Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andersonville Prison

Death Knell

General William Tecumseh Sherman
General William Tecumseh
Sherman
In May 1864 Union troops under the leadership of General William Tecumseh Sherman began a campaign on the city of Atlanta. Shermans formidable presence in Georgia caused great concern at Andersonville. General Winder believed that Sherman might launch an attack on the prison to liberate the captured Yankees. The South had fewer men in uniform than the North, and the Confederate leadership did not want to see the Union army replenished with 33,000 freed prisoners. They apparently did not take into account that the harsh conditions at Andersonville hardly made these men battle ready.

To prepare for a possible attack, General Winder ordered the construction of two outer stockades and an earthworks barricade around the existing stockade. The work commenced immediately. With Shermans army so close, there was no time to waste. A middle stockade 12 feet high and the earthworks barricade were hastily erected, but the outer stockade was never completed. Sherman did not attack Andersonville, and his troops took control of Atlanta in the fall.

It has been suggested by some historians that the Union did not attempt to liberate Andersonville or other Confederate war prisons as part of an attrition strategy. Feeding thousands of prisoners was more burdensome for the Confederacy than it was for the Union. Food given to prisoners was food taken away from Confederate soldiers.

At the beginning of the war, an exchange cartel had been established to arrange for the swapping of prisoners between the North and the South, but when the Union insisted that their black soldiers be traded on a one-for-one basis just like the white soldiers, the Confederacy refused. Freedom and equality for black slaves was the issue that had ignited the war. It was a point the Confederacy would not concede although it desperately needed its soldiers imprisoned in the North. The Union would not negotiate this, even though it meant keeping Union soldiers incarcerated in hellholes like Andersonville. To win the war by attritionif that was indeed the Unions planthe Confederacys resources would have to be sapped in every possible way. According to William Marvel in Andersonville: The Last Depot, In the summer of 1864, Ulysses Grant let it slip that there was at least a grain of truth to that argument: as hard as it was on those in Southern prisons, he contended, it would be kinder to those still in the ranks if each side kept what prisoners it had, since it would end the war sooner.

This was a cruel strategy if the Union leadership was fully aware of the horrible conditions at Andersonville. Prisoners died of exposure, malnutrition and a variety of diseases, including smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, diarrhea, scurvy and gangrene. Lonnie R. Speer writes in Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, Diarrhea and dysentery, by themselves, were responsible for 4,529 deaths between March 1 and August 31, 1864. When a man was found dead inside the stockade, his body was simply left in the lane that ran in front of his shelter. A prison detail would eventually remove it.

Prison burial detail (Library of Congress)
Prison burial detail
(Library of Congress)
Sometimes men would fake their own deaths, hoping to be carried out and left on the pile of corpses rotting outside the prison gates, so that they could run off after dark. Many men risked crossing the dead line to scale the stockade walls, but even those few who made it over the top didnt get far. Escapees were usually captured within a day. Out of the nearly 33,000 prisoners who spent time at Andersonville only 329 escaped successfully.

Andersonville served as a war prison for only 15 months. The ever-present threat of attack from Shermans troops forced Winder to relocate prisoners to other facilities. This evacuation was long and torturous because most of the prisoners were in wretched shape, and the trains arrived irregularly. Security grew lax during this period as many guards were pulled off duty and sent to the front lines, but with no provisions and little strength, few prisoners attempted to escape. The evacuation proceeded slowly, but by November only 1,500 inmates occupied the camp. New arrivals brought the population up to 5,000 by December, and the camp remained at that number until the end of the war in April 1865.

All told, Andersonville Prison, which was originally built to hold 10,000 prisoners, held 32,899 at its most crowded. In all, 12,919 of them perished there. According to John W. Lynn in {800 Paces to Hell}, the death toll at Andersonville was roughly equivalent to the total number of Union soldiers killed in the six bloodiest battles of the warGettysburg, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Shiloh, Stones River and Chickamauga.

There is no record of what became of Captain and Mrs. Hunt and their baby boy.

After the war, Captain Wirz was tried for the atrocities of Andersonville by a military tribunal that convened at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Oddly Wirz stood trial on these charges by himself; his superiors were noindicted. Former prisoners gave vivid testimony regarding beatings and shooting allegedly administered by Wirz while Wirzs attorneys argued that a man with a withered left shoulder and useless right arm, as William Marvel writes, could not possibly have delivered such punishment by his own hand. It was obvious that the North needed a scapegoat to satisfy its outrage over the horrors of Andersonville, and Wirz fit the bill. His conviction was inevitable.

Captain Wirz on the gallows (Library of Congress)
Captain Wirz on the gallows
(Library of Congress)
On October 24, 1865, he was found guilty on one count of conspiracy to commit murder for conditions at Andersonville and 11 counts of murder, including the death of one-legged Chickamauga. Wirz was sentenced to death by hanging. His execution took place 17 days later within view of the Capitol in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison before a restless crowd of spectators, some of whom climbed trees to get a good look at the devil of Andersonville as he met his end. Wearing the customary black robe and hood of the condemned, his hands and legs bound with straps, Wirz was hanged at 10:30 in the morning. He was pronounced dead 14 minutes later. As his body was removed, knife-wielding spectators rushed to the scaffold to take slivers of wood and pieces of the rope as souvenirs.

Andersonville Cemetery <br /> (Library of Congress)
Andersonville Cemetery
(Library of Congress)

 

 

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