Sunday, August 20, 2017

'Beyond belief': 1909 dedication of monument to Henry Wirz

Monument in memory of prison commandant Henry Wirz in Andersonville, Ga.

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

Reviled in the North and cast as a "martyr jailor" in the South, Wirz was in a white-hot spotlight on May 12, 1909, nearly 44 years after his hanging in Washington for "wanton cruelty" and murder of Union soldiers at Andersonville.

Andersonville prison commandant
 Henry Wirz was hanged in Washington 
on Nov. 10, 1865.
In the rural village in southwestern Georgia, flags of the old Confederacy "were everywhere and floral designs literally covered the shaft" of the monument. As a UDC chorus sang Dixie, Wirz's only living daughter, Julia, pulled a silk chord to release a huge flag, revealing the 36-foot monument. Later, a chorus sang Maryland, My Maryland, and a military company from Americus, Ga., fired off a salute.

Carefully crafted text — some would call it flat-out fraudulent — was also unveiled on panels on each of the four sides of the monument. "In memory of Captain Henry Wirz, C.S.A. born Zurich, Switzerland, 1822, sentenced to death and executed at Washington D.C. November 10, 1865," read one of them. "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." Attendees couldn't miss Wirz's last name in large block letters near the base of the monument.

According to an Associated Press account of the dedication,  "the national significance of these exercises was not lost" upon the huge crowd, which strained to hear some the speakers. Sprinkled among them were men and women from the North. Sadly, some of them had lost relatives at Andersonville — those soldiers may have been buried in the national cemetery just outside the boundary of the old camp.

"Those from beyond the Mason Dixon line looked on in silence," a newspaper reported. "while this tribute was paid to the memory of the prison commander."

At least two of the speakers told of a kindly Wirz — the same man who ran the prison camp where nearly 13,000 Union POWs died of disease, malnutrition, and other inhumane treatment.  "Wirz was commanding many desperate men, some of them brave and good." Pleasant A. Stovall, editor of the Savannah (Ga.) Press, said under a canopy of U.S. and Confederate flags near the monument. "But others were recent arrivals from abroad, who barely spoke the English language, who were without understanding of the causes of the war, merely mercenaries. He was hampered at every step by the exigencies of his government."

The scene at Old Capitol Prison in Washington shortly before Henry Wirz was hanged 
on Nov. 10, 1865.  This is one of at least five images of the hanging taken  by Alexander Gardner.
 (Library of Congress Civil War collection)

Another speaker said the Swiss-born Wirz once had traveled to Macon, Ga., seeking food and medicine for Union POWs at Andersonville. The Atlanta Constitution even quoted a former Andersonville guard, who was brought to tears when he heard of the unveiling of the monument to his former commanding officer. "He was unjustly executed," said R.L. Meadows, who added he would have given anything to have attended the dedication.

Unsurprisingly, Southern newspapers praised the effort to honor Wirz and burnish his reputation.

Headlines in Atlanta Constitution
on May 13, 1909.
"No intelligent person at this day blames Captain Wirz [for Union deaths at Andersonville]," the Goldsboro (N.C.) Daily Argus wrote days after the dedication. "He was unjustly treated. He died a martyr to the cause he believed to be just, and the dedication of a monument to his memory, erected by the women of Georgia, is a well deserved tribute to his worth as a man and his courage and sincerity as a soldier."

Wrote the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch in an editorial:
"Wirz is publicly honored in the South now less for what he did than for what was done to him. He was made the scapegoat for things not of his doing and this monument stands to embody the Southern sense of the great wrong put upon him by the United States. The angry and resentful mob loves a visible sacrifice. Wirz was a propitiatory offering to popular indignation over the sufferings of Northern soldiers in Southern prisons. But Wirz was in no way responsible for these sufferings. They were caused by grim conditions which the racked South was powerless to better, and which the deliberate policies of the North greatly aggravated."
But Northerners, especially Union veterans, would have none of it. Well before the monument dedication, they were aghast about the effort to honor Wirz. At a gathering of former Union prisoners of war in Hartford, Conn., in April 1908, a pastor received applause after he excoriated the UDC's Wirz monument plan.

"Oh, woman of the Southland," Pastor E.S. Holloway told the group, "build your monument to [Stonewall] Jackson because he had 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 that 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.'"

Civil War veteran Joseph Foraker, a former
U.S. Senator, was aghast by the
monument to Henry Wirz. He would not
shed a tear, he said, if an "old indignant
patriot would blow it up."
Less than a week before the dedication, Joseph Foraker, a former U.S. Senator from Ohio, expressed outrage over the monument. The Civil War veteran, who had enlisted in the Union Army when he was only 16, said he "would not shed any tears if some old indignant patriot were to place under that monument enough dynamite to blow it up."

In the days following the monument dedication, anger seemed to spike in Northern newspapers, which referred to Wirz as a "brute," "foreign prison-keeper," "murderer" and the "Andersonville monster."

"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 acquited 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."

An Ohio veteran said the monument was a "disgrace to the nation." Complained another vet: "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." Another old soldier said he wasn't in favor of blowing up the Wirz monument, preferring instead that it be destroyed by a lightning strike.

And in a scathing editorial, the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News said the monument was "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. And how he kept it! 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 ... "

Union veterans condemned the Wirz monument in Andersonville, Ga.

In a speech to a high school graduating class in Akron, Ohio, days after the monument dedication, a Union veteran referred to Wirz as an "arch fiend," and "the tormentor and butcher of Andersonville prison, whose delight it was to starve our brave comrades."

In condemning the monument, an Ohio Grand Army of the Republic post urged national authorities to "take cognizance of the monument in order that 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 got 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."

"No action, further than the sensational discussion," the newspaper reported, "was taken by the veterans."

Post-script: Andersonville, Ga., population about 230, is still the same sleepy town it was in 1909. The Wirz monument still stands on Church Street.

(To read more about Andersonville, go here.)

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

  • Clarion (Miss.) Ledger, May 13, 1909
  • Daily Press, Newport News, Va., May 13, 1909
  • Fort Wayne (Ind.) News, May 13, 1909
  • Goldsboro (N.C.) Daily Argus, May 19, 1909
  • Hartford (Conn.) Courant, April 18, 1908
  • Mansfield (Ohio) Journal, May 15, 1909
  • New York World, May 13, 1909
  • The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, May 6, 1909, May 13, 1909, May 29, 1909
  • The Atlanta Constitution, May 13, 1909
  • The Daily Republican, Monongahela, Pa., May 20, 1909
  • The Salem (Ohio) News, May 13, 1909
  • Washington Post, May 13 and 14, 1909


  1. Now, here's a monument I don't appreciate...

  2. This monument is not to honor anyone for the deaths of 12920 pows but to vindicate Wirz for the shame trial he was convicted in and the scapegoat he was made to be. Those who don't know the difference should study the trial and the history of this monument

  3. Just remember the Union had a camp just as bad as Andersonville, Elmira AKA Hellmira. Just remember what Jesus told the crowd who was just about to stone a person to death, "He who is without sin cast the first stone." We are to blame for the mistreatment of our fellow countrymen, be they Union or Confederate. I have a relative buried at Andersonville and I have a relative buried at the Confederate Cemetery at Elmira. I know they are both proud of the way this country healed itself after the war. Remember what Pres. Lincoln said at his 2nd Inaugural Address," With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

    1. Thank you for posting this information about Elmira. In truth Elmira was way worse than Andersonville. In Andersonville prisoners starved because the South was destitute and had not enough food to give them. Even the guards at Andersonville we're starving. At Elmira Confederate prisoners were starved as a matter of government policy and the records to prove that still exist. I had the privilege of studying Civil War history under the world's leading expert dr. James I Robertson. He taught an unbiased history of the war unlike the partisan rants and uneducated comments when normally hears. If Henry Wirz was guilty as claimed he would not have been offered his freedom in return for lying and implicating President Jefferson Davis in the deaths at Andersonville. As a person of Honor he refused that offer and went to his death rather than lie.

  4. It just proves that the Daughters of the Confederacy did more damage to this nation than the KKK or any other traitorous group.

    1. What a foolish and dishonest comment.

  5. This monument has such value now for its hypocrisy and irony, the most facetious of all the Lost Cause memorials, that I truly hope it survives.

    1. Interesting perspective. Thanks for this...

  6. photography59@yahoo.fr11:21 AM

    hero Henry Wirz

  7. Anonymous11:01 PM

    The Union is responsible for this, they stoped prisoner exchanges and the south had a hard time finding food for themselves and feed so many prisoners.

    1. you are correct

    2. No, that's incorrect -- it's a commonly held belief by many, but it's a myth.