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.”
“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