Living in the ground, the dead on top of it


Andersonville filled by Union prisoners

April 26, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The dead there are not to be pitied as much as some of the living that have come from there - if they can be called living. - Walt Whitman

One of the Civil War's most controversial figures - Capt. Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp, where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers perished - rests in Washington's Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Wirz, who was the only Confederate officer executed for war crimes, was born and educated in Zurich. He emigrated to Lawrence, Mass., from Switzerland in 1849, and later moved to Kentucky where he worked as a doctor's assistant.

In 1854, he settled in Louisiana and, with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, enlisted in the 4th Louisiana Infantry.

Badly wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, he was promoted to captain in 1862 and assigned as commandant of the military stockade at Richmond, Va., and later at Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In 1864, Wirz was made commandant of a new prison in southwest Georgia.

Construction of the 26-acre camp - initially named Camp Sumter and designed for 10,000 prisoners - began in 1863. It was at Andersonville, a small town 60 miles south of Macon, on the Southwestern & Georgia Railroad.

The end of the prisoner-exchange agreement between the Union and Confederacy in 1863 resulted in overcrowding of prisons and, by the early summer of 1864, about 26,000 men were jammed into the stockade at Andersonville. By July, there were 33,000.

Faced with an ever-growing disaster as more prisoners flooded into the camp, Wirz appealed unsuccessfully to Confederate officials for help.

In his book, Life and Death in Rebel Prisons, Robert Kellogg, a Union soldier from Connecticut who was incarcerated for six months, recalled his shock upon entering the camp.

"As we entered the place a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us," he wrote. "Before us were forms that had once been active and erect - now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness, `Can this be hell? God protect us.'"

Men were forced to live in holes in the ground or under makeshift tents that offered little respite from the scorching sun or cold rains.

Disease, malnutrition and exposure to the broiling sun killed hundreds each day, as prisoners scratched with their bare hands through the sun-baked soil in a desperate search for water.

Sweetwater Creek, which meandered through the camp, was its only source of water and, unfortunately, its only sewer. Prisoners exposed to its waters risked dysentery and diarrhea. Wounds cleaned with creek water shortly turned gangrenous.

The maggot-ridden dead were left for weeks where they had died, prison guards too sick or fearful of becoming so, if they removed the bodies.

"The dead are carted out by the ration wagon, piled up like cordwood, with arms and legs hanging over the wheels, glassy eyes, and open mouths," Robert Knox Sneden, a prisoner, wrote in his diaries, published in 2000 as Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey.

At night, the agony of the dying became worse.

"The shrieks, oaths and moans of the dying was horrible. ... Those who would be sleeping near would kick them in the side or head saying `Why don't you die quietly?'" wrote Sneden.

With the end of the war in April 1865, those who had survived Andersonville were freed. As their experiences were made known, many in the North became outraged.

Winder, the man most responsible for the POW camps, died in early 1865, leaving Wirz to bear the brunt of northern wrath.

"Whether Wirz was actually guilty of anything worse than bad temper and inefficiency remains controversial today," wrote Civil War historian James M. McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom. "In any case, he served as the scapegoat for the purported sins of the South."

In May, Wirz was arrested. Later in the year, in Washington, he was tried by a military commission headed by Gen. Lew Wallace, who had been in charge of the occupation of Baltimore in the early days of the war. Wallace is better known as the author of Ben-Hur.

Wirz's defense, which would be echoed eight decades later at Nuremberg, was that he was simply following orders. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death on Nov. 6, 1865.

Four days later, he was led out of his cell and into the prison yard, as a crowd yelled, "Hang the scoundrel" and "Remember Andersonville."

Dressed in a black gown, Wirz quickly mounted the gallows and sat in a chair. As a priest finished the Catholic death service, Wirz kissed the crucifix.

As the hangman fitted the greased noose about Wirz's neck, Wirz told him he knew the man was only following orders.

At 10:30 a.m. the trap was sprung and Wirz went to his death. He was buried in the prison yard, but in 1869, his remains were moved to Mount Olivet.

In 1998, Andersonville was dedicated as the National Prisoner of War Museum.

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