Andersonville: Earlier War Crimes "Abuse" Trial

"Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was officially known, was one of the largest of many established prison camps during the American Civil War," wrote researcher and Georgia historian, Kevin Frye. "It was built early in 1864 after Confederate officials decided to move the large number of Federal prisoners kept in and around Richmond, Virginia, to a place of greater security and a more abundant food supply. During the 14 months the prison existed, more than 45,000 Union Solders were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure to the elements."

Andersonville National CemeteryWhat--you rightly wonder--does this horrific prison, located in the heart of America have to do with the Abu Ghraib? Both Andersonville and now Abu Ghraib share the shameful distinction of being among the blackest marks in American military history. One military prison, Andersonville, witnessed the slow torture and death of thousands of prisoners through bureaucratic neglect, while the other--Abu Ghraib--saw the slow torture and death through a bureaucratic policy of malignant intent. Even in Andersonville, where death was slow and painful, guards rarely "interrogated" or tortured prisoners for bits of information.

Indeed, Union soldier Lt. James Page spoke of his Confederate captors in almost generous terms, from the time of his capture by rebel cavalry, through his internment and later transfer to Andersonville prison. Page and members of his company were captured after a superior force of Confederate cavalry surprised them near Culpepper, Virginia. Forced to flee, Page and the others ran and were ordered to halt. Captured unharmed, they were "genially interrogated by General A.P. Hill . . . and consistently treated with kindness by his Southern captors."

Page wrote in a published memoir after the war, that the Alabama guards assigned to the prison were generally kind and humane. "I said then, and I have ever since said, in speaking of our guards, the Twenty-fifth Alabama Infantry, I never met the same number of men together who came much nearer to my standard of what I call gentlemen. They were respectful, humane and soldierly."

Contrast that with the conduct of the US military guards in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. "It is a common thing to abuse prisoners," said Sgt. Mike Sindar, 25, a National Guardsman with the 870th Military Police Company based in the San Francisco Bay area and recently returned from Iraq. "I saw beatings all the time."

Union soldier Page also pointed out in his Civil War memoir that prison rations were poor and meager, especially after Union General Sherman pillaged and destroyed the productive countryside on his infamous march to the sea. The rations issued to the prisoners were nearly as spare as those issued to the guards. Captain Henry Wirz--Andersonville's stern prison commander--tried to diminish scurvy in the prison. He paroled five men to act as emissaries to Washington to petition for supplies, tried to exchange prisoners, pleaded with the Confederate government for supplies, and even pleaded to release the prisoners unconditionally.

By contrast, we discover that Major General Barbara Fast, when petitioned to release some of the thousands of Iraqi civilians imprisoned without charges in Abu Ghraib, refused to consider that humanitarian option.

"As head of intelligence in Iraq, Major General Barbara Fast would have been responsible for intelligence officers working inside Abu Ghraib. She also "would have been very interested in the interrogation reports coming out of that prison," says Charles Heyman, senior defense analyst for Jane's Consultancy.

In Andersonville, men began to die by the dozens, then hundreds, but reports of torture were as likely to originate within the ranks of the Union soldiers as the prison guards. Indeed, commander Wirz had Union soldiers tried and executed for theft of personal items against other Union prisoners. One film record of these desperate, Civil War-era POWs--Ted Turner's Andersonville--testifies to the painful destruction of men imprisoned and then abandoned. By contrast, the film record emerging from Abu Ghraib bears damning testimony of 10-20 thousand Iraqi civilians imprisoned and then abandoned to their destruction in the name of a fictitious freedom.

In this era, when incompetence is rewarded, those most responsible for the abuses in Iraq will certainly escape justice. Unlike Henry Wirz, the walking war crime known as General Geoffrey Miller, former commander of Guantanamo prison but now transferred to Abu Ghraib, has openly admitted his considerable crimes. "The US commander in charge of military jails in Iraq, Major General Geoffrey Miller, has confirmed that a battery of 50-odd special 'coercive techniques' can be used against enemy detainees. The general . . . said his main role was to extract as much intelligence as possible," wrote David Leigh in the London Guardian.

William Lawson, uncle of Staff Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the soldiers prominently named in news reports and currently facing a court martial, told that his nephew told the family that company employees were partially responsible for the abuses. "He tried to complain and . . . was told by superior officers to follow instructions from civilians, contract workers interrogating the Iraqi prisoners. They said go back down there. Do what the civilian contractors tell you to do and don't interfere with them and loosen these soldiers up for interrogation." Lawson also added, "I've spent 23 years in the military including time in Vietnam. I love this country but I will not allow my nephew to be used as a scapegoat."

Those civilian contractors--whose names scarcely appear in newsprint anymore--Steven Stephanowicz, John Israel, Torin Nelson and Adel Nakhla--are named in the US Army report. Shadows then and now, all of them were under the command of US Army Colonel Thomas Pappas. Unlike Confederate commander Henry Wirz, they may never appear in court.

In Andersonville, the Union troops were abandoned by the stubbornness of Washington, by a government that considered them expendable, and by the severity of Wirz. In Iraq, the enlisted guards--while certainly culpable--have been determined to be expendable to protect their more guilty superiors. In 1864-65, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said of Andersonville, "We will not exchange able-bodied men for skeletons," and "We do not propose to reinforce the rebel army by exchanging prisoners." Union general Ulysses S. Grant, later to become president, confirmed this in his memoirs that a prisoner exchange meant reinforcement of the rebel army.

When the Union Army finally liberated Andersonville in May, 1865, they found walking skeletons amid hellish scenes of desolation. Photographs of the prisoners were taken, and the following month, they appeared in Harper's Weekly. The shocking photographs caused considerable anger, and calls were made for the people responsible to be punished for these crimes. It was eventually decided to charge General Robert Lee, James Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, and several other Confederate generals and politicians with "conspiring to injure the health and destroy the lives of United States soldiers held as prisoners by the Confederate States." The charges against the others were eventually dropped--only Wirz would stand trial.

In Washington and New York, then as now, the shock and outrage (after the fact) convinced people of their inherent decency. Newspaper editors opined of the tragedy of war, the carnage and loss, conveniently forgetting their criminal complicity. The true pornography of war (Is there any other kind?) whether the grim photographs of skeletal prisoners of Andersonville or the stripped and beaten Iraqi civilians of Abu Ghraib, is the willingness of so many otherwise decent people to support, encourage and partake in it.

"Meanwhile, more evidence has emerged undermining the US thesis that the abuses at Abu Ghraib was the work of a 'few bad apples.' The London Guardian reported that the "sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison was not an invention of maverick guards, but part of a system of ill-treatment and degradation used by special forces soldiers that is now being disseminated among ordinary troops and contractors." The umbrella of blame, however, only allows room for a few unfortunate fellows. Witness the unlucky seven fingered to shoulder the burden.

Both in Andersonville and Abu Ghraib, the top brass and administration pretended shock while the abuses continued right up to the time they were revealed. US Senators and Representatives--like the mass of Americans--expressed revulsion once the photos of skeletal Union prisoners and beaten, naked Iraqis were finally publicized--but conveniently ignored the Red Cross reports, soldiers' letters and Amnesty International documents that arrived at their doorstep daily from Iraq.

Henry Wirz was an earlier Chip Frederick, a crude lever puller for the engineers of an unholy war, scapegoats for a foundation of cruelty built on a policy of state-sponsored terrorism. Wirz was the designated demon, as are those hapless, trashy guards, sacrificed by a more entrenched demonology to disguise--even now--more diabolical ambitions.

A defense of Captain Henry Wirz, like that of the posturing prison guards of Abu Ghraib, is nearly impossible, given the climate of sanctimonious revulsion and evidence and mounting testimony of their cruelty. Victims cry out for justice, and those nearest at hand are tossed to the indignant mob. Yet those who should stand prominently in the box, shouldering the greater blame alongside both Wirz and Frederick, remain conspicuously missing. The architects of diabolical war crimes--Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, like Stanton and Sherman--always slink away without a scratch--and Wirz knew that well. Tried, convicted and executed by hanging, Wirz protested his death.

Finally, Union prisoner Page recorded: "Wirz was the object of that popular injustice which personifies causes and demands victims for unpopular movements. All the accumulated passions of the war were concentrated on this one man."

In an ironic footnote of symbolism, on the spot where the hangman's scaffold once stood, occupying the spot where Wirz went fitfully to his death, stands the United States Supreme Court building, overlooking the majestic US Senate.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @