It has been said that history is created by those who write it rather than those who live it. This is hyperbole, of course, but each historian does indeed write from a particular perspective. So Americans, depending on what schools they attend and which historians they rely on, may have differing views of the same event.
Also, many Americans rely on public libraries for their knowledge of history. But, contrary to what many think, the purpose of public libraries is not to present balanced views but to make available to their patrons the most sought after books. Public libraries, unlike libraries affiliated with universities, stock their shelves with best sellers or books receiving favorable reviews in mass market journals.
Quite a few people derive their knowledge of history from fictional accounts; novels, plays, films, and TV. This is especially true of depictions of the War Between the States. This unparalleled event in our history has continued to inspire fictional works for 140 years.
Finally, there are versions of history that combine fiction with fact, such as the Public Broadcasting System’s Civil War series. With advice from competent historians, filmmaker Ken Burns accurately portrays the overall story of the Civil War. But in relating certain events, Burns abandons his hired historians and spins a version that is skewed in an attempt to cause viewers to empathize with Burn’s political agendas. Because this modus operandi is used so frequently by Ken Burns, I refer to it as "kenitized" history.
PBS’s videos have profoundly influenced contemporary views of the War Between the States. So if you asked the average American to identify the prisons used during the Civil War, they could probably name only one: the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia.
The kenitized version of Andersonville goes something like this. During the Civil War the Union discontinued the exchange of prisoners because Confederates refused to exchange Black prisoners. Since the reason Northern men were willing to risk their lives on the battlefield was their overwhelming moral opposition to slave labor, how could they condone the exchange of White prisoners only? On this issue the Union commanders, especially Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General Grant, took a firm ethical stand.
Burns states that of all the Civil War prisons, "The worst was Andersonville." Burns describes the prison’s commander, Major Henry Wirz, as "a temperish German-Swiss immigrant (who) forbade prisoners to build shelters; most lived in holes scratched in the ground, covered by a blanket. Any man caught closer than 15 feet of the stockade was shot." Wirz is depicted as brutalizing his prisoners and denying them adequate food and medical care. Consequently, 13,000 prisoners died during their confinement at Andersonville.
This depiction of Andersonville is considered by many to be authentic but the actual events are more complicated and not easily converted into time-constrained television programming. In fact, it’s difficult to understand Andersonville and the other prisons, unless you understand the nature of Civil War fatalities, as well as the conditions existing at the time — especially the quality of medical care available.
Of the total fatalities during the War Between the States, only about 30% were killed in action or mortally wounded. The vast majority died as a result of disease or other debilitating health impairments. With adequate medical care and medications, most of the deaths could have been prevented.
But, at the time of the Civil War, the few doctors that did exist knew little about disease, used crude surgical techniques and had very limited forms of medication. But ether and chloroform were available so those accounts of soldiers having limbs amputated without an anesthetic are largely fiction. Nevertheless, the period is described as "being at the end of the medical Middle Ages." To illustrate, one of the better medical schools, Harvard University, did not own a single stethoscope or microscope until after the Civil War. Throughout the War, there was an insufficient number of trained medical professionals on both sides, although the Union’s medical corps exceeded the Confederate medical corps by a ratio of more than three to one.
In the first year of the War, President Lincoln would not allow the exchange of prisoners because he refused to acknowledge the existence of the Confederacy. According to Lincoln, what was occurring was only an insurrection and therefore not subject to the rules of war. Pressure from Congress as well as members of his administration finally forced the President to relent, and in the summer of 1862 a prisoner exchange agreement was negotiated between the Union and the Confederacy.
In 1863, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton directed Union Army General Henry Halleck to drastically reduce the number of exchanges. Historians disagree on the motive for Secretary Stanton’s action. Some claim the rate of exchanges was decreased because Confederates refused to exchange Black prisoners. Others claim that, because Union forces greatly outnumbered Confederate forces, the exchange was more beneficial to the South than the North. This school maintains that concern for Black Union prisoners was not authentic but simply an attempt to make a pragmatic military tactic appear humanitarian. Black POWs never were more than a miniscule amount of the total Union prisoners and at the time of Stanton’s order, there were practically no Black prisoners.
Later, when Ulysses S. Grant became Commander of the Union Army, all exchanges were ceased. Union General Benjamin Butler later stated that: "He (Grant) said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us."
With the end of the exchange system, the number of prisoners of war mushroomed and both sides were forced to construct new prisons. Including temporary interment camps, more than150 prisons were used during the Civil War. Of these, there were a dozen or so that held thousands of prisoners; these large facilities were equally divided between North and South. The Confederates hurriedly constructed Andersonville Prison in south Georgia in early 1864. Believing that the exchange system would soon be reactivated, the prison was designed to accommodate only 10,000 prisoners but, because the Union refused to resume exchanges, the prison population tragically increased to 33,000.
In July 1864, Major Wirz paroled a group of Union prisoners so they could take a petition to Washington pleading for a resumption of the exchange system. As incredible as it may sound, President Lincoln refused to meet with the prisoners. Secretary of War Stanton did meet with the petitioners but the exchange system was still rejected. One Union prisoner later wrote: "When the Andersonville emissaries returned from Washington there was not one word about the exchange of Negro soldiers being in the way of our release." Another Union prisoner later stated: "There was not a Negro soldier in Andersonville or in any other prison for a considerable time. When they were captured they were either sent back to their old masters or put to work on rebel fortifications. The Washington authorities had concluded to stop the exchange before there were any Negro prisoners."
The Confederacy continued to press for a resumption of the exchange system but their dispatches went unanswered. The South even proposed sending home all sick and wounded Union soldiers without an equivalent exchange of Confederates. Incredibly, this remarkable gesture went unanswered for five months during which conditions at Andersonville worsened. Diseases could not be adequately treated because an order of the Federal government made medicines a "contraband of war." The Confederate administration offered to buy medicines from the United States payable in gold, cotton or tobacco. The South even stipulated that Federal doctors could dispense all medicines so purchased solely to Union soldiers in the prison camp. But still there was no response to this offer and the blockade of medicines remained in effect.
Washington was under extreme pressure from Northern families and Northern newspapers to resume the exchanges so that captured and especially wounded and sick Union soldiers could return home. The pressure became so intense that the Lincoln Administration was forced to publicly explain its reasons for refusing to reactivate the exchange program. Obviously, whatever justification was given had to be approved by President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and possibly other cabinet members. General Grant was assigned the unpleasant duty of making the public announcement. Grant informed the press and public that the reason was "military necessity." This threadbare justification was the Federal government’s only official explanation to its impassioned citizens — and, not surprisingly, there was no mention of the South’s refusal to exchange Black prisoners.
On August 18, 1864, General Grant sent a dispatch to General Butler stating; "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."
Eventually, many of the prisoners at Andersonville were relocated to less crowded facilities but the virulent conditions were not significantly improved. Impure water, lack of adequate sanitation, exposure to the elements and the inability to obtain medicines continued to plague the prison camp. But the drastically insufficient supply of food created the worst crisis, one that was exacerbated by the intentional destruction of crops, livestock, mills, and other stocks of foodstuffs by Union General Sherman during his devastating march through Georgia.
When the war finally ended, there was a general feeling among many Northern politicians as well as newspaper editors that some kind of retribution must be made against Confederates leaders, especially Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. After President Lincoln’s assassination, this sentiment intensified until sacrificial scapegoats had to found. An attempt was made to connect Jefferson Davis with the conspirators indicted for Lincoln’s assassination but such a charge could not be proven. In the month following the "questionable" trial and hanging of the Lincoln conspirators, when the passion for revenge was still burning fiercely, Major Henry Wirz was brought to trial for war crimes — conspiracy to destroy prisoner’s lives in violation of the laws and customs of war. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were named as co-conspirators.
The trial of Major Wirz was pure theater and has been admirably dissected by attorney and former Army Captain Glen W. LaForce in his article; The Trial of Major Henry Wirz: A National Disgrace. LaForce makes it clear that, from the beginning, Wirz’s conviction was a foregone conclusion and the sham trial that ensued was only for show. Regarding former prisoners called as witnesses, LaForce says: "Out of the 160 witnesses called, 145 testified that they had no knowledge of Wirz ever killing anyone or treating a prisoner badly." Much of the evidence favorable to Wirz was rejected, but "The commission did, however, allow the defense to prove that the Confederate guards at Andersonville received the same quality and quantity of rations as the prisoners, and that the death rate of the guards was approximately the same as the prisoners."
A Catholic priest, Reverend Peter Whelan, testified that he visited the prison daily for several months and found Major Wirz to be sincerely concerned about the welfare of prisoners. Father Whelan also testified that, although he talked with a multitude of prisoners every day, he never heard a single complaint of a prisoner being mistreated by Major Wirz.
After Major Wirz was convicted and sentenced to death, he was visited in his cell by three men who presented themselves as agents of an influential member of Congress. They informed Wirz that he would be pardoned and set free if he would testify that orders from Jefferson Davis were responsible for the deaths of the prisoners at Andersonville. Wirz adamantly refused. Next the men repeated the offer to Wirz’s attorney, Lewis Schade, and his attending priest, Reverend F. E. Boyle. The offer was again refused and Wirz was hanged. In a letter to Jefferson Davis, Father Boyle wrote: "I attended the Major to the scaffold, and he died in the peace of God and praying for his enemies. I know that he was indeed innocent of all the cruel charges on which his life was sworn away, and I was edified by the Christian spirit in which he submitted to his persecutors."
In his article: Andersonville: A Legacy of Shame…But Whose? Gary Waltrip states: "Ken Burns, in his companion book to the PBS television series The Civil War, says this of Henry Wirz, the commander of Andersonville: u2018On November 10, 1865, Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison in Georgia, was hanged in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison in Washington for war crimes. He pleaded he had only followed orders.’ Burns’ subliminal comparison to the well-publicized pleadings of the Nuremburg Trials should not be wasted on the reader, where Nazi war criminals likewise claimed that they ‘had only followed orders.’ Burns’ insinuation that Wirz was guilty of Nazi-like war crimes only gives new life to the myth of Southern infamy at Andersonville."
This is an example of how history can be subtly kenitized by political types like filmmaker Ken Burns. Unfortunately, via the medium of television, PBS is able to foist Burns’ fraudulent depiction of Andersonville and Major Wirz on literally thousands of viewers. Now, even public schools throughout the country use the PBS Civil War videos to instruct students about that momentous event in American history.
But Burns’ half-truths are not supported by reputable historians. Regarding Henry Wirz, James M. McPherson, Princeton Professor of American History, said: "Whether Wirz was actually guilty of anything worse than bad temper and inefficiency remains controversial today. In any case, he served as a scapegoat for the purported sins of the South. The large genre of prisoner memoirs, which lost nothing in melodramatics with passage of time, kept alive the bitterness for decades after the war. On this matter, at least, the victors wrote the history, for at least five-sixths of the memoirs were written by northerners."
McPherson makes this assessment of Confederate prisons: "Few if any historians would now contend that the Confederacy deliberately mistreated prisoners. Rather, they would concur with contemporary opinions — held by some northerners as well as southerners — that a deficiency of resources and the deterioration of the southern economy were mainly responsible for the sufferings of Union prisoners. The South could not feed its own soldiers and civilians; how could it feed enemy prisoners?"
In the larger Civil War prisons, both North and South, there were outbreaks of scurvy, dropsy, dysentery and diarrhea and photographs show some of the prisoners in emaciated, almost skeletal conditions. Although disease and death at all Civil War prisons were tragic, they were not deliberate. And statistics indicate that both sides suffered substantial prison deaths — 26,436 Confederates died in Northern prisons and 22,576 Union soldiers died in Southern prisons. Considering the fact that the South held approximately fifty thousand more prisoners, the death rate in Northern prisons was about twelve percent whereas the death rate in Southern prisons was roughly eight percent. If this statistic were reversed, showing a higher percentage of deaths in Southern prisons, Ken Burns would kenitize it by inferring that it indicates the brutal neglect of Southern prison commanders.
James Madison Page, a lieutenant with the Sixth Michigan Cavalry and a former Union prisoner held at Andersonville, wanted to testify to Wirz’s kind treatment of prisoners but was denied the opportunity. Page later wrote a book; The True Story of Andersonville, in which he refers to Wirz’s trial as "the greatest judicial farce enacted since Oliver Cromwell instituted the commission to try and condemn Charles I." Page portrays Major Wirz as a decent and honorable man who was thrust into an unmanageable situation; a situation that would have defeated the best of men. But Henry Wirz became the fall guy for the pent up rage over the war and President Lincoln’s assassination. He was martyred at age 42, leaving behind a wife and three daughters.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.