Andersonville Military Prison in Georgia was the notorious camp where thousands of Union Soldiers meet a horrible demise. The prison was overcrowded to four times its capacity, and had an inadequate water supply, inadequate food, and unsanitary conditions. Of the approximately 45,000 soldiers held at Andersonville, nearly 13,000 died. The camp was only opened in February 1864 and that death total was over the last year and 3 months of the war. The chief causes of death were scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery.
The commander of the prison was Captain Henry Wirz. Wirz had a difficult job. The camp was overcrowded and the Confederacy had severe food shortages throughout the country. That did not excuse the poor management and lack or resources that the Union prisoners experienced. In addition, several Union soldiers described cruelty and torture committed by Wirz himself. The prison held the thousands of prisoners on a barren field. Barracks were planned but never built, and the men were forced to live in shelters constructed from scrap wood and blankets. A stream flowed through the compound and provided water for the Union soldiers, but this became a cesspool of disease and human waste. Erosion caused by the prisoners turned the stream into a fetid swamp. Nothing was done to correct these conditions. Poet Walt Whitman saw some of the prison survivors and wrote, “There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven, but this is not among them.”
Wirz was charged with conspiracy to injure the health and lives of Union soldiers and murder. His trial began in August 1865. He was found guilty and sentenced to die on November 10 1865. Just before he was hanged, Wirz reportedly said to the officer in charge, “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.” Captain Wirz was one of the few people convicted and executed for crimes committed during the Civil War. Many see him as a scapegoat for larger failures of the Confederacy and just a lack of available supplies. Many citizens and soldiers in the Confederate States were themselves starving. It is estimated that as many as 750,000 Americans died during the Civil War. A brutal figure in a brutal war. The savagery of the conflict should give pause to those who promote violence against, or dehumanize others, in our current political and cultural disagreements.