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:

(more…)

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Is a Wirz Execution Photo Misidentified?

Posted in Media, Technology by Andy Hall on November 10, 2015

This post originally appeared on June 8, 2011.

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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:

(more…)

Was Rock Island the “Andersonville of the North”? Um, No.

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 24, 2014

Over at The Historic Struggle, Rob Baker notes that today is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Camp Sumter, better known today as Andersonville. Camp Sumter is the most infamous of all prisoner of war camps on either side during the Civil War.

One thing that is sometimes heard is that Rock Island was “the Andersonville of the North.” That assertion is something that interested me personally, since once of my relatives spent almost eighteen months there in 1864-65, a period that includes almost all of Rock Island’s time as a PoW camp. It was a terrible experience, made worse by the vindictiveness of Union authorities who ordered a reduction in rations in retaliation for the treatment of Union PoWs in the Confederacy, specifically at Camp Sumter.

But was Rock Island objectively as bad as Andersonville? I recently watched a documentary, The Rock Island Civil War Prison: Andersonville of the North? (available for purchase here, or streaming here), that laid out some of the data. The documentary is pretty good, although it has an “unfinished” or “almost there” feel to it; there were several subjects barely touched upon that would justify its expansion to a full hour, instead of just 30 minutes. Nevertheless, it’s worth your time if you have an interest in CW prisons.

The documentary specifically challenges the claim that Rock Island was the “Andersonville of the North.” Taking a lead from that, I looked up some detailed numbers, broken out by month, that show the actual rate of deaths among the prisoners at the two camps, by month. Numbers for Rock Island are available for its entire existence from its opening in late 1863; Andersonville opened a few months later, and most of the prisoners were evacuated from the site in the fall of 1864. Although Andersonville remained in operation until May 1865, the vast majority of deaths among its prisoners occurred between February and November 1864. Death rates are calculated by comparing the number of fatalities with the prisoner population for each month:

RockIslandChartSmall

Click the little one to get a big one. You can download a spreadsheet of the numbers here. Rock Island data is from the Appendix of Otis Bryan England’s A Short History of the Rock Island Prison Barracks (Revised Edition) (Rock Island, Illinois: Historical Office, U.S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command, 1985). Andersonville data is from p. 321 of John McElroy’s Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons (Toledo: D. R. Locke, 1879).

Of course, there’s a simpler way to look at this: more men died at Andersonville than were imprisoned at Rock Island during its entire time as a Civil War prison camp.

So where did this “Andersonville of the North” nonsense come from? The phrase doesn’t show up until the 1940s, and I suspect that, like so many other cherished themes about the war, it originated with Margaret Mitchell, who had Ashley Wilkes survive imprisonment at Rock Island. In Gone with the Wind, Chapter 16, she wrote:

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Ashley was not dead! He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and the records showed that he was at Rock Island, a prison camp in Illinois. In their first joy, they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But, when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said ‘Rock Island!’ in the same voice they would have said ‘In Hell!’ For even as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, so was Rock Island one to bring terror to the heart of any Southerner who had relatives imprisoned there.​

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No question, Rock Island was a bad place to be, with much unnecessary suffering. But it was not the horrific place Andersonville was, by any objective measure. Mitchell’s plot also underscores her shoddy research in this area: Rock Island was a camp for enlisted men only, and Ashley Wilkes was an officer.

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GeneralStarsGray

Is a Wirz Execution Photo Misidentified?

Posted in Media, Technology by Andy Hall on June 8, 2011

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:

(more…)