Andersonville is a name that conjures up a dark history. It was a prison camp for Union soldiers, placed in the Georgia countryside about 100 miles south of Atlanta. It was operated for slightly more than a ear, from 1864 to 1865. Some 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there; 13,000 of them died. It’s now operated as a historical site by the U.S. National Park Service.
For comparison, the prison at Elmira, New York operated by the Union at roughly the same time, housed 12,000 Confederate prisoners, of which almost 3,000 died. The Union prison at Alton, Illinois housed Confederate soldiers, Union soldiers, and civilians; of the 11,000 prisoners, some 1,534 are known to have died. (Alton was noted for outbreaks of smallpox and measles.)
Andersonville remains the Civil War prison with the worst, and largely well-deserved reputation. It’s also known for one other event – its commandant, the Swiss born Major Henry Wirz, was executed after the war for the crimes he allegedly committed at the prison. The immediate post-war period was a time of outrage and demands for retribution, and what had happened at Andersonville was exhibit No. 1.
In the years after the war, a number of its soldier-inmates wrote memoirs of their wartime experiences and especially Andersonville. James Madison Page, a Pennsylvania-born man who had moved to Michigan and enlisted with a regiment there, and he’d been captured after a battle in 1863. He and his fellow prisoners were moved around, but eventually they found themselves sent to Andersonville. Every move raised the hope of a prisoner exchange, which happened only very late in the war.
In 1908, Page published his own memoir, setting in motion a controversy that still exists after more than a century. In The True Story of Andersonville Prison: A Defense of Major Henry Wirz, Page said that many of the witnesses at Wirz’s trial had lied; that, contrary to testimony, Wirz had never shot prisoners; that Wirz had intervened many times on the prisoners’ behalf and to their benefit; and that the prisoners received the same food ration as the soldiers guarding the prison.
Page went further. He saw the true villain as being Edward Stanton, the U.S. Secretary of War. It was Stanton, Page maintained, who refused to allow prisoner exchanges, resulting in overcrowded soldier prisons. Stanton defended his decision at the time by saying the Confederates would get well-fed soldiers while the Union would get emaciated and sick men. Page also pointed to the Union blockade of Southern ports, which did hurt the Confederacy in many ways, including the blocking of food and medicine, but that also applied to the Confederacy’s prisoners.
At least some of what Page reported turned out to be true, especially about the conduct of Henry Wirz. The major was away from the camp recuperating from an old battle wound (received at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862) during the entire month of August, 1864, which was the period alleged to be when he personally had shot prisoners.
During Wirz’s trial in 1865, Page had been called as a witness but was not called to testify; he claimed it was because the military tribunal didn’t want to hear anything that contradicted what they had already pre-determined.
Reading The True Story of Andersonville Prison today is eye-opening. Page never denies the harsh conditions with regard to food and medical assistance. He reports the deaths of friends. But he draws a picture of Wirz that is markedly different from the “devil incarnate” depicted in Union newspapers. From Page’s perspective, it was a very bad situation made worse by Stanton’s refusal to exchange prisoners, guaranteeing overcrowded conditions.
Page’s account isn’t a whitewash of Andersonville; it was a horrible chapter in Civil War and American history, and Page doesn’t dispute that. But he does call attention to exaggerations, and he especially defends the conduct of the man who came to personify the prison and paid with his life for it.
Top photograph: A scene of Andersonville Prison.