An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: What Happened at Andersonville?

Apr 12, 2012 by

Captain Henry Wirz, the commanding officer of Fort Sumter (Andersonville) was the only Confederate military officer tried, convicted and hanged after the war

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

This is another installment in a series of interviews regarding Tobin T. Buhk’s book “True Crime in the Civil War “. This interview focuses on a chapter in that book entitled “The War Crimes Trial of Andersonville’s Controversial Commandant-1865”.

  1. Professor Elder, we have just recounted, the assassination of President Lincoln in a previous column. But apparently something almost as atrocious happened at Andersonville Prison. Can you give us an overview?

At the start of the American Civil War, the two sides had conflicting ideas about how to treat enemy combatants that they captured. To Federal authorities, Confederate soldiers were rebels, and many on the Union side thought that they could be executed as such. Confederate authorities, however, argued that their soldiers were legitimate combatants, and should be treated as such. They warned that if the Union executed captured Confederate soldiers, they would retaliate by executing Union soldiers that they captured.

Both sides, therefore, agreed to spare captives, and after a few months they agreed to hold prisoners only until they could be exchanged for one of their own soldiers of an equivalent rank that had been captured. This system lasted until the Union began to enlist African-American soldiers. The Confederate government announced that they would refuse to treat these individuals as legitimate prisoners of war, and Lincoln decided that for that reason he would no longer agree to prisoner exchanges. This necessitated the building of prisoner of war camps.

In February of 1864, the Confederates opened Camp Sumter, located near the village of Andersonville in Georgia. In the approximate ten months that it was in operation, 13,000 Union prisoners of war died there.

  1. Who was in charge of the prison?

A Confederate officer, Captain Henry Wirz, was the commandant.

  1. Obviously, there was probably no “Red Cross “to oversee conditions but what happened after the Civil War ended?

Starting in November of 1864, Union Major General William T. Sherman had started his famous March to the Sea from Atlanta. As Union forces neared Andersonville, the Confederate authorities decided to move all Union prisoners of war from Camp Sumter so they could not be liberated. Thus, by the end of the Civil War there were no prisoners there to be cared for.

  1. Henry Wirz was alternatively seen as a demon, and to others as an angel, and to still others, someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time with too few resources. Is there any way to separate fact from fiction?

There is no way from a distance of 150 years to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt how culpable Wirz was in the atrocious death rate at Camp Sumter. His defenders maintain that he did the best he could under difficult circumstances, but others point out that he could have alleviated much of the misery by expanding the camp site (at the peak of occupancy, a prisoner had only 6 square feet of living space) and allowing prisoners to build shelters.

  1. We currently discuss “water boarding “as a form of torture, but according to reliable sources that escaped from Andersonville, what were some of the inhumane things that went on there?

Escapees reported that food was scarce, the water supply was polluted, and guards all too often shot prisoners for even the slightest of provocations.

  1. The old phrase “I was only following orders“appears to have been used by Wirz during his trial. Was this the appropriate excuse or were higher ups equally responsible?

Wirz claimed at his trial that he had tried to get more food and medical supplies for the prisoners, but because of shortages caused by the deteriorating conditions inside the Confederacy at that late stage of the war, he was unable to obtain these items. He also claimed that he had operated the camp as his superiors had requested–hence his defense that he was indeed just following orders. One document submitted against him, however, noted that a doctor had visited Camp Sumter and had pointed out that Wirz clearly could have taken simple steps (mentioned above) to help mitigate the suffering.

  1. During World War II, the Germans basically incinerated the Jews at Dachau , Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Thierenstadt, but apparently in Andersonville, they were kept alive, but many starved to death, were tortured, whipped, and many other atrocities. Were conditions as deplorable in other Southern prisons?

Actually, the death rate was higher at the Confederate prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina. But because the most prisoners were housed at Camp Sumter (45,000 at one time or another) and over 25% of them died, it became the most infamous of prison camps.

  1. What about the prisons in the North? What do we know about what transpired there?

Because the Union captured more prisoners during the course of the war, they had even more captives to take care of. Some camps, like the one at Elmira, New York, had high death rates, but the historian James McPherson has noted a very important distinction between Union and Confederate prison camps. If you were a Confederate captured and sent to a camp, you had a better chance of living than if you had remained a combatant.

If you were a Union soldier sent to a Confederate prison camp, however, you were more likely to die. I think this establishes that Confederate prison camps were worse.

  1. What other prisons were as abhorrent and despicable as Andersonville? And was justice ever meted out?

As previously noted, both sides deserve blame for not providing better care for prisoners. As it turned out, Henry Wirz was the only soldier from either side tried for a war crime. He was found guilty, and was executed.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

It is a sad story, but one we need to remember.

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