|A prisoner of the Andersonville Camp|
War crimes are largely a 20th-century phenomenon, but there were some antecedents. Probably the first known war criminal was Peter Van Hagenbach, an overzealous knight bailiff who was put on trial for his tyrannical acts in 1474 by the Holy Roman Emperor and beheaded.
But the first American war criminals, most likely, were the Confederates who ran the prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville, Georgia. They set a standard for misery that foreshadowed the greatest horrors of the 20th century.
The camp opened in February 1864, as the war began winding towards its close, and it soon became clear that the Confederate government was ill-equipped to feed and house the thousands of men in its stockades.
Robert H. Kellogg, sergeant major in the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, described his entry as a prisoner into the prison camp, May 2, 1864:
As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. "Can this be hell?" "God protect us!" and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.As Wikipedia explains:
At this time in the war, Andersonville Prison was frequently undersupplied with food. The Confederate Army and civilians also struggled to get enough food. The shortage was suffered by prisoners and the Confederate personnel alike within the fort. But the prisoners received less than the guards, as the latter did not suffer such emaciation, nor scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency). The latter was probably the main cause of mortality (along with diarrhea, caused by living in the filth from poor sanitation and the necessity to take drinking water from a creek filled at all times with fecal material from thousands of sick and dying men). Even when sufficient quantities of supplies were available, they were of poor quality and poorly prepared. Although the prison was surrounded by forest, very little wood was allowed to the prisoners for warmth or cooking. This and the lack of utensils made it almost impossible for the prisoners to cook the main food they received, poorly milled corn flour. During the summer of 1864, Union prisoners suffered greatly from hunger, exposure and disease. Within seven months, about a third died from what was diagnosed as dysentery and scurvy; they were buried in mass graves, the standard practice by Confederate prison authorities at Andersonville. In 1864 the Confederate Surgeon General asked Joseph Jones, an expert on infectious disease, to investigate the high mortality rate at the camp. He concluded that it was due to "scorbutic dysentery" (bloody diarrhea caused by vitamin C deficiency). In 2010 the historian Drisdelle said that hookworm disease, a condition not recognized or known during the Civil War, was the major cause of much of the mortality.
The Georgia Encyclopedia explains that the numbers of prisoners quickly overshot the original estimates:
The Civil War Trust describes what the pen itself was made of:The camp was planned for a capacity of 10,000 prisoners, but with the breakdown in prisoner exchanges, which would have removed much of its prison population, its numbers swelled to more than 30,000. As the number of imprisoned men increased, it became increasingly hard for them to find space to lie down within the vast pen. The prisoners, nearly naked, suffered from swarms of insects, filth, and disease, much of which was generated by the contaminated water supply of the creek.Andersonville had the highest mortality rate of any Civil War prison. Nearly 13,000 of the 45,000 men who entered the stockade died there, chiefly of malnutrition. Guards were also issued poor rations but had the option of foraging for food elsewhere. Critics charged that though the Confederate government could find the resources to move prisoners hundreds of miles and to build a facility in which to incarcerate them, it failed to provide adequate supplies or living conditions for the inmates or even for the staff.
The prison pen was surrounded by a stockade of hewed pine logs that varied in height from 15 to 17 feet. The pen was enlarged in late June 1864 to enclose 261/2 acres. Sentry boxes—called “pigeon roosts” by the prisoners—stood at 90-foot intervals along the top of the stockade and there were two entrances on the west side. Inside, about 19 feet from the wall, was the “deadline,” which prisoners were forbidden to cross. The “deadline” was intended to prevent prisoners from climbing over the stockade or from tunneling under it. It was marked by a simple post and rail fence and guards had orders to shoot any prisoner who crossed the fence, or even reached over it. A branch of Sweetwater Creek, called Stockade Branch, flowed through the prison yard and was the only source of water for most of the prison.A survivor described the horrors of life inside the prison, if you could call it that:
You must understand that the Confederate government made no attempt to house its Andersonville prisoners….Here we were, by the thousands, taking the weather night and day as it came, without any covering except the clothes worn throughout the twenty four hours. Let me say here that during June and July 1864 it rained for twenty-one consecutive days and the rain-fall amounted at times almost to a deluge. During a heavy storm none of us could keep from getting soaked and those poor fellows who were without any shelter were much worse off than those who had only a blanket for a roof.
I have seen men, by the hundred, standing huddled together for mutual warmth and support (you could not fall very well with men on every side standing tight to you) but these men were weakened by disease and starvation, and during the night many would have to lie down and, in the morning, if it had rained hard you would approach a man who looked like a pile of sand, the heavy rain having thrown sand over his prostrate body. Many of them would be dead in the morning and would be carried out to the deadhouse by their comrades….A sluggish stream separated the north from the south side of the prison and this was all the provision made by the Johnnies for the drink needed by the prisoners. This stream was surrounded by wet, marshy ground which was unfit for men to camp in, nor could they occupy all of the hill-side so that much of the space was worthless as a camp, but very valuable as a source of disease and death.
And of course, there was the constant cloud of disease and starvation hanging over the camp:
Limbs would be drawn up to the body and the back of them would become discolored and from the heels to the hips resembled, in color, a very severe black and blue spot. A dropsical swelling of the flesh would take place and I could pull the flesh of my feet out of shape or press an indentation into the flesh and it would remain in that shape until action replaced it.
Although we know that the commander of the Andersonville camp, Captain Henry Wirz, was afterward convicted of war crimes and hanged, nonetheless, as Wikipedia notes, there remains some controversy over the precise nature of the Confederacy's moral guilt for the crime:
During the war, 45,000 prisoners were received at Andersonville prison; of these nearly 13,000 died. The nature of the deaths and the reasons for them are a continuing source of controversy among historians. Some contend that they were a result of deliberate Confederate war crimes toward Union prisoners, while others state that they were the result of disease promoted by severe overcrowding, the shortage of food in the Confederate States, the incompetence of the prison officials, and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, caused by the Confederacy's refusal to include African-Americans in the exchanges, thus overfilling the stockade.Any way you cut it, however, this horror belongs to the Confederacy.
Confederate Heritage Month:
Day 1: Strange Fruit
It Was About Slavery
That Peculiar Institution
How Poor Whites Got Suckered