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The Execution of Henry Wirz—November 10, 1865 by Daniel Nathan Terry

The Execution of Henry Wirz—November 10, 1865

by Daniel Nathan Terry

published in Capturing the Dead, and can also be found on the Split This Rock

website by clicking here

That Andersonville was a camp of nightmares,

a dark machine that brought slow death

to nearly 13,000 men, is not in dispute.

Survivors tell tales of atrocities: dysentery,

a water supply festering with human

waste, mass graves, a fence called the deadline

where snipers waited for would-be escapees.

And you have seen the starving—ghastly images

of what once were men of valor, whose only crime

was love of country, reduced to living skeletons,

skin stretched over bone, life evident

only in their haunted eyes. That someone should

be held accountable for not only the destruction,

but the desecration of these men, is not open

for debate. And it is a just thing that blame should fall

on the shoulders of the prison's commandant,

Henry Wirz, an immigrant who speaks poor English

even as he professes his innocence. In his defense,

it has been argued that Andersonville was cut off

from food and supplies, that guards died alongside

their charges, that the Union refused

prisoner exchange. It has been suggested

that the President's establishment of a military tribunal

to try Wirz, an American citizen, is not even legal.

And it is whispered that the prosecution was allowed

to call any witness, while defense witnesses

were subject to the prosecution's approval.

Forget all of that for now. Feel the winter sun on your face.

Listen to the jeering crowd: ANDERSONVILLE!


Stand here with Gardner as he looks down

upon the scaffold, wait with him a moment longer,

feel your hands tremble as he reaches for the lens-cap,

as he tries to read the executioner's body, as he predicts

the instant the trapdoor will be released. And remember,

you are not the black-hooded Wirz, rope tightening

around your neck, the good earth dropping away

beneath your feet. You are America--injured but victorious.

You are the crowd, the sky darkening above your head—

the white dome of the Capitol rising like a thunderhead

through the naked trees.

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