Comment Of The Day: “The Hanging Of Henry Wirz”…And Thoughts On Who Is Worthy Of A Memorial

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Michael West’s latest Comment of the Day was a provocative note relating to the recent post marking the execution of Capt. Henry Wirz, the Confederate commander of the infamous Andersonville prison camp and the defendant in the first American war crimes trial. Apart from the information, his comment also prompted some research and thought on my part. There are ethical conundrums afoot.

I’ll be back to discuss them after Michael West’s Comment of the Day on the post, “The Hanging of Henry Wirz”:

And there’s a monument in memory of Henry Wirz smack dab in the middle of the “main” intersection of Andersonville. The town, which literally had NO connection to Wirz outside of circumstance…has a monument to the man. At least when Southerners were given the option to erect monuments and name installations, they generally associated places with Southerners who had geographic connections with the locale.

Like Fort Bennin: with a military career earning no more than a “yeah, he was there” mention, Fort Benning is named after a man who happened to be born near there. But Henry Wirz gets a monument in the town associated with his notoriety. Perhaps it would be fair to let his monument be the last torn down by the history-eaters, if only to remember that lethal scapegoating is wrong, however temporarily useful.

I’m back with more on this topic:

On May 12, 1909, nearly 44 years after he had been executed for being convicted of”wanton cruelty” and murder of Union soldiers at Andersonville, Henry Wirz had a monument erected in his honor in the same town where his war crimes had taken place. An estimate 3000 people looked on. “Flags of the old Confederacy ‘were everywhere and floral designs literally covered the shaft’ of the monument…a chorus sang Dixie, Wirz’s only living daughter, Julia, pulled a silk chord to release a huge flag, revealing the 36-foot monument. Later, a chorus sang “Maryland, My Maryland,” and a military company from Americus, Georgia., fired off a salute.”

The plaques on the monument assert in part,

“Discharging his duty with such humanity as the harsh circumstances of the times and the policy of the foe permitted, Captain Wirz became at last the victim of a misdirected popular clamor. He was arrested in time of peace, while under the protection of a parole, tried by a military commission of a service to which he did not belong, and condemned to ignominious death on charges of excessive cruelty to Federal prisoners. He indignantly spurned a pardon, proffered on condition that he would incriminate President Jefferson Davis and thus exonerate himself from charges of which both were innocent.”

..and,

“In memory of Captain Henry Wirz, C.S.A. born Zurich, Switzerland, 1822, sentenced to death and executed at Washington D.C. November 10, 1865…To rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice this shaft is erected by the Georgia division, United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

In various Civil War blogs the statements are called “spin” and “flat-out fraudulent.” As you might expect, there was a harsh regional split at the time of the monument’s unveiling. The Goldsboro (N.C.) Daily Argus wrote

“No intelligent person at this day blames Captain Wirz [for Union deaths at Andersonville]. He was unjustly treated. He died a martyr to the cause he believed to be just, and the dedication of a monument to his memory, erected by the women of Georgia, is a well deserved tribute to his worth as a man and his courage and sincerity as a soldier.”

The Richmond Dispatch said in an editorial:

“Wirz is publicly honored in the South now less for what he did than for what was done to him. He was made the scapegoat for things not of his doing and this monument stands to embody the Southern sense of the great wrong put upon him by the United States. The angry and resentful mob loves a visible sacrifice. Wirz was a propitiatory offering to popular indignation over the sufferings of Northern soldiers in Southern prisons. But Wirz was in no way responsible for these sufferings. They were caused by grim conditions which the racked South was powerless to better, and which the deliberate policies of the North greatly aggravated.”

Northerners felt differently. In Hartford, Pastor E.S. Holloway excoriated plans for the monument, telling a gathering of former Union prisoners of war,

“Oh, woman of the Southland, build your monument to [Stonewall] Jackson because he had pure heart; to [Robert E.] Lee because when he laid down arms he said to his comrades, ‘We have but one country now’; to Alexander Stevens, for a self-sacrificing life; but God forbid that a monument of shame be built to the butcher Wirz, and if it be built may the lightning of heaven strike it into a thousand pieces.'”

“If Wirz deserves a monument,” a New York World editorial thundered, “there should be a public memorial to Mrs. Surratt, whom the verdict of history has acquitted of real criminal complicity in the assassination of Lincoln.”  An Ohio newspaper likened memorializing Wirz to “honoring Nero for burning Christians at the stake.” “It passes all understanding,” another Ohio newspaper said, “how women could be the agents to pay for or erect a monument to such a man. There can be no…defense for the damnable record of Andersonville. Its horrors make it a black page in history, a blot upon civilization.”

Stipulated: the Southern endorsements of the memorial, if a bit too celebratory, are closer to truth than the Northern protests. I have seen no evidence that anyone in charge of the Andersonville prison could have made the fates of those imprisoned there significantly better than they were.

Also stipulated: Wirz was an unremarkable, unheroic, seemingly unfeeling man who showed neither remorse for his role in the Andersonville horrors nor pity for the men who suffered there.

He was, however, unjustly scapegoated. His prosecution was cynical and hypocritical. He was a victim of double standard, vengeance, corrupted process and bigotry. Two questions:

1. Why shouldn’t there be a monument to “lethal scapegoating”?

It’s important to remember Henry Wirz for the right reasons, and if we are to have a public reminder of how wrong it is to exploit human beings who end up in the wrong places in the wrong times through no fault of their own to manufacture “closure” by ruthlessly focusing public anger and hate on them, I can’t think of any more appropriate example than Wirz.

2. Should memorials and monuments only memorialize great and good people?

There is a street in Whitechapel named after one of Jack The Ripper’s victims. She was a prostitute, a thief and a drunk. There are memorials to George Floyd

4 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “The Hanging Of Henry Wirz”…And Thoughts On Who Is Worthy Of A Memorial

  1. I hope Steve-O and Michael follow up here with their admirable knowledge of history. My ignorance of the history of Henry Wirz and the Andersonville situation make me want to ask simple questions. I am confident that at least one, and probably a few more than one, of the more visible EA commenters could answer them most thoroughly, and without insulting me or anyone else who might be similarly ignorant.

    I mean, I know only slightly more than nothing about Wirz and Andersonville. Perhaps most vividly, I recall a sarcastic headline in a newspaper published at war’s end, alluding to the conditions at Andersonville as an example of “Southern chivalry.” (Or maybe, the article was referring to a different CSA POW camp.) Hmmm…so much like we read and hear today, uttered by haters of Trump voters…

    Did Wirz have any opportunity to release the prisoners before the war ended? If so, what prevented him from releasing them? Threat of being tried for treason against the CSA? Something else?

    Did Wirz have any resources at his disposal to ship released prisoners northward? (I doubt that he did. I recall reading that rail systems had varying rail gauges in the South, not a uniform gauge, and that fact alone posed logistical obstacles for the CSA that hindered their war effort. Such obstacles certainly also would have hindered coordination of a humanitarian mass POW release.)

    Did Wirz ever send out “back channel” entreaties to Union contacts for aid in preventing starvation of the POWs? (Again, and I will say “surely,” the logistics of avoiding many if not most of the cruel hardships that the POWs suffered would have been daunting, in any case. But, since I am so cynical, I can almost presume that the Union wanted the CSA’s POWs to suffer, for “optics” purposes – even as Sherman and his troops did his March to the Sea.)

    I’ll stop with my questions there. I like the idea of a monument to lethal scapegoating. That’s about as Christian as anything. But we must remember, we live in an era of ends-justify-the-means. Why waste time and effort on such a monument, when there are tens of millions of Trump voters to kill off?

    I don’t even want to get started on George Floyd. His grave is too close to my house.

    • The answers are “No, no, and no.” He wasn’t even in command: his superior was a Colonel Wender, who, unhappily for Wirz, died right before the end of the war.

      As I noted, Wirz was a small man, and everything you mention would have taken courage, initiative, and the willingness to disobey orders at his own risk. Even then theories of what might have been done are second guessing. You can’t execute a man for not engaging in exemplary conduct, or for following orders when he lacks the ability to imagine better ones.

  2. OK, so here are my two greenbacks on this topic. I have read a lot about the Civil War, but not a lot on Andersonville and POW camps in general. Nonetheless:

    An important distinction needs to be made, I think, between CSA POW camps and Nazi concentration camps. In the latter it was official government policy to exterminate the prisoners and the Nazis actively murdered many of them outright along with starving them and working them to death. I think everyone agrees that the CSA had no such policy, if indeed it had a policy at all regarding POWs.

    Andersonville was the most notorious, by far, but my understanding tells me that conditions in most POW camps, South and North, were pretty bad. We had a discussion here on EA during the monument toppling mania a couple years ago that touched on a POW camp that was in Wisconsin, as I recall. The local townspeople had a chance to actually see the POWs and realized they were just people — the town kind of took them under its wing and helped ameliorate conditions. Even with that, I think I recall there was a mortality rate of around 10% or so, in close to ideal (for the Civil War) conditions.

    The truth is that the whole South, by April 1865, was suffering. I don’t know the figures but I am pretty sure there was starvation during the winter of 1865-66. The Army of Northern Virginia — surely at the very top of the priority list — couldn’t really feed its soldiers adequately a lot of the time (one reason for invading the rich Northern states in 1862 and 1863). POW camps surely got what was left over, which by then couldn’t have been a lot.

    And, as well, both sides had trouble with logistics. In the North, we can attribute lack of adequate supplies to incompetence and in the South you add scarcity of resources.

    One final example (this from Bruce Catton). The federal government issued whole bean coffee to its troops for them to brew coffee (which, keep in mind, was done by the individual soldier a lot of the time). Why did they force their soldiers to grind the coffee themselves (typically with a musket butt)? Evidently this was the only way they could reliably get the coffee actually out to the troops because of, I believe, inefficiencies, theft, and the like.

    So what chance did POW camps have of being well supplied and well managed?

  3. Having grown up in the South (sort of – South Florida which was uninhabited by white people until the 1900s but largely populated by people from the South in the 1950s and 1960s), I can attest to the continuing contempt and resentment the South had for Yankees. Losing to and being crushed by the North was humiliating for the South. See, eg., “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down,” by, ironically, a mostly Canadian band. Or recall the scene in Faulkner when two young Southerners are sitting next to what had been a railroad line where the Yankees had pulled up the rails and wrapped them around the nearby trees so the rails could never be used again. One of the Southerners asks, “How could God have let this happen to us?” The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

    The incessant lecturing by the country’s moral superiors has never really abated.

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