One of Wirz’s first creations was the dead line.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
“In the early part of the Civil War, few prisoner-of-war camps existed, and captured soldiers were rarely incarcerated. Both sides typically paroled prisoners (allowing them to return to their homes, under the obligation not to take up arms until properly exchanged), or else the armies arranged an even quicker swap of equal numbers of men. The exchange system collapsed in 1863, though, due to the Northern decision to enlist runaway slaves in military service and the South’s refusal to acknowledge their status as Union soldiers. Captured men were sent to prisoner-of-war camps, which were often badly constructed, poorly located, and subject to all sorts of abuses and privations (some intentional, others the consequence of flawed supply systems).”
Two Confederate POW camps, Libby Prison and Belle Isle, were located near Richmond, VA, the rebel capital. The large number of prisoners in the Richmond area—9,000, in all—was a military concern because of the very real possibility of a Yankee cavalry raid. (Union forces had already tried to free their comrades once and failed.) Not only that, Richmond itself was, by late 1863, considered vulnerable to attack, and the prison guards could be better deployed on the front lines.
The situation was further complicated because the prisoner population was a drain on the already badly diminished food and medical supplies available—this thanks to the effective northern naval blockade.
Eliza Frances Andrews, a Georgia woman, asked: “And yet, what can we do? The Yankees themselves are really more to blame than we, for they won’t exchange these prisoners, and our poor, hard-pressed Confederacy has not the means to provide for them, when our own soldiers are starving in the field.”
Already iconic, soon to be immortal Confederate General Robert E. Lee agreed with Andrews and, in late 1863, recommended moving the prisoners out of the general vicinity of Richmond. By November the government of the Confederate States of America (CSA) and Secretary of War James Seddon followed through with Lee’s recommendation and ordered General John Winder, who was in charge of Confederate prisons east of the Mississippi to find a location that was: a) far from the focus of the war (i.e., Virginia), b) remote (relative to the civilian population), c) well stocked with food and d) warmer.
In early 1864, General Winder began to move Union prisoners of war out of the Richmond, VA area. That February five hundred prisoners from Belle Isle arrived at a station that would come to be known as Andersonville. (Its official, seldom-used name is Camp Sumter, after the fort in Charleston, SC, where the first shot of the war was fired.)
Located a hundred miles from Atlanta, GA, in a flat, desolate area and hastily built with slave labor, Andersonville was meant to house a maximum of 10,000 prisoners on 16.5 acres. Though its grounds expanded from 16.5 acres to 26 in June, it was overcrowded from the outset, and General Grant’s massive offensive south in the spring and summer of 1864 only swelled the prison population more—to 34,000—making it the fifth-largest “confederate city.”
Conditions in the camp were abysmal: Proper clothing and reading material were scarce. The mail system was undependable. Overcrowding was severe and oppressive, and sanitation facilities and shelter were woefully inadequate. In the summer the prisoners were exposed to the scorching sun, in the winter to the cold and freezing rain.
Lacking building material of any kind—lumber or nails, for example—the men cobbled together crude lean-tos and A-frame tents made of scavenged sticks and torn blankets. Either that, or they burrowed into caves that could collapse during downpours and kill them while they slept.
The water from the stream that trickled through the grounds was undrinkable. One survivor recalled that, “We had to strain the water through our teeth to keep the maggots out.” To avoid making themselves ill, prisoners would wring rain from their clothes and drink that. The insufficient and unsatisfactory prison food caused malnutrition that resulted in vitamin deficiencies, scurvy and a kind of living death.
POW Charles Hopkins wrote in his diary: “My legs had begun to twist wrong side out, and feet to change front, and troublesome other ways, my gums swollen and rotten, sloughing off, leaving the teeth almost ready to fall out. My limbs, from the knees to the toes, were swollen nearly to bursting, black purple in color, holes in which the finger could be inserted over an inch, putrid disgusting to look at, while from the knees, torso to head, the body was skin and bone—the skin like drawn parchment on a frame.”
Some starved to death or suffered and died from madness (listed as dying from “nostalgia”), while others became so depressed that they lost all sense of purpose and belonging and hope. One boy, who contracted gangrene, amputated his own feet and survived.
Patients in the camp hospital slept two to a bed or on the floor; flies buzzed around their eyes and mouths and laid eggs in their open wounds. More men died from diarrhea and dysentery than anything else, and many of the men who weren’t hospitalized could have been. They wore tattered uniforms or clothes taken from the backs of the dead and wandered around looking like ghosts with gaunt faces and vacant stares.
The smell in the camp was so insufferable that newly arriving prisoners vomited.
Since there was no lumber, there were never any coffins. The dead were buried in mass graves and toward the end of the war (as the death rate mounted from 300 per month to 3,000) in trenches with toe tags, sometimes side by side to conserve space.
Escape was almost inconceivable. The prisoners were too weak, the tools too inadequate, the rebel guards and bloodhounds too capable, the location too desolate and the odds too slim. Anyone caught escaping was tortured, and tunnels were often “found” by the rebels thanks to “tunnel-traitors,” who were awarded extra rations. Still, the men were desperate for freedom, and some of them weren’t deterred. 329 men are known to have escaped from Andersonville.
“My heart aches for those terrible wretches, Yankee though they are, and I am afraid God will suffer some terrible retribution to fall upon us for letting such things happen. If the Yankees should ever come to Southeast Georgia and go to Andersonville and see the graves there, God have mercy on the land.”
Other local women, taking pity on the prisoners and hoping to cure some cases of scurvy, offered to bring fresh vegetables to the camp. General Winder, who thought the whole idea was disloyal to the Confederate cause and feared that the interaction would somehow provide the POWs with enough information to carry out a prison break, would not allow it.
Captain Henry Wirz, who was put in charge of the interior of the camp in March 1864, agreed. Swiss-born and German-accented, Heinrich Hartmann Wirz arrived in America after possibly serving some time in prison and maybe abandoning his first wife. He enlisted in June 1861, and about a year later, he was wounded (probably in The Battle of Seven Pines). His wound never healed properly, and from the time he took over the camp, he wrapped his swollen and infected arm in a towel and behaved like a man in pain. In fact, though most prisoners thought of him as volatile and unnecessarily harsh, a handful of men maintained that he could also be kind and surprisingly sensitive.
One of Wirz’s first creations was the dead line.
A fifteen-foot high fence with elevated sentry boxes at eighty-foot intervals surrounded Andersonville’s prison stockade. Wirz had a crude, split-rail fence constructed about eighteen feet from that outer fence—this smaller, innermost fence came to be known as the “dead line.” (The dead line wasn’t limited to Andersonville. Various northern POW camps had “dead lines” of their own.) Wirz meant for it to prevent not only escapes, but also any illegal trading between the undisciplined guards and the desperate prisoners. It was one of the first things new arrivals were warned about.
The guards were under orders to shoot anyone who crossed or even came close to the “dead line”—no matter what the reason. Not that they only shot at prisoners with good reason: Guards were known to shoot prisoners without provocation elsewhere on the grounds, drag them to the “dead line” and claim they had been shot in the act of crossing it. There were numerous (false) rumors that the guards were awarded thirty-day furloughs for every Yankee they wounded and sixty for every one they killed.
Some guards refused to shoot prisoners who had crossed the dead line, and an unknown number of prisoners crossed the dead line, so they would be shot and put out of their misery.
Such inhuman conditions bred inhuman behavior. Armed with knives and clubs, an organized, roving band of prisoners, who called themselves the “Raiders,” terrorized and robbed the rest of the men. They attacked new arrivals at the camp, referred to as “fresh fish,” taking anything valuable that they had in their possession—from money and jewelry to clothes and blankets—and used what they stole to buy or barter food from corrupt guards. A situation that became self-perpetuating before long: Since the “Raiders” ate more than other prisoners, their group remained stronger, collectively and individually, enabling them to continue to prey on the weaker prisoners.
The “Raiders” got to be so out of control that, after a particularly brutal beating, Wirz authorized a guard detail to purge them from the camp. Wirz’s actions motivated the other prisoners: They organized an internal police force with thirty man teams and called themselves the “Regulators.” They targeted the most dangerous gangs and hunted them down one by one, aided by the Raiders’ crumbling support as the majority of prisoners sensed the power shift. Wirz provided the “Regulators” with clubs and created a court whose jurors were chosen mostly from recent arrivals, to ensure some semblance of objectivity.
After a violent struggle, the “Regulators” arrested the leaders of the Raiders and, with Wirz’s approval, conducted a proper criminal trial. Six of the “Raiders” were found guilty of murder and eighteen others of lesser crimes. The six were hanged in front of 29,000 fellow prisoners—once again helped by the commandant, who provided the lumber for the scaffold. The eighteen were forced to “run the gauntlet,” or run past a line of prisoners armed with clubs. Three of them died trying.
The six were buried separately from the 13,000 others who died at Andersonville.
Captain Wirz was tried by a US Military Commission for war crimes, found guilty and hung—the only Confederate executed after the war. General Winder might have been tried and executed along with, or even instead of, Wirz had he not died of exhaustion two months before the war ended.
During Wirz’s sensational trial pictures of some emaciated survivors appeared and shocked Northerners. In addition, post war memoirs, which exaggerated the already horrific conditions, helped create the lasting historical image of Andersonville as hell on earth.
The subjects of Andersonville and the trial and execution of Henry Wirz continue to be divisive ones. Certain historians observe that the commandment of the prison may have been the victim of post war vengeance and, therefore, a scapegoat, and current scholarship concludes, in the cool light of distance and time, that conditions at Andersonville were, in no small measure, the result of the misfortunes of war, the South’s dire and desperate economic condition circa 1864/1865 and poor administrative decisions, in general. Though inmates at Andersonville suffered a 15% mortality rate, conditions in northern prisons were similar, and rebel POWs suffered a 12% mortality rate.
During the course of the war, there were 194,000 Union POWs and 215,000 Confederate POWs. 30,000 Union soldiers and 26,000 Confederates died—exceeding the number of men and boys killed, wounded or missing in action at Gettysburg.
* * * *
Now, as all of us refer to this and that tight deadline, the connection to Andersonville and Captain Henry Wirz seems to be what’s died.
Catton, Bruce; AmericanHeritage: New History of the Civil War.
Futch, Ovid L.; History of Andersonville Prison.
Hesseltine, William B.; Civil War Prisons.
Horwitz, Tony; Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.
Marvel, William; Andersonville: The Last Depot.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.
McPherson, James M. and James K. Hogue; Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.
Oates, Stephen B.; A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War.
Ward, Geoffrey with Ric Burns and Ken Burns; The Civil War: The Complete Text of the Bestselling Narrative History of the Civil War—Based on the Celebrated PBS Television Series.
“In the early….”; Catton, 470
“And yet what…”; McPherson and Hogue, 407
“We had to…”; Horowitz, 321
“My legs…”; Oates, 324
“My heart aches…”; Ward, 338
“The duties…”; Catton, 438
at 12:23 PM