Henry Wirz’s Story: Spin Set In Stone

Wirz Monument 01To believe the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Henry Wirz got the shaft.

And so they gave him the shaft, too.

Dedicated on May 12, 1909, a monument to the former commandant of South’s most notorious Civil War prison stands in the small village of Andersonville. The village, with a population of around 250, sits on the west side of Georgia state route 49, across from Andersonville National Historic Site.

The UDC erected “this shaft,” the monument says, “to rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice.” Another of the monument’s panels goes to great lengths to frame Wirz’ execution as a travesty:

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.

One need only ask the nearly 13,000 men who died in Andersonville if Wirz was innocent or not.

One can still debate whether Wirz’ execution was an act of justice or retribution, and opponents of the death penalty can debate, in a larger sense, whether his execution was a travesty or not. It is far harder to make the argument that Wirz was innocent.

Wirz defenders have also put forth the argument that Federal war policy created Andersonville’s abominable conditions—in essence, Federals forced Wirz’s hand. Another inscription on the monument, quoting Ulysses S. Grant, as much as says so:

It is hard on our men held in southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here. — Ulysses S. Grant, Aug. 18, 1864

What the monument does not mention, of course, is that Grant and Lincoln refused prisoner exchanges because the South refused to treat black captives the same as white captives. That precipitating event led to the cessation of exchange, not Grant’s worries about men on the front lines. This is particularly ironic considering one of the precepts of Lost Cause mythology: that the North overwhelmed the South with numbers, not fighting prowess. The inscription chosen by the UDC seems to conveniently ignore that contradiction.

The North, too, had prison camps where conditions were likewise abominable—even more inexcusably so since the North did not suffer from the resource shortages the South did. But just because things were bad in “Hellmira,” for instance, does not excuse the bad conditions in Andersonville. This bad math, purporting to demonstrate some faulty equity, shows up with unfortunate frequency when defenders try to put Wirz’s actions “in context.”

I don’t presume to judge Wirz myself. I wasn’t at Andersonville or at Wirz’s trial. I had a relative who survived the prison, but I don’t have his letters, so I don’t even know what he experienced or how he felt.

Wirz OfficeBut I do know how befuddled I was, standing in downtown Andersonville, across from Wirz’s former headquarters, staring at an obelisk that honored a man executed for war crimes—even as, across Route 49, 13,000 of his former charges lay in neat, silent rows.

The monument seemed more to me than an attempt to put a happy face on an unfortunate situation. It was more than a historical whitewash or wishful thinking. It was more than aggressive propaganda or Lost Cause spin.

I could not think of it any other way: the story told by the monument struck me as downright fraud, plain and simple.

Most importantly, though—and for this I am thankful—the monument moved me to investigate the situation for myself. After all, it is hard not to be moved by the cumulative tragedy of those 13,000 men, dead and buried, demanding so hard to be heard that their silence is almost seductive. If we’re not careful, that’s all we’ll hear. Even men like Wirz deserve to have their stories heard, too.

What we do with those stories makes all the difference.

Post’s like Ryan Quint’s earlier today are a good start toward understanding; Meg Groeling’s Andersonville chapter in The Aftermath of Battle offers another; the Park Service’s website offers yet another. Plenty of excellent resources exist.

Just because the UDC set a version of Wirz’s story in stone, that doesn’t mean it’s true. The only way to know for sure is to find out for yourself.

14 Responses to Henry Wirz’s Story: Spin Set In Stone

  1. Well said in the extreme. Emotions run high on a subject like this, but a dispassionate look is necessary.

    1. No other topic remained as controversial for the veterans of both sides than the treatment of POWs during the war. Even at the height or reconciliation, discussion of prisons threatened to disrupt the equilibrium. With that in mind, Wirz probably didn’t stand a chance–but maybe he didn’t deserve to, anyway.

    1. Andersonville NHS has a page that offers some info about the monument’s controversial history, which is pretty interesting. The first link in the post goes to that page if you have the time to check it out.

  2. Wirz has struck me as a shocking incompetent. There were a number of things he could have done to make conditions more tolerable, but he expressed no interest in doing so. He was a small man, overwhelmed by circumstances. For that, as much as anything, he died.

  3. Wirz’s “trial” was a farce, the decision was known before it started. He was incompetent administrator put in charge of an impossible situation. What defense can you have for northern commandants of prison camps? To the victors go the trials.

    1. Indeed–and one more reason that prisons were such a hot-button topic after the war. The Northern prison camps were just as–or even more–inexcusable, and Southern POWs had little recourse after the war ended to get any kind of justice for their mistreatment.

  4. I am not sure what point you are making about the monument which was erected in 1909 by an organization that wanted to express its version of events. That they were wrong? Ok. Now what?

    1. I chose to post about it because the monument inspired/challenged me enough to offer a reaction. I’m not sure there is a “now what” beyond the discussion itself. I would not advocate taking the monument down because that would be the same kind of historical whitewashing that we’re seeing recently as part of the Confederate culture wars. But if such monuments are just accepted as “fact” without discussion, they become the story de facto.

      1. Yes, it would be historically inaccurate to erect that column now. Ironically, it is a fitting relic of the “lost cause” and an insight into the thinking behind it.

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