Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Failure to make a case

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Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876


But a crowning proof that this charge of cruelty to prisoners is false, may be more clearly brought out than it has been above intimated. In the proceedings against Wirz, Mr. Davis and other Confederate leaders were unquestionably on trial. Every effort that partisan hatred or malignant ingenuity could invent was made to connect Mr. Davis with and make him responsible for the "crimes of Andersonville." The captured Confederate archives were searched, perjured witnesses were summoned, and the ablest lawyers of the reigning party put their wits to work; but the prosecution utterly broke down. They were unable to make out a case upon which Holt and Chipman dared to go into a trial even before a military court, which was wont to listen patiently to all of the evidence for the prosecution, and coolly dismiss the witnesses for the defence. Does not this fact speak volumes to disprove the charge, and to show that no cases can be made out against our Government?

But an even stronger point remains. After despairing of convicting Mr. Davis on any testimony which they had or could procure, they tried to bribe poor Wirz to save his own life by swearing away the life of Mr. Davis, who was then in irons at Fortress Monroe.

Mr. Hill thus strongly puts it:

Now, sir, there is another fact. Wirz was put on trial, but really Mr. Davis was the man intended to be tried through him. Over one hundred and sixty witnesses were introduced before the military commission. The trial lasted three months. The whole country was under military despotism; citizens labored under duress; quite a large number of Confederates were seeking to make favor with the powers of the Government. Yet, sir, during those three months, with all the witnesses they could bring to Washington, not one single man ever mentioned the name of Mr. Davis in connection with a single atrocity at Andersonville or elsewhere. The gentleman from Maine, with all his research into all the histories of the Duke of Alva and the massacre of Saint Bartholomew and the Spanish inquisition, has not been able to frighten up such a witness yet.

Now, sir, there is a witness on this subject. Wirz was condemned, found guilty, sentenced to be executed; and I have now before me the written statement of his counsel, a Northern man and a Union man. He gave this statement to the country, and it has never been contradicted.

Hear what this gentleman says:

"On the night before the execution of the prisoner, Wirz, a telegram was sent to the Northern press from this city, stating that Wirz had made important disclosures to General L. C. Baker, the well known detective, implicating Jefferson Davis, and that the confession would probably be given to the public. On the same evening some parties came to the confessor of Wirz, Rev. Father Boyle, and also to me as his counsel, one of them informing me that a high Cabinet officer wished to assure Wirz that if he would implicate Jefferson Davis with atrocities committed at Andersonville, his sentence would be commuted. The messenger requested me to inform Wirz of this. In presence of Father Boyle I told Wirz next morning what had happened."

Hear the reply:

"Captain Wirz simply and quietly replied: 'Mr. Schade, you know that I have always told you that I do not know anything about Jefferson Davis. He had no connection with me as to what was done as Andersonville. I would not become a traitor against him or anybody else, even to save my life.'"

Sir, what Wirz, within two hours of his execution, would not say for his life, the gentleman from Maine says to the country to keep himself and his party in power.

The statement of Mr. Schade is confirmed by the following extract from the Cycle, of Mobile, Alabama:

{{fine block|In the brief report of the speech of Mr. Hill in Congress on Monday last, copied in another place, it will be observed that he refers to a statement made by Captain Wirz to his counsel just before his death. The subjoined letter from Professor R. B. Winder, M. D., now Dean of the Baltimore Dental College, who was a prisoner in a cell near that of Wirz, will give a more detailed account of the same transaction. The letter was written in reply to an inquiry made in the course of investigation in the history of the transactions which have been made the subject of discussion in Congress.

Dr. Winder speaks of the statement as having been already several times published. We do not remember to have seen it before. At any rate it will well bear repetition, and will come in very pertinently, apropos of the recent debate:

Baltimore, November 16, 1875.

Major W. T. Walthall:

My Dear Sir—Your letter of the 25th of last month was duly received, and except from sickness should have been replied to long ago. I take pleasure in giving you the facts which you request, but they have already been published several times in the different papers of the country.

A night or two before Wirz's execution, early in the evening, I saw several male individuals (looking like gentlemen) pass into Wirz's cell. I was naturally on the "qui vive" to know the meaning of this unusual visitation, and was hoping and expecting, too, that it might be a reprieve—for even at that time I was not prepared to believe that so foul a judicial murder would be perpetrated—so I stood at my door and directly saw these men pass out again. I think, indeed I am quite certain, there were three of them. Wirz came to his door, which was immediately opposite to mine, and I gave him a look of inquiry which he at once understood. He said: "These men have just offered me my liberty if I will testify against Mr. Davis and criminate him with the charges against the Andersonville prison; I told them that I could not do this, as I neither knew Mr. Davis personally, officially, or socially, but that if they expected with the offer of my miserable life to purchase me to treason and treachery to the South, they had undervalued me." I asked him if he knew who the parties were. He said "no," and that they had refused to tell him who they were—but assured him that they had full power to do whatever they might promise. This is all, and as you perceive, I did not hear the conversation, but merely report what Wirz said to me—but he also made the same statement to his counsel, Mr. Schade, of Washington city, and he has also, under his own signature, published these facts.

You will better understand the whole matter from the accompanying diagram of our respective jails. The doors opened immediately opposite, and it was such hot weather that they allowed the doors to be open—the corridor being always heavily guarded by sentinels, and a sentinel was always posted directly between these openings—but Wirz and myself were often allowed to converse.

Very truly, yours,

R. B. Winder.


Have we not made out our case so far as we have gone? But our material is by no means exhausted, and we shall take up the subject again in our next issue. We propose to discuss still further the question of exchange, and then to pass to a consideration of the treatment of Confederate prisoners by the Federal authorities. We ask that any of our friends who have material illustrating any branch of this subject will forward it to us at once.

We have a number of diaries of prison life by Confederates who did not find Elmira, Johnson's Island, Fort Delaware, Rock Island, Camp Douglas, Camp Chase, &c., quite so pleasant as Mr. Blaine's rose-colored picture of Northern prisons would make it appear. And we have also strong testimony from Federal soldiers and citizens of the North as to the truth of our version of the prison question. But we would be glad to receive further statements bearing on this whole question, as we desire to prepare for the future historian the fullest possible material for the vindication of our slandered people.

To those who may depreciate the reopening of this question, we would say that we did not reopen it. The South has rested in silence for years under these slanderous charges; and we should have, perhaps, been content to accumulate the material in our archives, and leave our vindication to the "coming man" of the future who shall be able to write a true history of the great struggle for constitutional freedom. But inasmuch as the question has been again thrust upon the country by a Presidential aspirant, and the Radical press is filled with these calumnies against our Government, we feel impelled to give at least an outline of our defence. We will only add that we have not made, and do not mean to make, a single statement which we cannot prove before any fair-minded tribunal, from documents in our possession.