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Andersonville prison. A Northern witness for Captain Wirz. From N., La., Picayune, July 26, 1908.

Immediately after the surrender of the relics of the Southern armies that had fought the war of secession to the end and had laid down their arms upon guarantees given by General Grant, who commanded all the United States armies and was universally recognized as the savior of the Union, the leading politicians in the North, infuriated and enraged against the Southern people, sought some pretext upon which the Southern leaders could be put to ignominious death and their property confiscated and divided out among the robbers, while portions of the confiscated lands were to be allotted to the emancipated negro slaves.

Such was the programme marked out by the South-haters in both houses of the United States Congress. Fortunately they were prevented from carrying out their nefarious and murderous schemes by several circumstances which may well be considered providential interventions.

One of these was the declaration by General Grant that no policy of violence and outrage could be perpetrated upon the military officers and soldiers who had laid down their arms and surrendered to him as long as the prisoners regarded their paroles and kept faith upon which they had ceased fighting. General Grant was at that time universally popular, and so complete was his hold upon the regard of the people that nothing could be done towards persecuting the surrendered Southern Soldiers contrary to his will.

Another circumstance which also contributed to save the Southern people from wholesale massacre and confiscation was [2] the fact that President Lincoln, just before his tragic and to the South most calamitous death, had begun to put in operation a plan to rehabilitate and restore to their places in the Union the several Southern States, and after his death the task was recommenced by his successor, Andrew Johnson.

Whatever might have been the disposition of the Northern politicians toward Lincoln's movements for Southern reinstatement, when it was undertaken by Andrew Johnson, it created such a state of fury and hate that his impeachment and expulsion from office was immediately attempted by Congress. In a trial of impeachment a committee from the House of Representatives makes the accusations, while the Senate sitting as a court under the presidency of the Chief Justice, hears the evidence and votes upon the guilt or innocence of the accused. A two-thirds vote is required to convict, and in this case one vote was lacking to secure conviction. Thus, by the narrowest possible margin President Johnson escaped impeachment, and he constantly stood as a stern and unflinching opposer of all the radical schemes attempted by Congress against the Southern States and people, so that although he could not prevent the legislation that imposed the infamous Reconstruction measures upon the South, he was able at least to prevent the wholesale enslavement of the white people of the South and the plunder of their property.

Being unable to wreak their hate in mass upon the Southern people there still remained the possibility of resorting to individual outrages. One of these expedients was to try Jefferson Davis for treason and to condemn him to death and execute him. When all the great lawyers of the North had vainly searched the Constitution and laws for some warrant to make Davis a traitor, the bloody inquisitors, determined to have a victim at last, were reduced to the expedient of making one of Captain Henry Wirz the Commandant of the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga.

In August, 1865, a special order was issued from the War Department, summoning a court martial to try Captain Henry Wirz and other prisoners. That military court made a report, of which the following is an extract: [3]

Washington, D. C., Nov. 6, 1865.
Before a military commission, which convened at Washington, D. C., Aug. 23, 1865, pursuant to Paragraph 3, Special Order No. 453, dated Aug. 23, 1865, and Paragraph 13, Special Order No. 524, Aug. 22, 1865, War Department, Adjutant General's Office, Washington, D. C., and of which Major General Lewis Wallace, United States Volunteers, is President, was arraigned and tried Henry Wirz.

Finding—The Commission, after having maturely considered the evidence adduced, find the accused guilty, as follows:

Of specification to Charge 1, guilty, after amending said specification as follows: In this, that the said Henry Wirz did combine, confederate and conspire with them, the said Jefferson Davis, James A. Seddon, Howell Cobb, John H. Winder, Richard B. Winder, Isaiah H. White, S. Reed, R. R. Stephenson, S. P. Moore,——Keer (late hospital steward at Andersonville), James Duncan, Wesley W. Turner, Benjamin Harris, and others whose names are unknown, maliciously and traitorously and in violation of the laws of war, to impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives of a large number of Federal prisoners, to-wit, 45,000 soldiers, etc.

The court implicated with Wirz, President Davis and members of his Cabinet and other high officials of the Confederate service, but the others mentioned were never brought to trial. On Nov. 6, Wirz was sentenced to death, and four days afterward he was executed by hanging. It will be noted that the trial and execution of Wirz was resorted to as a means of implicating the heads of the Confederate Government, and it is known that Wirz was offered life and liberty if he would charge the treatment of the prisoners on President Davis, but he scorned such knavery and went to his death a brave and innocent man.

In this connection a volume of extreme interest and importance has appeared in the form of ‘A defense of Major Henry Wirz,’ by two Northern soldiers, James Madison Page, late Second Lieutenant, Company A, Sixth Michigan Calvary, and M. J. Haley. Mr. Page was captured by the Confederate troops Sept. 21, 1864, and was sent to Andersonville Confederate prison. Says Mr. Page in his book: [4]

Touching my treatment on the whole, I cannot recall a solitary instance during the fourteen months while I was a prisoner of being insulted, browbeaten, robbed, or maltreated in any manner by a Confederate officer or soldier.

The books written by other Union soldiers who were prisoners in the South teem with accounts of brutality, insults, and suffering heaped upon them by Rebel officers and guards seemingly for cruelty's sake. I cannot question the veracity of those Northern writers; but I can and will speak for myself as far as I was concerned and as to my experience and as to what came under my observation. With all due respect to my late brethren-in-arms and in prison life, I cannot but think that to some extent they were instrumental, if they state facts, in bringing it upon themselves. Did they give the ‘soft answer’ when questioned? I do not hold that the prisoner when questioned should be obliging to the extent of giving information. O, no; but he can be courteous in his refusal to do so.

He thus describes Andersonville:

Visions of exchange were dispelled when we left the cars and stood in line before the south gate of Andersonville Prison. This was the 27th of February, 1864, between 10 and 11 a. m. I spent the remainder of the day exploring the camp to find a favorable place for our habitation.

The camp was situated on what had been heavy pine timber land, but the trees had been cut down. There was a stream of clear water running east through the prison grounds. The stockade was built of pine logs cut twenty feet long and hewed to the thickness of one foot and set in a trench five feet deep, making a wall fifteen high, on the top of which were sentry boxes about thirty-five feet apart. The stockade was not quite completed when we arrived there, but a strong force of men was at work at it. When completed, it would comprise about eleven acres. There were only about 2,000 prisoners confined there upon our arrival.

We were guarded by the Twenty-fifth Alabama Infantry, veteran troops, who knew how to treat prisoners. And I said then and have ever since said in speaking of our guards—the Twenty-fifth Alabama Infantry—that I never met the same number of [5] men together who came much nearer to my standard of what I call gentlemen. They were respectful, humane, and soldierly.

We were organized into squads of ninety, and I soon discovered that the young sergeant in charge of our squad was a fine young fellow. I shall refer to him more explicitly farther on.

I have read Richardson, Kellogg, Urban, Spencer and Grisby, on Andersonville, the most of it recently, and I was and am surprised at the free-lance recklessness of description.

Let us first discuss the topographical selection of the Andersonville site for a prison camp. I realize that this phase of the question has been reverted to and minutely described every five or six years, since Richardson first gave his views to the public, early in the autumn of 1865. The selection of the site was excellent. I do not propose to dilate on the beauties of a prison. * * * I wouldn't advise any one to seek a prison as a place at which to spend a vacation.

Of course there was suffering, hunger and misery among the prisoners at Andersonville. I had my share of it. There was also hunger, misery and suffering at Salisbury and at Rock Island and Elmira, the two latter places right in a land of plenty.

The Confederate officer who selected Andersonville gave evidence of his being an engineer of no mean caliber. I don't believe that in the whole State of Georgia a better choice could have been made. The place was healthful and salubrious and the water was good. The ground within the inclosure was not, as has been described by an unfriendly chronicler seemingly with malice aforethought, wet, boggy, miry, and a swamp.

Captain Wirz has been so often characterized as a monster of cruelty that one recalls with surprise this description of him by the Union officer:

Meeting him in one of his rounds of the prison, I approached and saluted. ‘Captain Wirz, I believe,’ said I. ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘May I speak with you?’ ‘Certainly.’ ‘Captain, there are a number of the prisoners adjacent to my quarters, several of whom are immediate comrades, who are sick. We have no fuel with which to cook our rations. The meal issued of late is poor in quality. I think that there is part of the cob ground with it. I am here on a begging mission to see if something cannot be done to remedy matters, I trust that you will pardon my presumption.’ [6] ‘Yes, sir; you are certainly excusable and justifiable in coming to me. I realize that situation. I am doing all I can to remedy matters and to relieve the deplorable condition, but I am hampered in many ways. We are building a bakery, working day and night to complete it. There will be a change very soon. The men will soon get bread.’ I heartily thanked him.

He impressed me as an unassuming, kind-hearted man with a somewhat sad expression of countenance.

Within a day or two after this meal of a better quality was served us, and a day or two later still we received corn meal mush and later bread.

And this was the man who was charged with putting a deadly poison into vaccine matter that was used in vaccinating the prisoners, as a result of which ‘one hundred and twenty died by vaccine poisoning one week!’

The interview produced upon me a complete revolution of opinion relative to the man. I went to him with fear and trembling, looking for the worst.

Everybody who has any knowledge of the conditions in the Northern military prisons during the Civil War knows that the Southern soldiers imprisoned in the North were treated with extreme cruelty and were made to suffer the most unnecessary privations, and the Federal authorities strenuously opposed any exchange of prisoners of war. General Grant, commanding the United States Armies, wrote the following on the subject:

City Point, Va., Aug. 21, 1864.
Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
Please inform General Foster that under no circumstances will he be authorized to make an exchange of prisoners of war. Exchanges simply reinforce the enemy at once, whilst we do not get the benefit for two or three months and lose the majority entirely. I telegraph this just from hearing that some five hundred or six hundred prisoners had been sent to General Foster.

U. S. Grant, Lieutenant General.

[7]

The following from the official statistics of prisoners on both sides is of particular interest: ***

Whole number of Federals in Confederate prisons270,000
Number of Confederates in Northern prisons220,000
———
Excess of Federal prisoners50,000
Confederates died in Northern prisons26,436
Federals died in Southern prisons22,570
———
Excess of Confederate deaths3,866

Thus the death rate of Confederates in Northern prisons was over 12 per cent., while that of Federal prisoners in Southern prisons was under 9 per cent.

The Northern official record with regard to the treatment and exchange of prisoners in the war of 1861-65 was shameful, and the murder of Captain Wirz to divert public attention from the real authors of the sufferings of the prisoners on both sides was one of the greatest atrocities of modern times.

Mr. Page's book is published by the Neale Publishing Company, New York and Washington.


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