The former Confederate captain was arrested in 1865, shortly after the close of the Civil War. The Union accused him of intending to “impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives [of the prisoners], by subjecting [them] to torture and great suffering, by confining in unhealthy and unwholesome quarters.” Wirz was charged with conspiracy to murder Union prisoners by offering them spoiled food, fouled water, and inadequate living conditions and medical care.
Wirz didn’t see it that way—he insisted that he was just following orders. The conditions at the prison camp at Andersonville were not deliberate, he argued, but the result of the Confederacy’s lack of resources. “I think I may also claim as a self-evident proposition, that if I, a subaltern officer, merely obeyed the legal orders of my superiors in the discharge of my official duties,” Wirz wrote in response to the charges, “I cannot be held responsible for the motives which dictated such orders.”
This was true, but also not truly a denial of culpability. The Confederacy did lack for resources, and that absence contributed to conditions at Andersonville, where, according to McPherson, “33,000 men were packed by August 1864—an average of thirty-four square feet per man—without shade in a Deep South summer and with no shelter except what they could rig from sticks, tent flies, blankets, and odd bits of cloth.” The prisoners “broiled in the sun and shivered in the rain.”
Yet the Confederacy’s lack of resources was not the chief cause of the horrors of Andersonville, because the Rebels did not have to keep the Union troops captive. In fact, they would have preferred to send many of their prisoners back. The Union, though, would not commit to troop exchanges unless black soldiers were included. Not placing such conditions on exchanges would have fatally undermined morale in black units and deeply harmed the Union’s ability to recruit black troops. Moreover, abandoning black troops fighting to preserve the republic would be, in the words of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a “shameful dishonor.”
The Confederacy considered black Union troops stolen property, and the indignity of treating black soldiers as combatants was anathema to a government whose cornerstone was white supremacy. Robert Garlick Kean, the head of the Confederate Bureau of War, wrote, “The enlistment of our slaves is a barbarity,” a “use of savages” that “no people … could tolerate.” It was more important to the Confederacy to treat black men as property than to obtain the return of their own troops, more important than preserving the lives of the Union captives, more important than relieving the logistical burden on their military prisons. If the Confederacy did not deliberately murder Union prisoners at Andersonville, its unshakable commitment to white supremacy made the deadly conditions at the prison inevitable.