The Blog Roll: Villain or Martyr? MENU
Ignoble End: A noose is fitted over Henry Wirz’s head on November 10, 1865. Because Wirz’s neck did not break when he fell, he slowly strangled to death.

The Blog Roll: Villain or Martyr?

By John Banks
JANUARY 2018 • AMERICA'S CIVIL WAR MAGAZINE

ACW is excited to introduce “The Blog Roll,” a new department featuring original content from Civil War bloggers. “The Blog Roll” will be an ongoing series highlighting disparate opinions on all things Civil War. First up is John Banks, who explores the equally reviled and revered Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of Georgia’s notorious Andersonville Prison, and his lasting legacy both North and South.

Captain Henry Wirz (Paul Fearn/Alamy Stock Photo)

On a wickedly hot late-spring day, nearly 3,000 people gathered in the center of sleepy Andersonville, Ga., for the dedication of perhaps the most controversial Civil War monument ever erected. In memory of Captain Henry Wirz—commandant at the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp once located less than a mile away—the granite obelisk was an inspiration of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Reviled in the North and cast as a martyr in the South, Wirz was again in the spotlight on May 12, 1909, nearly 44 years after he had been hanged in Washington, D.C., for “wanton cruelty” and the “murder” of 13,000 Union prisoners at Andersonville (née Camp Sumter). Wirz was the only Confederate officer executed for war crimes.

In the rural village in southwestern Georgia that spring day, flags of the old Confederacy “were everywhere and floral designs literally covered the shaft” of the monument. As a chorus sang “Dixie,” Wirz’s only living daughter, Julia, pulled a silk cord to release a huge flag, revealing the 36-foot-tall monument. The chorus later sang the pro-Confederate “Maryland, My Maryland,” and an Americus, Ga., military company fired off a salute.

Carefully crafted text had been inscribed on the panels on each of the monument’s four sides. Read one: “To rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice this shaft is erected by the Georgia division, United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

According to the Associated Press, “the national significance of these exercises was not lost” upon the huge crowd, which had sprinkled among it Northern men and women. Some had lost relatives at Andersonville, now buried in the national cemetery that had been established just outside the old camp’s boundary in 1865.

“Those from beyond the Mason-Dixon line looked on in silence,” a newspaper in Newport News, Va., reported, “while this tribute was paid to the memory of the prison commander.”

At least two of the speakers that day referred to Wirz as kindly. He “was commanding many desperate men, some of them brave and good,” Pleasant A. Stovall, editor of Georgia’s Savannah Press, declared under a canopy of U.S. and Confederate flags. “He was hampered at every step by the exigencies of his government.”

Another noted how Wirz had once traveled to Macon, Ga., seeking food and medicine for his prisoners. The Atlanta Constitution quoted a former guard, R.L. Meadows, who had been brought to tears at news of the monument: “He was unjustly executed.”

‘I Will Die Like a Man’: Wirz’s memorial in Andersonville, Ga., erected in 1909. His final words on the gallows: “I am innocent, and will die like a man, my hopes being in the future. I go before my God…and he will judge between me and you.” (Courtesy Michael Rivera)

Southern newspapers praised the effort to honor Wirz. “No intelligent person at this day blames Captain Wirz [for the camp’s high death toll],” the Goldsboro (N.C.) Daily Argus would write. “He died a martyr to the cause he believed to be just, and the dedication of a monument to his memory…is a well deserved tribute to his worth as a man and his courage and sincerity as a soldier.”

But Northerners, especially Union veterans, would have none of it. In April 1908, at a gathering of former prisoners in Hartford, Conn., pastor E.S. Holloway excoriated the plan to great applause. “Oh, women of the Southland,” he said, “build your monument to [Stonewall] Jackson because he had a pure heart; to [Robert E.] Lee because when he laid down arms he said to his comrades, ‘We have but one country now’; to Alexander Stevens, for a self-sacrificing life; but God forbid a monument of shame be built to the butcher Wirz, and if it be built may the lightning of heaven strike it into a thousand pieces.’”

Joseph Foraker, a Civil War veteran and former U.S. senator from Ohio, was especially perturbed about the memorial. Foraker, only 16 when he enlisted in the Union Army, said he “would not shed any tears if some old indignant patriot were to place under that monument enough dynamite to blow it up.”

Outrage spiked in Northern newspapers following the dedication. “If Wirz deserves a monument,” a New York World editorialist fumed, “there should be a public memorial to Mrs. [Mary] Surratt, whom the verdict of history has acquitted of real criminal complicity in the assassination of Lincoln.” An Ohio newspaper likened memorializing Wirz to “honoring Nero for burning Christians at the stake.”

“It passes all understanding,” another Ohio newspaper wrote, “how women could be the agents to pay for or erect a monument to such a man. There can be no palliation or defense for the damnable record of Andersonville. Its horrors make it a black page in history, a blot upon civilization.”

Complained one veteran: “The women of the south who got subscriptions for that monument are worse than the men of the south. No honest American can have a hand in such a proposition.”

And in a scathing editorial, the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News called the monument “beyond belief”:

“Wirz was in nothing representative of the splendid and chivalric south. He was an alien, a hired mercenary, who as a soldier of fortune espoused the cause of the confederacy and, while braver and better men did battle for the principles they held sacred, he stayed behind and far from harm, and kept jail….Hell’s harshest story has not parallel to an iniquity that tongue and pen alike must fail to chronicle for very lack of power. Crowded in a malarious swamp, though healthful hills were close at hand, whole regiments of prisoners of an honorable war were held, the victims of starvation and disease…”

In condemning the monument, an Ohio Grand Army of the Republic post urged national authorities to “take cognizance of the monument [so] such steps as may be necessary, lawful and proper be taken to wipe out this stain on American justice, to the end that our national government may not hereafter be held guilty of deliberate judicial murder in the case of Captain Wirz.”

Perhaps channeling Foraker, another Union veteran became so fired up at a G.A.R. gathering in West Virginia that he offered a reward to anyone who would blow up the Wirz monument with dynamite. “His statements created a big sensation,” The Washington Post reported, “and in a moment the convention was in an uproar, and several of the old soldiers offered their services to accomplish the destruction of the monument.”

Mercifully, the Post reported, the veterans took “no action, further than the sensational discussion.”

John Banks (john-banks.blogspot.com) is the author of two Civil War books: Connecticut Yankees at Antietam and Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers.

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