The war criminal and the immigrant patriot
Did you miss the recent ceremony honoring a Connecticut Civil War veteran? You probably did, because it was held this past Sunday in Andersonville, Georgia. The memorial for Captain Henry Wirz has been celebrated every year since 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Henry Wirz was a Confederate war criminal, hanged in 1865 by the United States government. He was in charge of the notorious Andersonville Prison, which held 45,000 Union soldiers.
Before the war Wirz lived in the German Republic House, a Front Street hotel in Hartford, in an area known as “little Germany.” Thanks to the generosity of Casper Young who managed the hotel, Wirz was able to find a place to stay. Wirz and Young became friends.
After the Civil War began, Casper Young enlisted as a Union soldier. Germans made up a significant number of the Northern army: 516,000 served, with about 60% having been born in the United States.
Henry Wirz moved to Louisiana, and for a while practiced medicine. Then he joined the Confederate Army because, as he testified, “I was carried away by the maelstrom of excitement.” Wirz was promoted and made commandant of Andersonville.
Casper Young went to war, was captured, imprisoned, and later died at Andersonville. He was one of the 13,000 soldiers— including about 300 from Connecticut— who died under Henry Wirz during the 14 months the infamous prison existed.
Another Union soldier imprisoned at Andersonville was Robert H. Kellogg of Wethersfield. His daily journal (which he later published) recorded the disease, starvation and atrocities committed against the Union prisoners. Kellogg called Wirz a “cold blooded, cowardly, cruel fellow.”
The poet Walt Whitman had an even more severe judgment. Whitman served as a nurse during the war and wrote that while “there are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven, this is not one of them. [Andersonville] steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless damnation.”
After the South’s defeat, Henry Wirz was captured and convicted of war crimes in a federal court. Robert Kellogg was a witness at Wirz’s court martial trial. After Wirz was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865, Confederate president Jefferson Davis called him a “martyr” (Davis was an unindicted co-conspirator in the court martial).
Today’s promotion of Confederate figures and places is more than just an exercise in historical memory. It is still the underpinning for white supremacy. It provides the narrative that fuels racism.
Today’s promotion of Confederate figures and places is more than just an exercise in historical memory. It is still the underpinning for white supremacy. It provides the narrative that fuels racism. The lies and distortions about the “Glorious South” have not even been completely corrected in student textbooks. They live on with the annual Henry Wirz ceremony.
On the west side of the State Capitol in Hartford, one statue stands as a reminder of Connecticut soldiers who died in Southern prisoner of war camps. The memorial’s subject, unarmed and with his army cap in hand, is called the Andersonville Boy.
The sculpture was created by Norwich-born artist Bela Pratt. In 1907 the original piece was installed at Andersonville, which has become a national historic site. A copy of the figure was dedicated two years later in Hartford on the Capitol grounds. The subject is meant to honor all the men, black and white, who died to end slavery. The Andersonville Boy could have been Casper Young of Hartford.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer. He writes for ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com His latest book is Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action (Hard Ball Press, 2019)
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