Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Is a Wirz Execution Photo Misidentified?

Posted in Media, Technology by Andy Hall on November 10, 2018

A repost on the 153rd anniversary of the event.

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Henry Wirz (1823-1865) remains one of the most controversial figures of the American Civil War. Reviled in the North for his role as commandant of the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, Wirz was tried in the summer of 1865 in Washington, D.C. and condemned to death. He was hanged on November 10, 1865, on a scaffold set up in the courtyard of the Old Capitol Prison (below), on what is now the site of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wirz continues to have many supporters, who argue that he did the best he could to care for the Federal soldiers imprisoned at Andersonville, with the very limited resources he had at his disposal. The Confederacy, they argue, had not sufficient means to care for its own population, much less enemy prisoners, and point to hard conditions in Northern prisons, where lack of resources was far less a problem, in response. They also point out that one of the key witnesses in the prosecution’s case against Wirz was apparently an imposter, who could not have witnessed the things he testified to under oath. Nearly a century and a half after his death, efforts are still being made to exonerate Wirz and restore his reputation.

This post isn’t about any of that.

Wirz’ execution was the subject of a famous sequence of four photographs, now part of the collection of the Library of Congress, taken by Alexander Gardner. The sequence of the photos, as indicated by both their captions and catalog numbers, is usually given as follows:

  1. Reading the death warrant to Wirz on the scaffold, LC-B817- 7752
  2. Adjusting the rope for the execution of Wirz, LC-B8171-7753
  3. Soldier springing the trap; men in trees and Capitol dome beyond, LC-B8171-7754
  4. Hooded body of Captain Wirz hanging from the scaffold, LC-B8171-7755

The four images were taken from three different locations (below). The first two appear to have been taken from the roof of the prison kitchen (Point A), looking diagonally across the yard where the scaffold is set up. For the image of Wirz’ body hanging from the beam, Gardner moved the camera to the left, and to a higher position to get a clearer view of the body in the trap (Point B). Gardner may have also wanted to frame his shot to capture the dome of the U.S. Capitol in the background. For the shot labeled “springing the trap,” the camera is again at a lower position, similar to the height of Point A, but still further to Gardner’s left (Point C), again with the dome of the Capitol in the background. Gardner’s framing of these last shots is not subtle.


Plan of the Old Capitol Prison, showing the approximate positions of Gardner’s camera during the Wirz execution sequence. The plan is undated (from here), but shows the facility during its use as a prison during and immediately after the Civil War, 1861-67.

After looking closely at these images, though, I believe that these last two are transposed chronologically; the third image, labeled “springing the trap,” is properly the last image in sequence, and shows Wirz’ body being lowered from gallows into the space below the scaffold. The evidence – and somewhat graphic images of the hanging – after the jump:

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A Tradition of Voter Suppression

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 6, 2018

On this election day,  Keri Leigh Merritt reminds us that voter suppression in the South is as old as, well, the South.

Widespread illiteracy and semi-literacy among the lower classes — as well as the South’s stringent censorship laws — further prevented poorer whites from involvement in the political process. When the rich did allow the non-slaveholders to vote, they were still able to control the outcome of elections, as one man observed, by “means of the votes of the poor whites whom he owns, in owning all by which they can live for another day.” 

A lower-class man who owed money to one of the county’s affluent slaveholders, or was in his employ, or lived as a tenant or renter on his land, surely felt compelled to support the rich man’s political causes. Whether this influence was subtle or overt or even coercive, poorer white men’s voting habits were carefully monitored. In some states like Alabama, a man’s right to vote could be challenged not only by the slaveholding election inspectors, but also by “any qualified elector.” 

David Reed, a gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina, cunningly reminded the state’s elite in 1850 that “the landlord will always exercise a sufficient influence over his tenants without having an additional vote,” since “those who do not own land can never … remain here long, unless the land holder permits him to do so.” Tenants and sharecroppers undoubtedly felt this pressure. Slaveholders controlled so much of Southern society that some poorer whites had no choice but to conform. Deference and intimidation clearly dominated Southern politics. 

Less devious ways to disenfranchise non-desirable voters also abounded. The structure of two-party politics itself was enough to deprive non-slaveholders a real voice in government. As a New York newspaper opined about the South in 1856, “the poor white men, the great mass of the non-slaveholding people, no doubt possess the right of suffrage, but what does that right amount to? Simply to express their preference as between two, three, or more slaveholding candidates.”

These days voter suppression efforts are typically described as being intended to limit the electoral influence of racial or ethnic minorities. But that’s not quite right; it’s about limiting the political power of the underclass as a whole, and only really about race insofar as that can be a convenient proxy for low-income voters with limited resources. In the antebellum period, race wasn’t the consideration at all; voter suppression was about keeping poor whites and the laboring class from casting ballots. The intent remains the same, even if the specific target shifts along with the demographic and political landscape.

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U.S. Army Declines Request for DNA Test on Manassas Remains

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 4, 2018


Members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment carry the remains of two unknown Civil War soldiers to their grave at Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 6. Associated Press/Cliff Owen

Earlier this year, it was announced that two complete sets of remains had been recovered from what was believed to have been a U.S. field hospital used during the Battle of Second Manassas. Paul Davis knew that a relative of his, a color sergeant in the Second Wisconsin Infantry Regiment of the Iron Brigade, had died under similar circumstances, and petitioned the Army to have a DNA profile run on the remains in hopes of identifying them. Several other families did, as well. The Army refused, saying in carefully-worded, anodyne phrasing that it wasn’t worth the expense:

The Army made the decision that the costs associated with obtaining, storing, and testing of the DNA from these two Unknown U.S. Soldiers was not justified due to the significant passage of time as the possibility of identifying comparator DNA is extremely unlikely.

Even if the prospect of finding a match between this solider and someone living in 2018 is slim, this response from the Army strikes me as a terribly tone-deaf, especially for a nation that makes much of the principle of “no man left behind.” Yes, the costs associated with DNA testing can be substantial, but they pale in comparison to the multi-billion-dollar boondoggles the U.S. government (including the Pentagon) pour money into every day. Remember that the United States has an entire laboratory established to do exactly this kind of work; they’re professionals at doing it. It’s also worth noting that the Navy, not very long ago, went to great lengths, including DNA testing and facial reconstruction, to identify the remains of the two sailors recovered from the turret of USS Monitor.

With these unidentified remains now interred at Arlington, it seems unlikely that Paul Davis and the other families will ever have a chance to find out if, in fact, the remains recovered at Manassas are related to them. That’s a shame, but perhaps they’ll get enough criticism about this case they they will respond differently when the next case comes along.

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H/t Robert Moore and Phil Gast.

French Win Claim to 1565 Florida Wreck

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on October 25, 2018

Good news today on the historic shipwreck front — the U.S. District Court in Orlando ruled in favor of France in the case of a shipwreck found by a private salvage company, Global Marine Exploration Inc., finding that it was, as France claimed, the 1565 flagship of Jean Ribault, who was heading a resupply mission to Fort Caroline. The salvors claimed that this wasn’t the wreck of Ribault’s ship, and therefore the French had no claim to it, despite the fact that that the wreck carried guns cast with the royal fleur-de-lis (above) and what appears to be a granite column intended to mark the French claim to Florida. I’m not sure anyone was convinced by that argument, but that was Global Marine’s story and they were sticking to it, apparently with a straight face.

This ruling appears to be solid both in law and in effect. U.S. law holds that any national (usually naval) vessel remains property of that nation in perpetuity, through successive government and regimes down through the years. This was the basis for the United States successfully claiming ownership of the Confederate raider Alabama, sunk off Cherbourg in 1864, as well as the French government’s claim of ownership of La Belle (1687), found in 1995 in Matagorda Bay, Texas. (Full disclosure: I am a Marine Archaeological Steward with the Texas Historical Commission, and prior to that was part of the La Belle Project public outreach team in 1995-97. It was the THC that tried to claim La Belle for the State of Texas, and we lost that case.) More recently, the remains of U-576 were located off North Carolina, and the German government immediately asserted its prerogative to restrict disturbance of the site.

It’s also a good decision as a practical matter, because this ruling will prevent the site from being disturbed by salvors who, driven by the need to recoup their costs, will inevitably focus on recovery and conservation of showy or valuable artifacts, while likely doing little or no in-depth site analysis or preservation of other, less-commercially-viable artifacts. In all likelihood, the French will work out an arrangement for a more thorough study and potential excavation of the site, and make some arrangement (as with both the Alabama and La Belle artifacts) for long-term public exhibitions in both countries. It’s a win all around, except maybe for Global Marine’s investors. I can live with that.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to conventional salvage work at all. The salvage laws we have now have developed over centuries, and they serve a real and valuable purpose. They establish a framework for securing abandoned maritime property and often expedite removal of hazardous wrecks in a public waterway. But they weren’t developed to deal with shipwrecks like Ribault’s, that are of immense value historically and culturally, and in fact work against the serious preservation and study of such sites. I’m glad that we have tools that can protect at least some of these wrecks, for the wider education and enjoyment of the general public.

It’s a good day.

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“One of them was a better soldier than I was.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on September 17, 2018

Private Lawrence Daffan, Co. G, Fourth Texas Infantry, at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862:

On the evening of the 16th we crossed the Antietam Creek, falling back from Boonsboro Gap. This occasioned some skirmishing and artillery duels across the creek, as we had taken a stand near Sharpsburg. We had orders the evening of the 16th to cook up three days’ rations, and to be ready to move at a moment’s warning. We were located nearly a half mile south of an old Dunkard church. There was heavy timber between us and the church; north and west of us there was a large stubblefield where wheat was cut. North of this stubble was a large cornfield of considerable dimensions. Corn there in September is as high as it is here in July; fodder was about ready to be gathered. By daylight the pickets commenced firing. By sunrise wer were ordered forward in line of battle. We stopped near the church in the heavy timber, the branches were falling on us, and many spent balls played around us.
 
A short time after this we were ordered “forward.” We emerged from the timber into the stubblefield; some of it I think had recently been plowed.
 
As we emerged from the timber, a panorama, fearful and wonderful, broke upon us. It was a line of battle in front of us. Immediately in front of us was Lawton’s Georgia Brigade. After we left the timber we were under fire, but not in a position to return the fire. As we neared Lawton’s Brigade, the order came for the Texas Brigade to charge. Whenever a halt was made by a command under fire, every man lay flat on the ground, and this was done very quick. Lawton’s Brigade had been on this line fighting some time before we reached them. Lawton’s Brigade attempted to charge, and did charge; their charge was a failure, because their numbers had been decimated; they had no strength.
 
Then the Texas Brigade as ordered to charge; the enemy was on the opposite side of this stubblefield in the cornfield. As we passed where Lawton’s Brigade had stood, there was a complete line of dead Georgians as far as I could see. Just before reaching the cornfield General Hood rode up to Colonel [Benjamin F.] Carter, commanding the fourth Texas Regiment (my regiment), and told him to front his regiment to the left and protect the flank. This he did and made a charge directly to the west. We were stopped by a pike fenced on both sides. It would have been certain death to have climbed the fence.
 
Hays’ Louisiana Brigade had been in on our left, and had been driven out. Some of their men were with us at this fence. One of them was a better soldier than I was. I was lying on the ground shooting through the fence about the second rail; he stood up and shot right over the fence. He was shot through his left hand, and through the heart as he fell on me, dead. I pushed him off and saw that “Seventh Louisiana” was on his cap.
 
The Fifth [Texas], First [Texas] and Eighteenth Georgia, which was the balance of my brigade, went straight down into the cornfield, and when they struck this cornfield, the corn blades rose like a whirlwind, and the air was full.

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Lawrence Daffan was seventeen years old at the time. He survived this fight, the assault on Little Round Top at Gettysburg the following year, and the Battle of Chickamauga, only to be captured in late 1863 and spend the remainder of the war as a prisoner at Rock Island, Illinois. Passage from My Father as I Remember Him, by Katie Daffan. Image: “The Hagerstown Pike,” by Walton Taber.
 

Friday Night Concert, Superseding Criminal Information Edition

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 14, 2018

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Great Locomotive Chase Depot for Sale

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 29, 2018

The 1852 Western & Atlantic Depot in Dalton, Georgia is looking for a buyer. Priced to move at $500K, OBO.

I got a birthday comin’ up, just sayin’.

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That Other Thing Julian Carr Mentioned. . . .

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 28, 2018

As you all know by know, last week a crowd pulled down the “Silent Sam” statue at the University of North Carolina. I don’t have much to say about that, that I didn’t say last year after a mob toppled the Confederate monument in Durham. Pretty much the same dynamics were at play in both cases.

In the Silent Sam case, much attention has been focused on that monument’s dedication address by Julian Carr (right), at that time the Commander of the North Carolina Division of the United Confederate Veterans. Carr was, for all intents and purposes, the official representative for all surviving Confederate veterans in that state. In his address, he boasted about the time he “horse-whipped a negro [sic.]  wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady,” that he remembered as a “pleasing duty.”

Awful as that is, it’s the paragraph that immediately precedes that quote that stands out as speaking more directly to how Carr saw the monument, and what it represented:

The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.

When Carr talks about former Confederate soldiers “during the four years immediately succeeding the war,” whose “courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” “when ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states,” he’s saluting the Klu Klux Klan and other night riders who used fear, intimidation, and violence to keep Freedmen in check. It’s easy for a modern audience to skim right past his vague, innocuous phrasing, but North Carolinians in 1913, white and black alike, understood exactly what he was referring to.

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Oh, Mississippi. . . .

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 18, 2018


The current Mississippi State Flag (left) and one historical variant of the Magnolia Flag (right).

Recently I got into a Facebook discussion about the state flag of Mississippi, and suggested that a better choice would be the Magnolia Flag, which is both a much older symbol of that state, deeply intertwined with its history, and also more distinctly Mississippian than the Confederate knock-off the state uses now. Naturally I was told almost immediately to “keep your mouth shut” because I’m not actually from Mississippi. Such is the nature of social media, I suppose.

But I was amused by another commenter in that thread, who (twice) posted this meme, presumably to show support among African Americans in Mississippi for retaining the current flag:

If you guessed that the man in the picture wasn’t really carrying petitions to preserve the current Mississippi flag, you’d be right — but only half right, because it’s far more ludicrous than that. He’s actually Carlos E. Moore, a Mississippi attorney who also serves as a municipal judge in Clarksdale. He made news last year when he had the state flag removed from his courtroom. The photo itself is from a local news story in 2008 that has nothing whatever to do with the dispute over the flag.

Suffice to say, I don’t think Judge Moore is going to be collecting petitions to retain the current Mississippi State Flag anytime soon.

I don’t have high expectations for the Confederate Heritage™ folks generally, but sometimes the rank dishonesty really is breathtaking, even for someone as jaded about it as I am. As I’ve said before, if you have to brazenly lie like that to preserve your “heritage,” maybe it’s not worth saving.

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Legislative Journal_ThumbnailUpdate, August 20: Several folks in that discussion have averred that the current Mississippi State Flag was originally adopted by a public referendum — “The 1894 flag was voted by the PEOPLE. By the VOTERS.”

That’s not true, either. 

The design was adopted by the Mississippi Legislature based on S.B. 134, the passed the Senate on February 6, 1894 (pp. 350-53, PDF). It was approved by the House of Representatives the next day.

The True Southron™ struggle against objective, observable reality continues.

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Houston Would-Be Monument Bomber Gets Six Years

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 17, 2018

The man who attempted to blow up the Dick Dowling monument in Houston last year pleaded guilty back in March, and today was sentenced to six years in prison.

Schneck pleaded guilty in March before U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. to a willful attempt to maliciously damage or destroy property in violation of federal law. At the time, a federal prosecutor dismissed a sentence enhancement related to the harm an explosion could have caused, which could have allowed for a longer prison sentence.

Schneck had a history of concocting homemade explosives. At sentencing, judge asked him why he did it this time.

“The intent was to damage the statue significantly,” he said.

Schneck pleaded guilty in March before U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. to a willful attempt to maliciously damage or destroy property in violation of federal law. At the time, a federal prosecutor dismissed a sentence enhancement related to the harm an explosion could have caused, which could have allowed for a longer prison sentence.

Schneck had a history of concocting homemade explosives. At sentencing, judge asked him why he did it this time.

“The intent was to damage the statue significantly,” he said.

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Image: Houston Firefighters arrive a the scene of a “law enforcement operation” led by the FBI on the 2000 block of Albans Road Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, in Houston. Godofredo A. Vasquez / Houston Chronicle