Two Statements by Grant; A letter of General Grant to General Butler, dated August the 18th, 1864, in which he said:
'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. Every man released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men.
"At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here.'
The following testimony of General Grant may be of interest. In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, February 11th, 1865, General Grant's answers were as follows:
Question. It has been said that we refused to exchange prisoners because we found ours starved, diseased, unserviceable when we received them, and did not like to exchange sound men for such men.
Answer. There never has been any such reason as that. That has been a reason for making exchanges. I will confess that if our men who are prisoners in the South were really well taken care of, suffering nothing except a little privation of liberty, then, in a military point of view, it would not be good policy for us to exchange, because every man they get back is forced right into the army at once, while that is not the case with our prisoners when we receive them. In fact, the half of our returned prisoners will never go into the army again, and none of them will until after they have had a furlough of thirty or sixty days. Still the fact of their suffering as they do is a reason for making this exchange as rapidly as possible.
Question. And never has been a reason for not making the exchange?
Answer. It never has. Exchanges having been suspended by reason of disagreements on the part of agents of exchange on both sides before I came in command of the armies of the United States, and it being near the opening of the spring campaign I did not deem it advisable or just to the men who had to fight our battles to reinforce the enemy with thirty or forty thousand disciplined troops at that time. An immediate resumption of exchanges would have had that effect without giving us corresponding benefits. The suffering said to exist among our prisoners South was a powerful argument against the course pursued, and I so felt it.
The Arrest and Trial of Maj. Wirz
Major Wirz, a native of Switzerland, had practiced medicine in both Kentucky and Louisiana prior to the war, but enlisted as a Sergeant in the 4th Louisiana Infantry. He served with this unit until he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. After he recovered somewhat from his wound, he was promoted to Captain and assigned to the staff of Gen. Winder. He was in command of several different prison facilities in the Richmond area until his appointment as the interior stackade commander at Andersonville in 1864.
Wirz remained at Andersonville until his arrest on May 7, 1865. He was transported to Washington, D. C., and there stood trial before a military tribunal. His trial began on August 23, 1865, and continued until October 23, 1865, at which time he was convicted of virtually all of the charges and sentenced to hang. He was hanged on November 10, 1865 at Old Capitol Prison, and he was buried next to George Azterodt, one of the executed Lincoln conspirators.
The trial and execution of Henry Wirz has been condemned by most historians. Robert E. Lee called the proceeding a "judicial lynching." Careful evaluation of the facts surrounding the case show that if this case had been tried in a proper manner, that being a fair trial with an impartial jury, he probably would have been acquitted, and certainly would not have been executed. This was not to be.
Wirz was tried on two charges. The first charge accused him of "combining, confederating, and conspiring together with Jefferson Davis, Howell Cobb, John H., Richard B, and W. S. Winder, Isaiah H. White, R. Randolph Stevenson, and others to impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives of large numbers of Federal prisoners at Andersonville." The second charge against Wirz was composed of a total of 13 specifications, and dealt with numerous cases where Wirz was alleged to have ordered or personally committed acts of assault or murder on several different Union prisoners. Over 150 Union prisoners from the camp testified to having witnessed these events. As former prisoners of the camp, their testimony could hardly be considered non-biased. Wirz was convicted of both charges.
At the trial of Major Wirz, there were over 150 witnesses from among the former prisoners, men who had an obvious reason to detest Wirz, and anyone else associated with the camp. But the main prosecution witness was a man named Felix de la Baume. His testimony was believed without question even though it was discovered that Felix de la Baume was actually Felix Oeser, formerly of the 7th New York Volunteers and a deserter. The only person who might have shed a favorable light to Werz's efforts, Lt. General Richard Taylor wasn't allowed to testify.
Wirz's participation in the destruction of the despicable group of prisoner called "The Raiders" was not mentioned during the trial. This group of prisoners was killing, beating, and robbing their fellow prisoners of food, clothes, and blankets. When the group was discovered by Wirz, he had the ringleaders brought to him, and he removed them from the compound. He wired his superiors for the authority to have the prisoners conduct trials for the men and conduct appropriate punishments. This authority was granted, trials were held, and six Union prisoners were hanged by their fellow prisoners. Many others were dispensed lesser punishments.
It is clear to most historians that the case of Henry Wirz was at best "a rush to judgement." It has also been called a "Witch Hunt," with good reason. Despite being named as only one of many "conspirators," Henry Wirz was the only man ever called to answer for what happened at Andersonville or for that matter the only person to be charged with war crimes and hanged for it.
As for camps in the North, the commander of Camp Douglas, Illinois was never called to account for why 12% of his prison population died in one month in February of 1863. No one ever had to explain why jailers robbed their prisoners of their blankets. No one every answered fof the lack of firewood at Point Lookout and Elmira, New York. The boast by the surgeon at Elmira that he "had killed more Rebels than any soldier at the front" was never investigated. None of the Union guards or commanders were ever called to account for the many Southerners who were shot while crossing the "dead line" in their camps in the North. In fact in response to press reports of the conditions at Andersonville, the commander of Rock Island Barracks ordered the prisoner's rations cut, and forbade them to utilize the barracks buildings, forcing them to sleep outside in makeshift shelters exposed to an Illinois winter. As a result of his order, 1,922 out of 2,484 of his prisoners, died of starvation and exposure. The death rate of the Southern prisoners was 77.4 percent. (The death rate at Andersonville was 24 percent.) There is no indication that he was even so much as reprimanded for his actions by Union authorities.
While Andersonville has been called "a stain on the honor of the Confederacy," It should more properly be considered a stain on the entire United States. The decisions of the United States to halt the prisoner of war exchanges unfortunately coincided with the beginning of the collapse of the tattered Southern railway net. The decision of Grant to force the thousands of mouths to feed on the Confederacy did have a telling effect on the lives of many Union prisoners. Nowhere is the legacy of that decision more visible than in the Andersonville National Cemetery where over 13,000 white marble markers testify to the brutal pragmatism of his decision.
Henry Wirz was killed in what General Lee described as, "a judicial murder." While credible evidence existed at the time, and still exists today that he did everything in his power to care for the men in his charge, and the evidence linking him to the so called atrocities is flimsy at best, he alone was held to account for the shortcomings of the entire Confederacy in meeting the logistical challenge of caring for the prisoners in his charge. Convicted in a hasty and flagrantly unfair trial, he was executed in a brutally quick execution with no chance to have an appeal heard or to mount a credible defense. Wirz would stand as the only person to stand trial and die as a result of actions that actually occurred during the war.
Intending to leave the United States, I feel it my duty before I start to fulfill a promise which, a few hours before his death, I gave to my unfortunate client, Captain Henry Wirz, who was executed at Washington on the 10th of November 1865. Protesting up to the last moment his innocence of those monstrous crimes with which he was charged, he received my word that, having failed to save him from a felon's doom, I would as long as I lived do everything in my power to clear his memory. I did that the more readily, as I was then already convinced that he suffered wrongfully. Since that time his unfortunate children, both here and in Europe, have constantly implored me to wipe out the terrible stains which now cover the name of their father.
Though the times do not seem propitious for obtaining justice, yet, considering that man is mortal, I will, before entering upon a perilous voyage, perform my duty to those innocent orphans and also to myself. I will now give a brief statement of the causes which led to the arrest and execution of Captain Wirz.
In April 1865, President Johnson issued a proclamation stating that from evidence in the possession of the Bureau of Military Justice it appeared that Jefferson Davis was implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and for that reason the President offered one hundred thousand dollars for the capture of the then fugitive ex-President of the Southern Confederacy. That testimony has since been found to be entirely false and a mere fabrication, and the suborner, Conover, is now under sentence in the jail in this city, the two perjurers whom he suborned having turned state's evidence against him; whilst the individual by whom Conover was suborned has not yet been brought to justice.
Certain high and influential enemies of Jefferson Davis, either then already aware of the character of the testimony of those witnesses, or not thinking their testimony quite sufficient to hang Mr. Davis, expected to find the wanting material in the terrible mortality of Union prisoners at Andersonville.
Orders were issued accordingly to arrest a subaltern officer, Captian Wirz, a poor, friendless, and wounded prisoner of war (he being included in the surrender of General Johnston) and besides, a foreigner by birth. On the ninth of May. he was placed in the Old Capital prison at Washington, and from that time the greater part of the Northern press was busily engaged in forming the unfortunate man in the eyes of the Northern people into such a monster that it became almost impossible to obtain counsel; even his countryman, the Swiss Consul-General, publicly refused to accept money to defray the expenses of the trial. He was doomed before he was heard, and even the permission to be heard according to law was denied him,
To increase the excitement and give eclat to the proceeding and to influence still more the public mind, the trial took place under the very dome of the Capitol of the nation. A military commission, presided over by a despotic general, was formed, and the paroled prisoner of war, his wounds still open, was so feeble that he had to recline during the trial on a sofa. How that trial was conducted the whole world knows!
The enemies of generosity and humanity believed it to be a sure thing to get at Jefferson Davis, therefore the first charge was that of conspiracy between Henry Wirz, Jefferson Davis, Howel Cobb, Richard B. Winder, R. R. Stevenson, W. J. W. Kerr, and a number of others to kill the Union prisoners. The trial lasted for three months; but fortunately for the blood-thirsty instigators, not a particle of evidence was produced showing the existence of such a conspiracy; yet Captian Wirz was found guilty of that charge!
Having thus failed, another effort was made. On the night before the execution of the prisoner (November 9, 1865) a telegram was sent to the Northern press from this city, stating that Wirz had made important disclosures to General L. C. Baker, the well-known detective, implicating Jefferson Davis, and that the confession would probably be given to the public. On the same evening some parties came to the confession of Wirz, Rev. Father Boyle, and also to me, one of them informing me that a high Cabinet official wished to assure Wirz that if he would implicate Jefferson Davis with the atrocities committed at Andersonville, his sentence would be commuted. The messenger requested me to inform Wirz of this. In the presence of Father Boyle, I told Wirz next morning what had happened.
The Captain simply and quietly replied, "Mr. Schade, you know that I have always told you that I do not know anything about Jefferson Davis. He had no connection with me as to what was done at Andersonville. If I knew anything about him, I would not become a traitor against him or anybody else even to save my life."
He likewise denied that he had ever made any statement to General Baker. Thus ended the attempt to suborn Captain Wirz against Jefferson Davis. That alone shows what a man he was. How many of his defamers would have done the same? With his wounded arm in a sling, the poor paroled prisoner mounted the scaffold two hours later. His last words were that he died innocent and so he did.
The 10th of November, 1865, will indeed be a black stain upon the pages of American history.
To weaken the effect of his declaration of innocence and of the noble manner in which Wirz died, a telegram was manufactured here and sent North stating that on the 27th of October, Mrs. Wirz (who actually on that day was nine hundred miles from Washington) had been prevented by that Stantonian deus ex machina, General L. C. Baker, from poisoning her husband. Thus at the time when the unfortunate family lost their husband and father, a cowardly and atrocious attempt was made to blacken their character also. On the next day, I branded the whole as a lie, and since then I have never heard of it again, though it emanated from a brigadier-general of the United States Army.
All those who were charged with having conspired with Captain Wirz have since been released, except Jefferson Davis. Captain Winder was let off without trial; and if any of the others have been tried, which I do not know, certainly not one of them has been hanged. As Captain Wirz could not conspire alone, nobody will now, in view of that important fact, consider him guilty of that charge.
As to "murder in violation of the laws and customs of war," I do not hestitate to assert that about one hundred and forty-five out of one hundred and sixty witnesses that testified on both sides, declared during the trial that Captain Wirz never murdered or killed any Union prisoners with his own hands or otherwise.
Those witnesses, some twelve or fifteen, who testified that they saw Wirz kill prisoners with his own hands or otherwise, swore falsely, abundant proof of that assertion being in existence. The hands of Captain Henry Wirz are clear of the blood of prisoners of war. He would certainly have at least intimated to me a knowledge of the alleged murders with which he was charged. No names of the alleged murdered men could be given, and when it was done no such prisoner could be found or identified.
The terrible scene in court when he was confronted with one of the witnesses, and the latter insisting that Wirz was the man who killed a certain Union prisoner which irritated Wirz so much that he nearly fainted, will still be remembered. That witness, Gray, swore falsely, and God alone knows what the poor innocent prisoner must have suffered at that moment. The scene was depicted and illustrated in the Northern newspapers as if Wirz had broken down on account of his guilt. Seldom has a mortal man suffered more than that friendless and forsaken man.
But who is responsible for the many lives that were lost at Andersonville and in the Southern prisons? That question has not fully been settled, but history will yet tell on whose heads the guilt for those sacrificed hecatombs of human beings is to be placed. It was certainly not the fault of poor Wirz, when in consequence of medicines being declared contraband of war by the North, the Union prisoners died for the want of the same. How often have we read during the war that ladies going South had been arrested and placed in the Old Capitol Prison by the Union authorities, because quine and other medicine had been found in their clothing! Our Navy prevented the ingress of medical stores from the seaside and our troops repeatedly destroyed drug stores and even the supplies of private physicians in the South.
Thus the scarcity of medicine became general all over the South.
That provisions in the South were scarce will astonish nobody, when it is remembered how the war was carried on. General Sheridan boasted in his report that in the Shenandoah Valley alone he burned more than two thousand barns filled with wheat and corn and all the mills in the whole tract of country; that he destroyed all factories and killed or drove off every animal, even poultry, that could contribute to human sustenance. And these desolations were repeated in different parts of the South, and so thoroughly that money had to be appropriated to keep the people from starving. The destruction of railroads and other means of transportation by which food could be supplied by abundant districts to those without it increased the difficulties in giving sufficient food to our prisoners.
The Confederate authorities, aware of their inability to maintain the prisoners, informed the Northern agents of the great mortality, and urgently requested that the prisoners should be exchanged, even without regard to the surplus, which the Confederates had on the exchange roll from former exchanges -- that is, man for man. But our War Department did not consent to an exchange. They did not want to "exchange skeletons for healthy men."
Finally, when all hopes for exchange were gone, Colonel Ould, the Confederate Commissioner of Exchange, offered early in August, 1864, to deliver up all sick and wounded without requiring an equivalent in return, and pledged that the number would amount to ten or fifteen thousand, and if it did not, he would make up either number by adding well men. Although this offer was made in August, the transportation was not sent for them until December, although he urged that haste be made. During that very period most of the deaths occurred. It might be well to inquire who these "skeletons" were that Secretary of War Stanton did not want to exchange for healthy men.
A noble and brave soldier never permits his antagonist to be calumniated and trampled upon after an honorable surrender. Besides, notwithstanding the decision of the highest legal tribunal in the land that military commissions are unconstitutional, and earnest and able protestations of President Johnson and the results of military commissions, yet such military commissions are again established by recent legislation of Congress all over the suffering and starving South. History is just, and, as Mr. Lincoln used to say, "We cannot escape history." Puritanical hypocrisy, self-adulation, and self-glorification will not save the enemies of liberty from their just punishment.
Not even Christian burial of the remains of Captain Wirz has been allowed by Secretary Stanton. They still lie side by side with those of another and acknowledged victim of military commissions, the unfortunate Mrs. Surratt, in the yard of the former jail of this city.
If anybody should desire to reply to this, I politely beg that it may be done before the first of May next, as I shall leave the country -- but to return in the fall. After that day letters will reach me in care of the American Legation or Mr. Benedete Bobzani, Leipsig Street, No. 38, Berlin, Prussia.
Attorney at Law
April 4, 1867