The wooden steps creaked as the condemned man was led up to the gallows surrounded by hundreds of Union soldiers. After the guilty verdict had been read aloud once again, a noose was placed around the neck of Captain Henry Wirz as he prepared himself for the end.
The hangman threw his lever and the trap door below Captain Wirz shot open. The only regular Confederate soldier or officer to be convicted of what we would today call war crimes during the bloody 4-year American Civil War plunged downwards. But it was not a quick end for Captain Wirz. With the fall failing to snap his neck, those in attendance watched the man squirm desperately as he was slowly strangled.
Yet few watching would have felt much sympathy for the man who had been in charge of the most notorious prisoner of war camp throughout the entire war, Andersonville Prison, also known as Camp Sumter – a place where 13,000 Union prisoners died, roughly a third of the entire prison population. While it would be difficult to argue that conditions in any POW camps on both sides were even remotely decent, what happened at Camp Sumter was by far the grimmest.
The American Civil War began on 12th April 1861 when Confederate shells began landing on a Fort in South Carolina, coincidentally named Fort Sumter. Tensions that had been brewing between the Northern and Southern States, primarily over slavery and the economic effect abolishment would have, but also over States’ rights and territorial expansion, finally exploded and the four-year conflict would eventually kill around 2% of the U.S population – somewhere around 750,000 people.
The American Civil War degenerated into a series of chaotic battles that saw some of the highest death rates ever seen in war at the time. While the Battle of Gettysburg was by far the bloodiest engagement of the entire conflict, the Battle of Antietam, which took place on 17th September 1862, remains the bloodiest single day in American history and saw nearly 23,000 soldiers from both sides lose their lives.
It’s remarkable to think that, despite the carnage on the battlefield, during the early days of the war, prisoners would often be swapped after battle, with opposing commanders informally overseeing the exchange. Now, this might have been the gentlemanly way to do things, but when the soldiers you have just released find their way back to your opposing lines and are quickly handed a new gun again, I guess it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But there were certainly some commendable attempts, not least the Dix-Hill Cartel set up by Union General John Dix and Confederate general D. H. Hill as a way of exchanging prisoners using an agreed system where higher ranks could effectively be swapped for larger numbers lower ranks. This was done at two separate locations and involved neutral agents who handled the exchanges. The first such exchange took place in August 1862, but the system crashed and burned in less than a year as it became clear that both sides were doing their utmost to bend the agreed rules to their own needs and desires.
As a result, prisoner of war camps began appearing on both sides of the divide and by the end of the conflict, some 150 camps were dotted throughout the country. And while the focus of our video today is on what is widely considered the worst camp during the war, and a Confederate one at that, this was certainly not a one-sided horror show.
Conditions in prisoner of war camps on both sides were frequently deplorable. Camp Douglas, the largest camp used by the Union situated in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood, saw a mortality rate of between 17 and 23% between 1863 and 1865. Not quite as bad as Camp Sumter, but still absolutely appalling.
Building Andersonville Prison
By late 1863 the decision was taken to move the bulk of the Union prisoners of war from Richmond in Virginia further south into Confederate territory and the small rail depot of Anderson (now Andersonville), situated around 190 km (120 miles) south of Atlanta, was the chosen site.
During the winter of 1863/1864 Confederate soldiers began building a stockade that would eventually encompass roughly 16 acres of land – in the shape of a rectangle – measuring 490 metres (1,620 feet) by 237 metres (779 feet). This included an outer wall around 4.6 metres (15 ft) in height and an inner post and rail fence placed 5.8 metres (19 ft) from the outer wall, that included a watch tower every 27.4 metres (90 ft), which the prisoners soon named “pigeon roosts”. The rules regarding these two barriers were very simple. If you crossed the inner post and rail fence, you would be instantly shot and there were even reports of sentries shooting prisoners for simply approaching the inner line – which came to be known a little ominously as “the deadline”.
Prisoners began arriving at Camp Sumter in February 1864, even before construction had been fully completed, and by April, around 7,000 prisoners had been brought into the camp. To begin with, this camp was about as sparse as you can possibly imagine. It wasn’t until late the following year that wooden barracks were finally built, and until then, prisoners were housed in makeshift military tents.
Captain Henry Wirz
It’s here that we meet the central antagonist of our story – Captain Henry Wirz – who arrived at Camp Sumter in April 1864 to become the commandant of the stockade and its interior. Wirz, born in 1823 in Zurich was forced to emigrate in 1847 over a failure to pay back his debts, leaving first for Russia, then on to the United States the following year.
The man who had aspired to become a physician at an early age initially struggled with employment after arriving in Massachusetts but eventually found work in a factory. Five years later he moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and worked there as a doctor’s assistant for a short period.
When war broke out, Wirz volunteered for the Confederate army and became a private in the 4th Battalion of Louisiana Infantry of the Confederate army in Madison Parish. At some point in early to mid-1862, he lost the use of his right arm. He claimed that this had been a war wound inflicted during the Battle of Seven Pines, though there’s plenty of speculation that it may have actually happened during a lengthy mission to try and recover missing Union prisoner information.
Either way, he was shipped home for a few months to rest, but was back on duty in June 1862 and promoted to captain “for bravery on the field of battle”. However, with his disability, there was no way he would be riding into combat anytime soon and quickly found himself working for General John H. Winder, who was in charge of Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Initially, he worked with the General at Richmond, but early in 1863, he was finally handed command of his own prisoner camp.
Now, before we move on, it’s worth highlighting that despite his execution for a catalogue of crimes, Wirz’s role in all of what happened has been debated ever since his death. We’ll be going into this a little later in the video but it’s important to point this out early on. While Wirz was in charge of the prison camp – well, at least what lay inside the stockade – his influence outside the walls was said to be marginal. As we’ll get to later on, he was accused and convicted of some truly heinous crimes, but his ultimate contribution to the Camp Sumter disaster has long been argued over.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, when Wirz arrived in April 1864, the prison, with its 7,000 inmates, was at least manageable – but things were about to get a whole lot worse.
Soon after his arrival, Wirz was told of plans to add 400 prisoners per day for the next several months. It didn’t take a mathematician to see that with figures like that, things could easily spiral out of control.
It seems here Wirz had two options, either start constructing barracks to house the prisoners or enlarge the stockade to accommodate more people inside – and he chose the latter. By June, the size of the prison had nearly doubled to 26 acres with the help of prison labour. This expansion also saw several gun pits dug outside the compound that would house canons that could be fired into the prisons in case of unrest. And yes you did hear me right there, not guns – cannons.
Now, it would be a huge stretch to suggest that life within the stockade was ever anything other than grim drudgery, but as the prison population swelled dramatically, conditions quickly deteriorated. At its peak, there were around 33,000 prisoners at Andersonville Prison and when you take into consideration its size, that worked out to around 1.5 x 2 metres (5 feet by 6 feet) for each prisoner.
Prisoner rations were continuously in freefall and never matched those of their captors, which had been the agreement during the early days of the exchange cartels. At its lowest point, rations consisted of nothing more than flour made of coarsely ground corn, which, in theory, could be ground then mixed with water and baked or boiled into a pudding. But with firewood severely limited and tightly controlled by the guards who feared what would happen if the prisoners got their hands on fire, many simply ate the corn raw.
With such a poor diet, completely devoid of what the human body needs to stay healthy, disease and malnutrition swept through the camp, made even worse by the water situation that was either complete incompetence on the part of the Confederate guards or staggering indifference.
Cutting directly across the prison from east to west was a branch of the nearby Sweetwater Creek, which provided all the water used within the camp. When prisoners began arriving they immediately saw the importance of this water source and a system was put in place where drinking water would be taken from the upstream sanction of the branch, while downstream would be used for the latrines. Makes perfect sense, except for the fact that the Confederate Camp situated next to the prison, upstream from where the prisoners were taking their drinking water from, was using the same method, but in reverse. Meaning that Confederate soldiers were effectively crapping in the drinking water of the inmates. It seems impossible to think that nobody would have noticed, so this must surely go down as shocking apathy. But this was only part of the problem. The area around the prisoner latrines soon became boggy marshes filled with excrement as any resemblance of camp rules quickly began to fall apart.
When the searing Georgian summer arrived, conditions in the camps collapsed even further. Some inmates took to digging burrows to escape the oppressive heat and the sight of men ploughing into the earth with their bare hands became a common sight at Camp Sumter. Sadly, when the frequent summer thunderstorms tore through the area, delivering a staggering amount of rain in a short period, these burrows quickly filled up and with many prisoners too weak to scramble to safety, these earthen sanctuaries often became shallow pools of death.
But it was not just the Confederate guards, the weather and the lack of food that the prisoners needed to be wary of. With any notion of military discipline having all but disappeared, the prison grounds within the stockade became a deadly place.
Factions and gangs began to splinter off and none were more notorious than the Andersonville Raiders, a group that at its peak numbered around 100 men, and whose tactics included theft, intimidation, blind violence and even murder of their fellow inmates. But they certainly got what was coming to them when an even larger group, dubbed the ‘regulators’, formed to bring the Raiders to justice. They were given a boost of credibility when Wirz ordered that all rations would be withheld until all of the Raiders had been brought forward.
Between 29th June and 10th July 1864, most of the Raiders were seized by force and a camp court was set up to try the accused. The vast majority were convicted leaving the Regulators to decide on punishments that could range from the stocks, thumbscrews, stringing up by the thumbs, whipping, running the gauntlet and even execution by hanging.
Most of those convicted were forced to run the gauntlet which involved running from A to B while being beaten by two rows of men wielding clubs and whips. And while this was seen as the lesser of the punishments, numerous men either didn’t survive the beating or died shortly after.
Six men who were said to have started and organised the Raiders were sentenced to death and on 11th July 1864, the prisoners erected gallows within the stockade and those six found themselves hanging by a short rope. The brutal reign of the Andersonville Raiders may have come to an end, but Camp Sumter remained a dangerous place where acts of shocking violence could erupt at any second.
The Beginning of the End
By the summer of 1864, with the Confederate Army being pushed further and further south, the end was nearing for the Southern States that had seceded from the Union just three years before.
Conditions within the camp were growing dier by the day and in August 1864, Wirz offered to unconditionally release all of the prisoners, if the Union would provide shipping to transport them back up North, but this was initially rejected by the Union. Whether this was simply because of logistics we’re not quite sure but the rejection did lead to a large number of prisoners being transferred to Millen, Georgia, and Florence, South Carolina where they received significantly better conditions than at Camp Sumpter. However, when Union forces attacked Millen, those inmates were once again returned to the grim scene of Andersonville Prison.
As a new year dawned, a new system was implemented throughout the camp which saw prisoners divided into divisions, each with five detachments of 100 men. These detachments were each given an area of the camp and were led by a sergeant who remained responsible for everything going on within his detachment – including making sure that everybody was present for the twice-daily roll calls. Should somebody be missing, the sergeant would be placed in irons until the prisoner could be located.
There were many, many escape attempts at Camp Sumter, the majority of which ended very badly for the Union soldiers. The Confederates, who had plenty of experience in tracking down escaped slaves, proved rather adept at doing the same with Union soldiers. Often this was done with hounds who would frequently maul the escapee to such an extent they never even made it back to the camp alive. There were stories of prisoners feigning death so that they would be put on the daily cart that hauled out the dead to be buried outside the stockade. It’s not immediately clear how successful this was, but apparently, the Confederates caught on because “dead men” were being taken out of the Camp with all of their clothes still. It had become a common practice to strip the dead of everything that could be used by other inmates, so the sight of fully dressed corpses no doubt raised suspicions.
Perhaps I’m being cynical, but the Confederate attempts to improve the camp so soon to the end of the war had a whiff of wanting to dodge the bullet for a situation that had become unimaginable. In the summer of 1864, five huts were finally built in the northern section of the camp, with another five built in the southern area a few months later. Suddenly, prisoners had a proper roof over their heads and while it would be a gross exaggeration to say conditions were good, they certainly improved a little.
Liberation & Execution
In May 1865 the horror that had been Camp Sumter finally ended a few weeks after the Southern surrender that brought the American Civil War to a close. News of what had been found quickly began circulating through the media and outrage soon followed. Images of prisoners at Camp Sumter can only really be described as Holocaust-esque, with some inmates looking every inch the emaciated souls who would later crawl out of the Nazi concentration camps.
At its peak, Camp Sumter houses around 33,000 men, three times what it had been designed for. Around 13,000 of those died within the stockade walls or during escape attempts, with the majority of deaths down to scurvy, diarrhoea and dysentery.
As news of the camp began to spread, it was always likely that some would pay the ultimate price for what had happened. But in the end, only one man paid that price – Captain Henry Werz, who was arrested on 7th May 1865. Charges against him were wide-ranging and included “conspiring to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States” and “violation of the laws of war, to impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives—by subjecting to torture and great suffering; by confining in unhealthy and unwholesome quarters; by exposing to the inclemency of winter and to the dews and burning sun of summer; by compelling the use of impure water; and by furnishing insufficient and unwholesome food—of large numbers of Federal prisoners.”
But he was also accused of 13 acts of personal cruelty and murders in August 1864, ranging from shootings, physically stomping and kicking the victim, confining prisoners in stocks, beating a prisoner with a revolver and chaining prisoners together. He was found guilty on all charges, except for one, thanks to eyewitness testimony.
In total, 158 witnesses testified at the trial, including former Camp Sumter prisoners, ex-Confederate soldiers, and residents of nearby Andersonville. Although it must be said that 145 testified that they never observed Wirz kill any prisoners.
I said early on that there has been plenty of debate over the role General Wirz played in all of what happened at Camp Sumter – to such an extent that there’s actually a memorial to him in Andersonville today. This is where things get sticky because this topic has become highly charged over time. Some – perhaps mostly those below the Mason-Dixon Line but we won’t pigeonhole anybody here – have long maintained that Wirz, while he was certainly responsible for his individual actions within the camp, can’t be blamed for the appalling conditions that arose at Camp Sumter. They argue that Wirz did on several occasions appeal to his superiors for more rations and medical supplies for the prisoners and that he was simply made a scapegoat. It’s certainly true that Wirz made efforts to have the prisoners released, while also attempting to improve the ration situation within the camp.
While others would probably refer to those who defend him as objectionists, looking to rewrite history to suit their own present needs and that you need only look at the records of what happened at Camp Sumter to see what a monster he was. Surely you need only look at the shocking number of deaths and hold the man at the top ultimately responsible.
With such polarised opinions, it can be difficult to get a clear idea of who Captain Wirz was and his level of responsibility for the situation. Remember, there were definitely Union camps that were appalling – not as appalling as Camp Sumter, but unquestionably awful places to be a prisoner in. In all likelihood, the case of Captain Wirz may lie somewhere in between. As the head of the camp, he surely must take the blame for what happened, but with other similar examples occurring around the country, it might also be an example of tragic situations that played out to varying degrees of horror around the country. There has also long been rumours that some of the evidence used during his trial wasn’t exactly squeaky clean, which just muddies the water even more.
But of course, none of this debate mattered to Captain Wirz who was hanged at 10:32 a.m. on 10th November 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. He remained the only regular Confederate soldier to be executed for what we would consider war crimes today. Whether he had the power to change the situation we may never fully know, but Camp Sumter remains a hellish example of just how bad a prisoner of war camp can possibly go. A place of sickening misery, where you had a 1 in 3 chance of never emerging alive.