Students have roles re-enacting history Mock trials revisit Civil War-era event

March 14, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Seventh-grade students at Sykesville Middle School changed a classroom into a courtroom, donned Civil War blues and grays and re-enacted the 1865 murder trial of a Confederate officer.

The children learned lessons in civics, Civil War history and compassion as they studied the horrors of Andersonville, the most infamous prisoner-of-war camp in American history.

They played judge, prosecutor and defense. They took roles as witnesses and jurors at the military tribunal of Union Army officers.

The re-enactors, using the names of those involved in the original trial, tried Capt. Henry Wirz for murder and for perpetrating life-threatening conditions at Andersonville, the southern Georgia stockade he commanded in the months before the war ended.

The outcome of the five mock trials (one by each seventh-grade class) this week depended heavily upon the skill of the attorneys, said JoAnn Heller, social studies teacher.

Before the trials opened Wednesday, students researched the evidence and prepared their testimony -- often after school. A few wrote to Andersonville National Park for copies of documents and photographs.

Witnesses recounted the unsanitary conditions that forced men to fight for scraps of food. Nearly 25 percent of those incarcerated died from malnutrition and disease.

"We are talking and learning history," said Ian Hard, who played a prosecutor. "The trial gives us history in story form, and we will remember it better. It shows us how bad the Civil War was and how desperate men were."

Mike Wehn, defense witness, watched a three-hour film depiction of Andersonville to get into the spirit of the trial.

"You really had to practice your role, but you never knew what questions they would ask," he said. "I wanted Wirz to get off. What happened wasn't really his fault."

Conviction on either charge -- conspiracy to withhold supplies and murder -- could mean the death penalty. The five classes reached different verdicts with sentences imposed by five judges who often were more merciful than Judge Lew Wallace, who condemned Wirz to hang in November 1865.

The first two classes found Wirz innocent of conspiracy but guilty of murder, sentencing him to 10 and 20 years, respectively. The third class acquitted the captain of all charges and set him free, but that group offered the best defense, Heller said.

"The verdicts got more severe as the day went on," the teacher said.

The fourth class reached the same verdict as the first two classes but sentenced Wirz to hang.

"In the last class, Wirz hung himself," Heller said. "He did not have as much information and he admitted guilt."

Ian and his prosecution team, in the fourth class, called many eyewitnesses to the captain's brutality. The defense suffered from graphic testimony and the "unexpected things the prosecution brought up," said Kelly Shaw, who represented Wirz. Kelly called the camp medical staff, who described the impossible task faced in a camp designed for 10,000 men that had swelled to three times its capacity within a few months.

"The trial showed us the way prison camps were and what happened when you had those conditions," said Amy Tessendorf, defense witness.

The defense also called Wirz, played by Jen Kasper, who wore a sling around her arm.

Kelly tried to show that a man suffering from scurvy and whose arm was broken in three places was physically incapable of inflicting injury.

She argued that Wirz was following orders and had little control over the flow of supplies to the camp.

But the defense proved no match for a staunch prosecution.

Witness after witness recounted brutality at the hands of the captain. One read from a prisoner's journal that said "murder was merciful to slow death."

Danny Weigand, prosecuting attorney, had practiced his closing statement until he could give it without notes.

"You are fools if you let this monster go free," he started.

He showed the jury a picture of a healthy soldier. Then, he punched, kicked and stabbed the picture. The judge allowed the display of emotion.

After an hour of testimony and compelling arguments from both sides, the jury retired to consider its copious notes.

"The prosecution had a lot of information and the defense didn't follow through as much," Judge Kelly Roy said.

That jury convicted Wirz of murder, but acquitted him of withholding supplies. The judge imposed the death penalty.

For the next few days, students will discuss the trial and its place in U.S. history. Most of the children said Wirz received a fair hearing in the classroom, an impossibility 132 years ago.

"The North had just won the war and the jury was all Northern and biased," said Ian. "Wirz was a scapegoat."

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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