The power of III

Summum ius summa iniuria--More law, less justice

11 November 2011

Re-post. November 10th: Anniversary of a travesty of justice

On November 10, 1865 Captain Henry Wirz, CSA,  guarded by four companies of soldiers, was led to the gallows in the Old Capital Prison yard before some 250 spectators who had government issued tickets. The spectators chanted "remember Andersonville" as Wirz ascended the stairway of the gallows. A hood was placed over Wirz's head and the rope around his neck. Wirz last words reportedly were that he was being hanged for following orders. The trap door was sprung open at 10:32 a.m. stretching the rope as it suddenly bore Wirz's weight. Wirz's neck was not broken by the fall and he writhed about as he slowly died of stangulation.
     The crowd openly displayed satisfaction that Wirz was dead. The public had been made aware of the deaths caused by autrocious conditions at Andersonville; the press had printed photographs of the worst of the surviving prisoners; those prisoners who had survived despised Wirz; the public had cried out for vengeance and all had waited through a trial lasting sixty-three days for retribution to be had. Forgiveness was not possible as reflected by Walt Whitman regarding Andersonville when he wrote, " There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapless, endless damnation."

The crowd chanted while he slowly strangled.  

By far the most damaging testimony against Wirz was that of Felix de la Baume. De la Baume was the only witness who identified a victim by name who was alleged to have been directly killed by Wirz.
     De la Baume, who claimed to be a Frenchman and descendant of Lafayette, was discovered after the trial, to actually be Felix Oeser. Oeser was born in Saxony, Prussia and lied in order to help conceal that he was a former member of the 7th New York Volunteers who had deserted during the war. He was a skilled orator and so impressed the commission that he was given a written commendation signed by all of the members regarding his testimony. He was also appointed to a position in the Department of the Interior before Wirz's trial ended. Once his true identify and status was discovered, only eleven days after Wirz had been hung, he admitted being Oeser and to having perjured himself in the testimony at Wirz's trial. Oeser subequently vanished into obscurity. 

Union Army Lt. James Madison:
(During the Summer of 1864)

          " July brought unusual suffering to the prisoners on account of the hot weather."

The suffering caused the initiation of a petition by the prisoners for reinstatement of prisoner exchanges. Four were paroled to go to Washington and three returned to report their request had been refused.

(Following the return of the paroled emissaries to Washington).

           "When we heard [Secretary of War] Stanton's reply in regard to exchange [reinstatement], we felt we were forsaken by our Government. The War Office at Washington preferred us to die rather than exchange us." "Many of the prisoners, being but human, raised their clenched, trembling hands towards heaven and with fearful oaths cursed the authorities at Washington, and the day they were born. Oh what hatred was engendered for our Secretary of War."

(On meeting Henry Wirz).

          "I met Wirz while on one of his visits to the hospital. He stopped his horse, and I explained briefly the situation and the condition of my comrades. Said I, 'If something is not done for them at once, in a few days death will be the result,' and this is the substance of his reply: 'I am doing all I can. I am handicapped and pressed for rations. I am exceeding my authority now in issuing supplies. I am blamed by the soldiers for all this suffering. They do not realize I am a subordinate, governed by orders of my commanding officer. Why, sir, my own men are on short rations. The best that I can do is to see that your sick comrades are removed to the hospital. God help you, I cannot.,' and his eyes were filled with tears. I was crying myself. I saw how deeply he felt. He was pale and emaciated. His wounded arm was troubling him - he said nothing about the fact that gangrene had set in. I said to myself, 'Here is a man obliged to endure the odium resulting from the sins of others.'"

(While Wirz was on sick leave during the month of August).

          "Scurvy is now fearfully prevalent. Hundreds are dying daily. It is caused by not having proper food - a change of food is absolutely necessary to relieve scurvy.
          Captain Wirz was absent on sick leave for the month of August. Lieutenant Davis was in command and he did all that he could to alleviate the suffering. From all sides could be heard from men who had said derogatory things of Wirz, 'I wish the Captain was back.'"

---These excerpts are taken from a law school website which published original source material.  A heartfelt letter from Capt. Wirz's defense lawyer written after the execution is here, if you wish to read further.

I am convinced that Wirz was scapegoated, and used as a pawn to try to implicate President Jefferson Davis as a Lincoln assassination conspirator.

Poor Wirz!  What a wretched fate!  What happened to him could have, and probably would have happened to anyone assigned at that post. 

 The federal government should be held to blame for their part in refusing prisoner exchange while at the same time enacting the scorched earth policy that afflicted the Georgia countryside. Both of those issues contributed needlessly to the death and suffering at Andersonville.  In addition, the trial was full of perjury and unsubstantiated claims.  Walt Whitman should have thought about the Federal authorities in charge of this Travesty when he wrote:
" There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapless, endless damnation."

May Gd comfort the soul of Captain Wirz.

1 comment:

  1. A few links.