Interpreting Atrocity: In Need of Reflection and Reckoning

In the waning days of December 2021, Bryan and Heather took advantage of their new Alabama home’s proximity to lesser-visited historical sites and embarked on a drive southwest to Andersonville, the infamous Confederate prison where tens of thousands of captured Union soldiers were subjected to hellish confinement between 1864 and 1865. Having worked at the site as an intern during college, Heather was interested in what Bryan might think of the disparate experiences of historical interpretation there. This is the final post in a series documenting those thoughts. The first and second can be found here on Concerning History.

The removal of Confederate monuments and memorials has received much progress–and attention, good and bad–in the past decade. Many of these monuments to enemies of the Federal government have been fairly neutral in their own right, however; their offense comes from the history of what those men fought for, not necessarily the actual language or visage inscribed on their monuments. I’ve only ever felt a general antipathy towards these efforts to memorialize racist traitors, removed from the existential anger and dread many Americans of color feel when passing them. Yet as Heather and I toured Andersonville National Historic Park in December of 2022, I discovered a monument that left me viscerally seething with anger: that to Henry Wirz, commandant of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville.

In a small square of the small town–more like a cluster of buildings, really–of Andersonville, Georgia, not two miles away from where over thirty thousand Union prisoners of war suffered heinous conditions at the hands of their Confederate captors, stands the only monument in the United States to a convicted war criminal. As the commandant of Camp Sumter, where thirteen thousand prisoners died in the only fourteen months of its operation, Henry Wirz was tried for war crimes in the fall of 1865. He was the only Confederate of any rank or office to be so charged for actions during the American Civil War, and was convicted and executed by hanging. Yet in the fifty years after Wirz’s trial, public perception of the Civil War became a battleground nearly as turbulent as the conflict itself. As Confederate veterans’ organizations set about re-writing the history and virtue of their cause, efforts at memorialization began among members of both sides in the 1880s. So, after sixteen Northern states erected monuments to the victims of Andersonville, the United Daughters of the Confederacy of course erected a monument in 1909 to those victims’ tormentor, Henry Wirz.

The Wirz monument bears text on all four sides of its obelisk’s base. The east side amounts to an epitaph and dedicatory inscription. The north bears an appeal from Jefferson Davis that future generations will recognize that “justice, holding evenly her scales, will require much of past censures and praise to change places.” The south and west sides, however, bear quoting at length. In what is essentially a manifesto for the creation of the monument, the UDC inscribed on the monument’s south side

Discharging his duty with such humanity as the harsh circumstances
of the times, and the policy of the foe permitted Capt. Wirz became at last the victim of a misdirected popular clamor. He was arrested in the time of peace, while under the protection of parole, tried by a military commission of a service to which he did not belong, and condemned to ignominious death on charges of excessive cruelty to Federal prisoners. He indignantly spurned a pardon proffered on condition that he would incriminate President Davis and thus exonerate himself from charges of which both were innocent.

The text is astounding in its claims and sheer bravado. Rather than simply adopt a fairly unobjectionable (and historically valid) case that the process of Wirz’s trial was unfair, that it is doubtful whether he had much control over the ability of the camp to procure supplies or better care for its prisoners, and that he was a scapegoat for the true culprits in the form of the Confederate government, the UDC asserts that the buck stops not at the desk of the man in charge of the camp, not at the desk of the President of the Confederacy…in fact, no one in the South is really to blame at all for this atrocity. In fact, Wirz shouldn’t have even been tried for it!

But someone must be to blame for thirteen thousand men dying from illness and starvation in the Georgian countryside, mustn’t they? Of course, and as one rounds the monument to its west side, all becomes clear. Here stands a seemingly-irrelevant 1864 quote from Ulysses S. Grant: “It is hard on our men held in southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.” A little context, however–perhaps gained from the nearby historical interpretation of the prison camp itself–makes all clear. In the middle of Andersonville’s tenure, the general-in-chief of all Union forces is refusing to exchange prisoners of war, even though it is “hard on our men” in Southern prison camps that would continue to swell beyond capacity due to this policy. Never mind that this policy was instituted because the Confederacy refused to recognize black Union soldiers as soldiers, re-enslaving or summarily executing them, or that in 1863 Grant magnanimously paroled an entire Confederate army at Vicksburg–large numbers of which promptly broke their parole and dishonorably rejoined the fight before exchanged. No, this entire crime against humanity is actually the fault of the country whose men died in droves in the south Georgia heat.

And yet, for all the vitriol I feel towards this travesty of a monument, I do not want to see it entirely destroyed, satisfying as that might be. No, I think this monument, above all monuments, deserves to be kept in a prominent museum and interpreted for vast swathes of the American public, because within its text lies perhaps the most succinct example of Lost Cause propaganda I’ve yet witnessed. Less than fifty years after a war they caused for the very worst of reasons, Confederates claimed that they were, in fact, the victims. That their cause was blameless, and in fact it was the unjust tyranny of the North that was to blame. That the laws and Constitution of the United States in fact had no power over them, its citizens, and that really personal responsibility for the most destructive conflict in American history is nothing a southerner should ever worry themselves over. It is to America’s everlasting shame that this myth was able to take as strong a hold as it has in our national psyche. But I believe the instruments of the Lost Cause will ultimately prove its undoing: far from preserving some kind of “correct history,” these monuments have preserved their subjects’ bigotry, malice, and selfishness in stone for all to see. As more realize just what they truly are, the weaker these traitors’ hold will become over our country’s memory.

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