1864: The Andersonville Raiders

1 comment July 11th, 2018 dogboy

It’s not hard to understand why the Andersonville Raiders turned criminal. But on this day in 1864, the group was decapitated when six of its leaders were hanged in a quasi-legal action at the most inhospitable prisoner of war camp in the Confederacy.*

Andersonville Prison was opened in February 1864, 26.5 Georgian acres (about 0.1 square kilometers, or about the size of a square 4 city blocks on a side) of tightly-packed tents with a ditch of water flowing through its center. Its design population was 10-15,000 prisoners; its true population at one point was almost 30,000.** Some 45,000 Union soldiers went in, passing first the outer stockade, then the so-called “dead line” that demarcated the line outside of which they could be shot summarily, and finally into a mass of malnourished, often sickly humanity. Of these, 13,000 never emerged.

The Confederacy, you may recall, was not the war’s winner. As an aspiring nation, the CSA borrowed heavily to fund its arms, then found itself strapped for basic supplies as the war dragged on. By 1863 the nation was already economically depressed, and when a CSA-USA prisoner exchange agreement broke down, the Confederacy found itself with a lot of Union soldiers to house and nowhere to put them. Enter Andersonville: far enough from the North to be “safe”, easily defensible, and in the heart of slave labor to build it. All the Confederacy needed to build some basic housing was wood, which should be … oh wait … war update!…the Union controlled lumber supplies. Guess there won’t be housing.

Prisoners instead got lumped in with their brigade, and (at least initially) basic materials to make some sort of shelter.† New arrivals often showed up without being thoroughly checked over, so they might come in with food and supplies that weren’t already available to other internees.‡ Very quickly, the grounds were littered with Union POWs from around the country, people with vastly different backgrounds and goods. As the camp’s population breached 10,000 and then 20,000,§ there were, of course, inmates with designs on better living.

It’s not hard to see where this is going.

Sometime around May 1864, dozens of them assembled into a loose affiliation. The Raiders were headed by about a half dozen men: Charles Curtis, Patrick Delaney, John Sarsfield, William Collins (“Moseby”), a guy known only as “A. Munn”, and W.R. Rickson (or possibly Terry Sullivan; there’s an unusual disparity in diary accounts on the person’s name, but first-hand diary entries from the moment prefer Rickson) were considered the principal offenders. Each headed a small band of thieves who would trick new entrants, burgle tents, or use violence or threats of violence to amass “wealth” and keep themselves well-fed, well-clothed, and, most importantly to them in this hostile place, alive.

The Raiders had some huge advantages when they committed these crimes. Thanks to their amalgamated resources, they had good odds of being better armed and more fit than their victims — unless those victims were green, in which case they just knew the place better. The thieves started out as midnight raiders who turned tail at the first sign of genuine resistance unless they thought they could readily overpower the victim. By mid-June they were brazen, according to John Ransom: “Raiders … do as they please, kill, plunder and steal in broad day light, with no one to molest them.”

The victims were soldiers who, even if they weren’t killed, were left without resources in a deadly environment. Even the robberies and beatings were, in many cases, a prolonged form of murder, and Union inmates knew it. Indeed, Collins was thought by most to have never directly assaulted anyone, but he was known to steal blankets from the ill.

It’s unclear what the full Raider population was (estimates range from 100 to 500, but most people settle on the 100-200 range). What we can say definitively is that it was large enough to be a problem. Late in June of that year, a group called “the regulators” began taking police-like action against the perpetrators. Inmates brought their complaints to the group, which sought out and punished — usually through head shaving or other non-destructive means — those they found responsible.

On June 29, that problem started getting a real solution when the Raiders assaulted and robbed a prisoner now known only as Dowd. Dowd complained to the guards, and Andersonville’s overseer, Captain Henry Wirz, officially endorsed the Regulators as a police force/tribunal to maintain order. But first he announced an end to inmate rations until the Raiders were given up. (What a guy!)

The Regulators, headed by a man called “Lumber” (or maybe “Limber”) Jim, quickly had 80-100 inmates to deal with. Jury trials were implemented in the spirit of (but without most of the protections of) common law, and most punishments ranged from setting in the stocks to running the gauntlet.


Detail of a panorama sketch of Andersonville (click to see it) makes space for a certain well-attended sextuple hanging.

The ringleaders were also among this bunch. They were assembled on July 11 and executed at a hastily-erected gallows on the north end of camp. As far as the POWs were concerned, the ultimate crime of the Raiders was a violation of the soldier code of death before dishonor. Their bodies were buried separately from other inmates, and the US makes a point of placing no memorial flags at their graves.

To be clear, the Andersonville Raiders were, for most inmates, not the primary problem but an obviously controllable one. Remember that 30% of the interned died, and for the most part those deaths were borne of bad sanitation, hunger, and disease. The removal of the Raiders was a morale boost at best, as Andersonville was still a pee-pee soaked heckhole in which another 10,000 soldiers would die before liberation in May 1865, most of them before the summer’s end.

* It was also known as Camp Sumter, named after the county it resided in.

** The population density at peak was 330,000 people per square kilometer. For comparison, the world’s densest city is Manila, at about 71,000 people per square kilometer.

† It turns out the term “shebang” wasn’t widely-used camp lingo. Drawings and photos of the camp illustrate the variety of dwellings: open sleeping, simple V-tents, structured tents, lean-tos, huts, and shacks were all scattered about the grounds.

‡ They also came with new diseases.

§ The original camp was actually only 16.5 acres, and the population ballooned to 20,000 in early June and 33,000 in August of that year. Ransom notes that the stockade was “enlarged” on July 6. Fall transfers dropped the number to 1,500 and it bumped back up to 5,000 until war’s end. Sanitation issues persisted throughout.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft,USA,Wartime Executions

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1865: Henry Wirz, for detainee abuse

1 comment November 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Henry Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C. for running a notorious Confederate prison camp.

A Swiss-born doctor (“Henrich” was the real handle) whom time and tide found practicing in Louisiana at the onset of the Civil War, Wirz apparently got into the prison-guarding ranks when a war injury left him unfit for the front lines.

But it was front-line fitness in the northern army that would set the scene for his controversial hanging.

The North’s advantage in men and materiel shaped Union strategy as the war progressed, and it eventually caused the Union to halt prisoner exchanges. Exchanging casualty for casualty was a winning strategy on the battlefield, so why return to your enemy a man for a man? Besides,

[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.

Benjamin Butler (we’ve met him before)

As designed, then, the South began piling up more and more POWs to maintain with its ever-straitened resources late in the war. And if exchange was out, that really only left one form of “release”.


Andersonville Prison survivor John L. Ransom’s view of the prison, from the Library of Congress.

Andersonville — officially, Camp Sumter, located near the tiny Georgia town of Andersonville — was only established in 1864, but acquired considerable notoriety in northern propaganda for the year and change that Wirz ran it. The prisoners didn’t enjoy it much, either.

Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.

Union prisoner diary, July 1864. Note the prisoner’s anger at Washington — whose refusal to exchange naturally infuriated its stranded POWs

Out of some 45,000 prisoners held at Andersonville during its existence (not all at one time), nearly 13,000 succumbed to disease and malnutrition.* After the war, photos of wasted survivors inflamed (northern) public opinion, already tetchy over Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walt Whitman wrote of Andersonville,

There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless damnation.

Damnation is up to higher powers, of course, but the North wanted somebody to answer for Andersonville on this mortal coil. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson overruled mooted charges against Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War James Seddon, leaving — in that great American tradition — Heinrich Wirz holding the bag.**

Shatner sighting!

The trial had an undeniable aspect of victor’s justice.† Even at the gallows, the Union guards chanted, “Wirz, remember Andersonville!” as the condemned man was readied for the noose, and then dropped. The hanging failed to break the man’s neck, and he strangled as the chant continued.

Southern efforts to reshape the story of Andersonville began in the lifetimes of Wirz’s contemporaries; this fulsome volume supporting the charges answered Jefferson Davis in terms that sound strikingly contemporary:

So long as Southern leaders continue to distort history (and rekindle embers in order to make the opportunity for distorting it), so long will there rise up defenders of the truth of history … To deny the horrors of Andersonville is to deny there was a rebellion. Both are historic facts placed beyond the realm of doubt.

But of course, it does not require denying the horrors of Andersonville to notice the circumstances — the privation of the entire South late in the war — and to wonder that Wirz and Wirz alone was held to account. Plenty of people think he got a bum rap.


Daughters of the Confederacy monument to Wirz. (cc) image from divemasterking2000.


Pro-Wirz marker in Andersonville, Ga. (Click for easier-on-the-eyes version, reading in part, “Had he been an angel from heaven, he could not have changed the pitiful tale of privation and hunger unless he had possessed the power to repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes”). (cc) image from Mark D L.

Recommended for general reading: the UMKC Famous Trials page on this case, several of whose pages have been linked in this entry. A number of nineteenth-century texts by (or citing) Andersonville survivors are available from Google books, including:

Since this is a controversy of the Civil War — and one that can be engaged without having to get into that whole slavery thing — there have been thousands of published pages written about it, with many more sure to come in future years.

A few books about Henry Wirz and Andersonville

As an interesting aside, Civil War POW camps including Andersonville (but not only Andersonville) gave us the term “deadline,” which had a more startlingly literal definition in the 1860s — a perimeter beyond which prisoners would be shot on sight, which policy could make a handy stand-in for walls. Gratuitously killing an insane prisoner who crossed Camp Sumter’s “dead line” was one of the atrocities laid to Wirz, who we take it would not have been at home to the word’s decreasingly urgent appropriation in the wider culture.

* Wirz’s defense showed, to no avail, that the prisoners and the guards received the same rations, with similarly deleterious effects among both, and that the commandant was on record pleading with his superiors for more.

** Wirz’s attorney claimed that his man was offered (and refused to take) a last-minute pardon on November 9 in exchange for implicating Jefferson Davis.

† Wirz and borderlands guerrilla Champ Ferguson were the only Confederates executed for their “war crimes”. There was at least one other prison guard who faced similar charges of prisoner maltreatment, John Henry Gee; Gee was acquitted and released in 1866. (For more on the latter, see “A Little-known Case from the American Civil War: The War Crimes Trial of Major General John H. Gee” by Guénaël Mettraux in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2010.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Separatists,Soldiers,U.S. Federal,USA,War Crimes,Washington DC,Wrongful Executions

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