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.
But 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.