The Death of the Commandant of Andersonville

Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, forever infamous as the commanding officer of the most notorious prison camp of the Civil War, Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga., was executed this week (Nov. 10) in 1865 after being found guilty of war crimes, including murder, committed at “Andersonville” while he ran the camp.  Approximately 13,000 Union soldiers died at Andersonville under the most inhumane conditions imaginable; the leading causes of death were disease, exposure to the elements and starvation.

Granted, Wirz was a poor officer and by most accounts cruelly indifferent to the fate of his prisoners, but it is also true that Wirz was dealt a bad hand at Andersonville, which originally had been designed as a temporary holding prison for no more than 10,000 prisoners.

Unfortunately, the prisoner-exchange system that had existed between the Confederacy and the Union—an exchange system that had kept prisoner numbers to a minimum—broke down in late 1863 when the Confederacy refused to consider as war prisoners those former slaves who had fled the Confederacy and were now serving in the Union Army.   Rather than agreeing to exchange the black Union soldiers it captured in return for captured Confederate soldiers, the Confederate government either shot these former slaves or returned them to their former owners, which caused the Union to halt all prisoner exchanges.

As a result, by late 1864 prison camps on both sides were badly overcrowded.  By 1865 Andersonville had more than 46,000 prisoners, most living in makeshift housing called “shebangs,” which were basically wooden structures around blankets that offered little protection from the elements.  In addition, the camp’s only water came from a small stream that ran through Andersonville and it quickly became contaminated by human waste.

Also, by late 1864 the Confederacy was losing the war and crumbling as a society, and therefore the Confederate government was unable to provide its own citizens with adequate food, medicine and other necessities. The least of its worries was providing them to Union Army prisoners, which was another problem out of Wirz’s control.

In sum, Wirz became a scapegoat for all of the atrocities committed by the Confederacy during the Civil War, and at his trial the more than 150 witnesses who testified against him often offered conflicting testimony, while some evidence was entirely fabricated.

Which is not to say Wirz didn’t deserve to die.  What happened at Andersonville was morally indefensible regardless of those circumstances beyond his control. But it is to say that in war the winners write the rules.  War crimes were committed by both sides (many Union prison camps were also unlivable hellholes), but Henry Wirz was the only officer on either side to pay for them with his life.