The Confederate prison known as “Andersonville” in Georgia is often considered the worst of all the Civil War’s prisons. Its horrible reputation still provokes articles and documentaries today.
More than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there during its 14-month existence and at least 12,000 of them died from exposure, illness, or gunshot. (Guards shot any man who crossed the stockades’ “dead line.”) Andersonville prisoners of war had little or no shelter or food, and sometimes no clothes, according to the National Park Services’ Andersonville: The Story of a Civil War Prison Camp, by Raymond F. Baker. “Many prisoners dug holes in the ground for protection, risking suffocation from cave-ins,” it says.
General John Winder, the head of Andersonville, died before the war’s end, but the prison’s commandant, Capt. Henry Wirz, was arrested after the war, convicted for war crimes and hanged in Washington, D.C. Some people, mostly southerners, felt he had been treated unjustly and that the prison’s horrible circumstances were beyond his control. In 1905 one southern women’s group, “the United Daughters of the Confederacy,” proposed erecting a monument to Wirz at Andersonville to vindicate him.
You can imagine how that made former Andersonville POW James M. Swales of Springfield feel. According to his obituary in the May 13, 1920, Jacksonville Daily Journal, Swales had been among the first to volunteer for service when President Abraham Lincoln called for soldiers to fight the South.
After serving in several battles and campaigns, his regiment’s three-year term was up, but Swales and his peers re-enlisted and were sent south for the Atlanta campaign. There, in August, 1864, he and about 50 others from his unit were captured and sent to Andersonville. By that time the camp, which was built to house 10,000 POWs, was holding 32,000. Swales was released in April the following year, after the war ended. He was among the last prisoners to be freed.
By 1906, Swales was a proud Civil War veteran and custodian of “Memorial Hall,” a room (now Room 100) on the first floor of the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield which housed Illinois’ battle flags and other war artifacts (according to www.ilstatehouse.com).
He wrote a letter to the editor of the Illinois State Journal expressing his dismay at the idea of building Wirz a monument. It was printed in the Aug. 18, 1906 issue.
“In the month of August, 1864, Union soldiers died like flies…,” he wrote. “Under the fierce rays of the blistering sun their skin became withered and parched as if drawn through a furnace in the devil’s dominions…. Hundreds more were driven insane and became a dangerous menace to others who were compelled to look upon these soul-harrowing scenes from day to day….
“At the time I was taken prisoner I weighed about 185 pounds,” he continued. “When I was released the April following, I tipped the beam at 82 pounds — just simply a human skeleton.
“I very naturally feel indignant when I read of a proposition to erect a monument
to perpetuate the memory of a man who was the author of such untold human
suffering and unparalleled misery which would require the invention of new
language to describe.” Swales called Wirz an “in-human monster” and said he was not blameless, since “Gen. John H. Winder (the head of Andersonville) telegraphed Jeff Davis (the head
of the Confederacy) in the summer of 1864 that, ‘Captain Wirz was doing more execution at Andersonville than any two corps in Lee’s army.’”
Other POWs echoed Swales’ feelings. Still, in 1908 the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected their monument to Wirz. One side of it says: “”Discharging his duty with such humanity as the harsh circumstances of the times, and the policy of the foe permitted, Captain Wirz became at last the victim of a misdirected popular clamor,” (according to the Web site of the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school, whose students analyzed the still controversial Wirz trial.)
Swales died 12 years after the monument was built, in 1920, in his hometown of Jacksonville at the age of 79.
Just six weeks ago, on May 16, 2009, the United Daughters of the Confederacy gathered at Andersonville to commemorate the bicentennial of the Wirz memorial dedication.
At the same time, there were probably others at the historic site viewing Illinois’ large memorial to Andersonville POWs, which was erected at least partly, if not largely, thanks to Capt. James Swales, who had been appointed by the governor to attend its dedication in 1915.
Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.