its proximity to a rail line, a source of water from Sweetwater Creek that ran through camp, an abundance of pine trees for the construction of a stockade, and the availability of slave labor.

Construction began in December 1863. The original stockade occupied 16½ acres, with a pair of large gates on its western face. A fenced perimeter was set between 19 and 25 feet inside the stockade walls. This was the notorious “Dead Line,” and any prisoner crossing it would be shot immediately. On February 24, 1864, the first prisoners, 600 men transferred from Libby Prison, arrived at Andersonville. Wirz assumed command in April and was subordinate to Brig. Gen. John H. Winder, the newly appointed commissary general of Confederate prisons. The population of Andersonville swelled rapidly. In July, Wirz set the prisoners to work constructing a 10-acre expansion of the stockade. By August, starvation and disease were rampant, and the dead during that month alone totaled 2,994. The creek that ran through the compound became fetid, contributing to an epidemic-level rise in dysentery cases. Many prisoners lived in makeshift lean-to structures. Others had no shelter at all, clawing holes in the ground for whatever cover was possible. Prisoners stole from one another and fought over morsels of food. Organized gangs terrorized the camp.

Private Prescott Tracy of the 82nd New York Infantry Regiment was one of only a handful of Andersonville prisoners actually exchanged in 1864. His description of the horrors at Andersonville was later published in a propaganda pamphlet entitled Narrative of the Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers and Privates While Prisoners of War in the Hands of Rebel Authorities that circulated widely in the North. “The new-comers, on reaching this, would exclaim: ‘Is this hell?’ Yet they soon would become callous, and enter unmoved the horrible rottenness,” recounted Tracy. “The rations consisted of eight ounces of corn bread (the cob being ground with the kernel), and generally sour, two ounces of condemned pork, offensive in appearance and smell. Occasionally, about twice a week, two tablespoons of rice, and in place of the pork the same amount (two tablespoonfuls) of molasses were given us about twice a month. The clothing of the men was miserable in the extreme. Very few had shoes of any kind, not two thousand had coats and pants, and those were late comers. More than one-half were indecently exposed, and many were naked.”

From February 1864 through the end of the war, approximately 45,000 prisoners were held at Andersonville. A total of 12,913, roughly 28 percent, died and were buried in mass graves. The toll at Andersonville represents 57 percent of all Union prisoner deaths during the war. When the war ended, the focus of retribution against the South for the atrocities perpetrated in Confederate prisons would fall on Wirz, who former prisoners remembered brandishing a revolver when greeting them on arrival at the prison, shouting threats, and often losing his temper. The Northern propaganda machine had also been in motion for some time, and photographs of emaciated men, no more than living skeletons, fueled the rage against those who had encouraged, facilitated, or allowed such inhumane treatment to occur.

The Arrest and Prosecution of Henry Wirz

Born in 1823 in Zurich, Switzerland, Wirz immigrated to the United States in 1849 and opened a medical practice in Kentucky. He later moved to Louisiana with his wife and two stepdaughters. By the eve of the Civil War, his practice was prospering. With the outbreak of war, Wirz supposedly enlisted in Company A, 4th Battalion, Louisiana Volunteers, although there is little information to confirm this. He was further said to have held the rank of sergeant and fought in the Battle of Seven Pines, where he was wounded and lost much of the use of his right arm. Subsequently, he was promoted to the rank of captain for bravery on the field. Rendered unfit for further combat due to his debilitating wound, Wirz was assigned to Winder’s staff in Richmond and later detailed by President Jefferson Davis to serve as a courier to Confederate diplomats in Europe. Upon his return, Wirz was detailed by Winder to serve at prisons in Richmond, Tuscaloosa, and finally Andersonville.

Within days of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the war, Wirz was arrested and taken to Macon for questioning. He was briefly released and went to a nearby railroad station to return to his family at Andersonville. While waiting for the train, he was arrested again. By May 10, he was in jail in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington to await trial. Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, later the best-selling author of the Biblically inspired novel Ben Hur, presided over the 63-day military tribunal, which lasted from August 23 to October 18.

Thirteen separate charges were leveled against Wirz, alleging such acts as Specification No. 11: “July 1, 1864, Henry Wirz did incite, and urge ferocious bloodhounds to pursue, attack, wound, and tear in pieces soldiers belonging to the U.S. Army, and a prisoner (unknown name) was so mortally wounded that on the sixth day he died.” Specification No. 4 noted: “On May 30th, Henry Wirz with a certain pistol did feloniously and with malice aforethought, inflict upon a soldier (unknown name) a mortal wound from which the soldier died.”

The remainder of the charges were similar, alleging that Wirz personally abused and murdered prisoners and ordered Confederate soldiers to do so as well. Interestingly, several of the other specifications accuse Wirz of crimes committed either before his arrival at Andersonville or during the month of August 1864, while he was actually ill and recovering at his home five miles from the prison. These allegations may have been false, or they may have been dated incorrectly. There may have been many other incidents that were never specified.

Most of the evidence against Wirz was circumstantial, and as the trial progressed, the validity of the charges hinged on the testimony of a single eyewitness, a former prisoner named Felix de la Baume, who claimed to be from France and a grandnephew of the great Marquis de Lafayette. De la Baume provided the name of one of Wirz’s victims and testified that he had personally witnessed the murders of two unnamed prisoners. De la Baume was praised for his “zealous testimony” at the trial. Before the proceedings were even completed, he was awarded a position in the U.S. Department of the Interior. However, soon after the trial, de la Baume’s true identity was discovered. His real name was Felix Oeser, and he was originally from the German province of Saxony and a deserter from the 7th New York Volunteer Infantry. Oeser supposedly admitted that he had committed perjury, but then his trail went cold. He was allowed to simply melt away.

On the night before his execution, Wirz was visited by his attorney, Louis Schade, who repeated an earlier offer from a highranking government official. In exchange for implicating Jefferson Davis, Wirz would escape the gallows with a commuted sentence. Wirz responded: “Mr. Schade, you know that I have always told you that I do not know anything about Jefferson Davis. He had no connection with me as to what was done at Andersonville. If I knew anything about him, I would not become a traitor against him or anybody else even to save my life.”