Confederate Veteran, Vol. XI, No. 9 Nashville, Tenn., September, 1903.



Dr. W. J. W. Kerr

The story told by Dr. W. J. W. Kerr in vindication of Capt. Henry Wirz, of Switzerland, Military Commandant of the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga., who was hanged by a drumhead court-martial after the close of the war, was most thrilling in its various details. Dr. Kerr was so affected by the recital of the condemnation of his friend that several times his voice broke and be was unable to continue:

"So far as is known to myself or to any member of this association, I am the only living medical officer who was on duty at Andersonville prison during the year 1864 out of sixty-eight. I knew Capt. Wirz as no other man knew him, and I have been requested to give, as far as I am able, an account of this the most unfortunate man that belonged to our army; a man who was born in a foreign country; a man who fell a martyr to the cause he espoused so nobly and heroically; a man who had his life taken away not by truthful witnesses but by a court-martial ruled over and domineered by a judge advocate and a president whose names will go down to posterity as having been connected with one of the foulest murders and the most infamous proceedings that have ever occurred at any trial of this kind since the world began.

"On February, 1864, Capt. Wirz was ordered by Gen. Winder to report to Col. Persons, commandant of the military prison at Andersonville. As he was conversant with several languages, he was preeminently fitted to deal with the motley crew under his charge. He found the prison in a very unsatisfactory and unsanitary condition, and at once set to work to change and improve it. At the time of his arrival at the prison there were only seven or eight thousand prisoners in a sixteen-acre stockade, hut in a short time the prison began to be badly crowded, so that by the last of May there were nearly 19,000 prisoners in it, nearly 1,500 to the acre. Capt. Wirz went to work to enlarge the prison, and by the middle of June had enlarged it to twenty-five acres, and had erected several buildings inside it to shelter the sick. But by the middle of July the prison was again filled to overflowing, there being 36,000 prisoners in it. The heat of summer and the crowded condition of the prisons made a great deal of sickness, and the death rate was quite heavy. Here let me say that the hard-heartedness and cruelty charged against Capt. Wirz is as false as hell itself! Several times has he gone into the hospital with me, and I have seen his eyes fill with tears when he would see and speak of the suffering and distress there that could not be prevented. Through his advice a number of men were selected from the prison and paroled unconditionally to go to Washington and report the conditions to the United States government, and try to get an exchange of prisoners. Right well do some of you recollect Stanton's reply: 'We have got plenty of men; and if some of them die at Andersonville, what does it matter? We can whip the South much quicker by not exchanging prisoners and forcing the South to feed and guard them, and thus weaken their army; and by holding their men in prison, reduce their strength that much.' And yet, gentlemen, the whole blame of the deaths at Andersonville was placed on Wirz instead of on Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War of the United States government, and his associates.

"After the surrender, Capt. Wirz, being very much abused by some of the prisoners who had been turned loose, wrote to Gen. Wilson, then in command of cavalry at Macon, that he, Wirz, was being badly treated, and he would thank him if he would send a guard to protect him. Now, look at the cowardly and dastardly manner resorted to have him arrested. Gen. Wilson immediately sent one Capt. Henry E. Noyes down to Andersonville, who went to Capt. Wirz and told him that he had come down after the prison records, which were delivered him at once. Noyes then told him that if he would come to Gen. Wilson, in order to furnish verbally any information that Gen. Wilson might need, he should have safe conduct going and coining, and would not be molested in any way. On his arrival at headquarters he was, in violation of every promise made to him and of every regulation of civilized warfare, seized, placed in close confinement, and sent to Washington, D. C., put in the old capitol prison, and held there, without letting his family see him until his mock trial began, which for one-sidedness and false swearing has hardly any equal in history. Holt and others had determined to hang him, and, it mattered not what the evidence was, it could not have changed their determination.

"One hundred and fifty-eight prisoners were placed on the stand for or against Wirz, and every witness who swore to the killing of and cruelty to prisoners swore that it was during the last of August and the month of September, 1864, when these alleged crimes were committed, and sixty-five of them, both for prosecution and defense, swore that during this whole time Capt. Wirz was either sick in bed or on sick leave, and such was the truth.

"Now, let us look at the character of Capt. Wirz, as shown by the official 'Records of the War of the Rebellion,' published by the United States government.[ Here Dr. Kerr read several letters taken from the official records of the United States government, written by Capt. Wirz to Capt. Chapman, Acting Adjutant of Post, and Col. Chandler, C. S. A., earnestly entreating, and even imploring, that he be furnished better provisions for prisoners and better means for taking care of them.]

"'With the means at my disposal,' said Capt. Wirz, 'it is utterly impossible to take proper care of the prisoners. As long as 30,000 men are confined in one inclosure the proper policing and cleansing are impossible. A long confinement has depressed the spirits of thousands, and they are entirely indifferent. The rations are the same as those issued to our own men, one-third of a pound of bacon and one and one fourth pounds of corn meal, or one pound of fresh beef in lieu of the bacon. Occasionally beans, molasses, and rice are issued. A good deal could yet he said as to how and why the prison is not in a better sanitary condition, but I deem it unnecessary, as you have yourself seen where the fault lies. I hope your official report will make such an impression on the authorities at Richmond that they will issue the necessary orders to enable us to get what we badly need.'

"Now compare this following letter with Capt. Wirz's, and see which is the heartless villain. This is an extract from a letter written by Col. A. J. Johnson, in command of the Federal prison at Rock Island: ęIn the first place, instead of placing them [the Confederate prisoners] in fine, comfortable barracks with three large stoves in each, and as much coal as they can burn both day and night, I would place them in a pen with no shelter but the heavens, as our poor men were at Andersonville. Instead of giving them the same quality, and nearly the same quantity, of food as that the troops on duty receive, I would give them as nearly as possible the same quality and quantity of provisions that the fiendish Rebels gave our men, and instead of a constant issue of clothing, I would let them wear rags, as our poor men in the hands of the Rebels were compelled to do.'

"The Rock Island prison was established in December, 1863, and existed a little more than a year. During that time 2,484 Confederates were sent for confinement there. Nineteen hundred and twenty of them died there. Only 564 that entered its portals survived. Compare this with the worst death rate in any Southern prison, and the charges of neglect and cruelty are utterly disproved.

"After the farce of a trial which would be a disgrace in any civilized country was finished, a verdict of 'guilty' was pronounced, and was approved by President Andrew Johnson. After the trial quite a number of prominent Northern men made an effort to have the sentence changed. A few days before Wirz was executed, Mr. Louis Schade, counsel for the defense, made his last appeal. 'It was Capt. Wirz,' said Mr. Schade, in his letter, 'who furnished our boys with writing materials, that they might prepare a petition for exchange to be sent to Washington; who let about fifty drummer boys escape, in order that they might not endure the horrors of the stockade; and who sent twenty-six men North, that they might see, for the purpose of exchange, the President and the Secretary of War. If I had the government patronage and the prospect of an office or two, as has been the case with some of the witnesses in this trial, I do not doubt in the least that I can within four weeks find enough testimony to hang every member of the Wirz Military Commission, on any charge whatever, provided it is done before such a tribunal.'

Dr. Kerr has power to entertain the listener indefinitely, owing to his varied and active service during the war. In his arms, it will be remembered, Albert Sidney Johnston breathed his last. He told an amusing story of how he outwitted some Federal soldiers who were seeking his life. He was on trial with Capt. Wirz, and after WirzĘs execution he was attached to a hospital in Macon. Some of Gen. Wilson's brigade were in barracks near the town, and one of them recognized him and swore to have him hung as a spy. He went to camp for a friend, by whom he hoped to prove the charge, and while he was gone a friend of Dr. Kerr's rushed him up to his room, cut off his beard, trimmed his hair, smeared his face, breast, and arms with a mixture that made him look like a Mexican. Arrayed in fitting garments, he sallied forth and held conversation with the soldiers who came to hang him. Then he went to his hospital and spread the report of his own apprehension, court-martial, and hanging. All the staff believed him, and he was not recognized until he could no longer control his laughter.


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