Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Support team: Crew finishes work that will protect Georgia textile mill ruins for decades

Wooden support shortly before it was removed near end of project
Arch now supported by ring of steel plates (Don Scarbrough photos)

Add Tropical Storm Irma to the list of hazards that the remains of the Civil War-era New Manchester textile mill have weathered.

Crews wrapping up a 10-week stabilization of the towering brick ruins at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Douglas County, Ga., were concerned by approaching high winds and the potential for flooding.

“It did fine. The park lost only a few trees,” said park interpretive ranger Don Scarbrough. While Sweetwater Creek rose, water did not flow into the mill’s interior, as it did in 2009.

Contractor Aegis Restauro recently completed a $375,000 stabilization of the New Manchester Manufacturing Co. factory, which at five stories was the tallest building in North Georgia. Thread, yarn and cloth were initially produced when the mill began operations in 1849.

It produced a variety of material for the Confederacy before it was burned in July 1864 by Federal cavalry moving on Atlanta. Nearly 100 New Manchester residents, mostly female workers and their children, were sent north by train to spend the rest of the war. Many took an oath of allegiance to the United States. You can read details of that sorrowful story here.

Graffiti includes Gilbert, a Union soldier part of unit that took mill

“There were some interesting discoveries, like more Civil War graffiti as they cleaned the walls,” said Scarbrough. Some of the initials are believed to have been etched by Federal soldiers, though officials are not certain how many of the new discoveries were made by them.

Workers put in steel rods, applied specialized mortar and installed concrete caps on pillars and around windows, stabilizing the 160-year-old bricks and protecting them from moisture. Some of the bricks are still scorched from the fire that sent tons of machinery crashing to the bottom floor.

Ricky Day, an engineer with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the slaved-made bricks were solid, but made of softer material than today’s versions.

Mill now includes capstones on top of brick (Photo by Don Scarbrough)

The project was meant to keep the ruins stable at least for several decades and “to keep it from tilting out,” said Day.

A few years ago, Scarbrough said, a group was paddling near the rapids and took a closer look. A member of the Friends of Sweetwater Creek State Park “thought a column was leaning slightly.” Engineers visited the interior in late 2014 and closed it. This summer’s work is the most significant since about 1990.

The work crew had to contend with loose bricks through the structure, including at the tops of brick columns. They used bricks strewn on the floor to make repairs. The top of the tallest wall lost a little height because the masonry was so deteriorated, Day said.

Photos by Don Scarbrough
Plate used to buttress many remaining windows, openings

For at least three decades, a wooden piece has supported the arch connecting the mill race (or stream) and the giant wheel that drove the mill machinery. The piece was finally removed in the renovation, and steel plates are supporting the historic arch, making for a more authentic appearance.

Now that the project is complete, the picturesque mill interior will be available again for guided tours by park staff, weddings, photo sessions and filmmakers – all a source of revenue for the state. The mill is enclosed and locked.

While the interior will be available to only those with a guide, you can get impressive views of the mill from several angles outside the fence.

Courtesy of Don Scarbrough

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

South Carolina re-enactment canceled

An annual Civil War-era skirmish in South Carolina, presented for about three decades at York County’s Historic Brattonsville, has been canceled because of concerns about safety and potential protests. Officials with the Culture & Heritage Museums, which oversees Historic Brattonsville and the Museum of York County, discussed their concerns about “if something did happen” after protests in other parts of the country over Confederate monuments and symbols, said one official. • Article

Thursday, September 14, 2017

First look photographs: Staff assesses Irma damage at closed Fort Sumter in Charleston

(Photos by Dawn Davis, National Park Service)

Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston Harbor remains closed after it took a beating from Hurricane Irma. Water inside the fort dropped enough for a National Park Service team to enter the grounds Wednesday and begin evaluating the interior. Dawn Davis, public affairs specialist at Fort Sumter, provided an update to the Picket. On Friday, she said there was no timetable yet for the site to reopen.

Q. Can you tell me about the status of artifacts and exhibits within Fort Sumter?

A. The physical brick fort, the cannon and museum on the island do not appear to be damaged. The cannon will need to be washed off with fresh water since the fort was flooded. The remains of the brick fort appear in good shape despite the debris and remaining water in the fort. The artifacts and museum are good, AC is on and there are no signs of any leaks. We have power in the fort.

Debris at entrance to fort interior

Q. Do you know whether Sumter in recent years has seen this level of water?

A. We have had flooding out there from (Hurricane) Matthew and the flooding event in October 2015. There is more damage with this event and there appears to be more water in the fort as well. Looks like the we had 3-4 feet of water in the fort. 


Q. Can you describe exactly what infrastructure and other damage has been seen during initial assessments? Is there much flooding within the walls?

A. We have dock railings down. Additionally, we do not have power on the dock. There appears to be damage to the accessible lift (the primary way for visitors to disembark the tour boat). The power box for the lift was pushed into the dock and covered in saltwater. We do not know if this will work since there is no power on the dock. The infrastructure for the restrooms has been damaged. We are continuing to conduct assessments on the fort and dock to determine the extent of the damage.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Hurricane Irma: Flooding swamps Sumter, snake-bit Pulaski, Fort McAllister


Hurricane Irma’s huge storm surge closed numerous Civil War sites in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, including Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston and Fort Pulaski National Monument and Fort McAllister State Historic Park in the Savannah area.

The latest calamity is a particularly cruel blow to Fort Pulaski, built between Savannah and Tybee Island, which was swamped by Irma. Hurricane Matthew shut the federal site in fall  2016 and a tornado caused additional damage and another closure in late May.

A Cockspur Island assessment by boat on Tuesday found Irma produced a near-record 12.24 foot tide and caused a considerable amount of flooding outside the walls.

Matthew surge level top line, Irma below (NPS photo)

“The fort is still inundated by water and not yet accessible. Over the next several days more in-depth assessments of the flood damage will take place,” the Pulaski staff said on the park’s Facebook page. “Once those are complete the recovery phase will begin. Visitor safety is paramount and the park will remain closed to the public until further notice.”

One social media commenter said: “So sorry y’all have to go through this …. Again! Hang in there.”

The park said damage inside the fort, while significant, appears to be less than from Matthew.

At Fort McAllister, southwest of Savannah, staff will reopen parts of the park at noon Thursday following significant storm surge flooding.

Cottages at Fort McAllister (Georgia State Parks)

"We are pleased to announce that portions of the park will open today at noon. This includes the museum/visitor center, the fort, day use with the exception of the pier, and the campground. Areas that will still be closed are the cottages, pioneer camping, Red Bird Creek and backcountry sites, and the group shelter. If you do choose to visit, please excuse our mess."

Commenters on its Facebook page lamented the crisis so soon after Hurricane Matthew.

Old Fort Jackson in Savannah has been closed since last Friday and cleanup continued late this week.

The park grounds and visitor center at Andersonville National Historic Site were closed for a few days, though the national cemetery reopened Wednesday and the prison site and visitor center were reopened on Thursday.

Damage at Andersonville cemetery (NPS photo)

"We were lucky with the damage. A lot of trees came down blocking roadways and only one caused structural damage," Andersonville park guide Jennifer Hopkins said on Sept. 17. "A huge tree fell on our cemetery wall, which is a historic structure. All monuments and headstones remained untouched, aside from tree limbs on them. it took two days to clean up the park will all staff hands on deck. The museum remained without power for three days -- we're still assessing whether or not any water leaked into the building."

Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site, northwest of Atlanta, closed for several days. It saw heavy fighting in 1864 during the Atlanta Campaign.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the Liberty Square visitor center and departure center for the fort remain closed until a more extensive assessment of damage is conducted and repairs completed, the federal site said in a press release.

“At this time, Fort Sumter remains flooded. A preliminary evaluation of the exterior of the fort revealed damage to the dock and other infrastructure. Fort Sumter and Liberty Square will re-open to the public when it is safe to do so.”

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant and Fort Moultrie – which is near Fort Sumter – will reopen Thursday since they sustained minimal damage in the storm, officials said.

Closures in Florida Wednesday included Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park in Baker County and Fort Clinch State Park in Nassau County.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

USS Monitor conservation: 'Hiding' knife found embedded in famed ironclad's turret

(Courtesy of Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.)

The Civil War ironclad USS Monitor continues to serve up pieces of crew cutlery as conservators chip away at sediment inside the giant turret.

A team at the USS Monitor Center at Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., late last month found a small knife wedged in one of the rails that form the turret’s ceiling.

“We have a collection of over 20 pieces of silverware, from various locations in the turret, that have been excavated since 2002,” conservation administrator Tina Gutshall told the Picket.

Conservators this summer worked inside the turret, which is upside down and sits on its roof. Part of their work included cleaning the electrolytic reduction system, which is aimed at removing damaging ocean salts from the iron.

“We have been steadily cleaning out the rails for years now, and small finds are always a possibility as we clear away mud and concretion,” said Gutshall. “We also have a fork that is actually trapped in a space that is not retrievable yet, because we will have to dismantle some of the roof structure to free it.”

 (Photos courtesy of Mariners' Museum and Park)
Red arrow shows knife, which lays flat in middle of photo above

In a museum blog post, assistant conservator Laurie King described the find.

The ceiling was constructed out of railroad tracks, which means there’s plenty of nooks and crevasses for concretion (marine growth) and corrosion to build up. And there’s plenty of places for objects to hide.”

Hundreds of items spilled into the inverted turret as the Federal ironclad sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in December 1862. The remains of two sailors who were among 16 to die in the sinking were found in the revolving gun turret.

The USS Monitor fought the Confederacy’s Virginia (Merrimack) several months before, at the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Knife found in rails at bottom of photo (Mariners' Museum and Park)

Will Hoffman, chief conservator at the USS Monitor Center, told the Daily Press newspaper there has always been a question about why so many eating utensils, including some made of sterling silver, have been found in the turret said it was raised from the Atlantic Ocean in 2002.

“We don’t know if it was some of the sailors trying to take advantage of the confusion and pocket them as they left the ship or if all these objects simply tumbled out of a drawer and into the turret when the ship was sinking,” Hoffman told the Daily Press this week.

The knife was excavated with small hand tools. Most of the blade and all of the wooden handle survive. The utensil will be treated and make a “fantastic addition” to the vessel’s collection, King wrote.

NC governor wants monuments at Bentonville

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper sought formal permission to move three Confederate monuments from the old Capitol grounds to a Civil War site in a nearby county. One of his Cabinet secretaries petitioned the state historical commission to authorize the relocation of a large obelisk and two smaller statues to the Bentonville battlefield, less than 50 miles from Raleigh. • Article

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Alabama's Fort Blakeley: By boat or by foot, visitors can take in miles of fortifications stormed in last days of war

Remains of Rebel fortifications at Fort Blakeley
Delta Explorer will be on the water Saturday (Courtesy Historic Blakeley SP)

Forty-nine passengers will board a giant pontoon boat this Saturday morning and glide down rivers lined by the remnants of earthen fortifications that protected eastern approaches to Mobile, Ala., during the closing months of the Civil War.

Leaving the dock on the Tensaw River and peering through shadows cast by live oaks, magnolia and gum trees, they’ll first see part of the Confederate inner lines at Fort Blakeley, scene of the largest battle in Alabama. The Delta Explorer will then pass near Rebel river batteries Fort Tracy and Fort Huger (pronounced u-chee) as it continues on the Apalachee and Blakeley rivers to Spanish Fort, site of Battery McDermott, which is now surrounded by homes. They'll turn back at the entrance to Mobile Bay.

Mike Bunn, director of operations at Historic Blakeley State Park, will give a PowerPoint presentation during the sold-out, 90-minute cruise (the park currently is taking reservations for another Civil War boat ride on Nov. 11).

John Sledge, local author of “These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War,” will make an 11 a.m. lecture at the park’s Wehle Center following the cruise.

Map showing opposing lines in April 1865 (Library of Congress)

The idea is to give patrons an appreciation of why each navy wanted to control the waters and the strategic importance of the fortifications. The Confederate bastions were overrun in a combined Federal infantry and naval operation that saw Blakeley fall on the same day Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox – April 9, 1865.

Notable was the presence of numerous Federal regiments made up of black soldiers.

“We have got miles and miles of extraordinarily preserved Union and Confederate earthworks,” Bunn said of the park. The site draws history buffs, campers and nature lovers to its 2,100 acres a half dozen miles north of Spanish Fort, a bedroom community on Interstate 10 just east of Mobile.

Settlement faded away before war

About 40,000 people venture annually to the state park, drawn by its beauty and signs along Interstate 10 touting its Civil War pedigree. Bunn said some come for both.

The teeming town of Blakeley thrived in the 1810s as white settlers followed Native American habitation. It sat on a long, level piece of land. About 3,000 lived on the river, building docks to make the town a port. But yellow fever and the growth of Mobile made Blakeley’s days numbered.

“It had reached its heyday in late 1820s,” said Bunn. The ground would find a new purpose during the war.

(Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

The site features primitive group campgrounds, an RV area, trails and all those Civil War fortifications and a few monuments.  More than 90 percent of the Confederate line and most of three Union lines outside them remain in some form. Some fortifications are up to 5 feet tall.

“We’ve opened up some Union battery positions this summer that were never on tour,” said Bunn.

While a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has helped to preserve Battery McDermott in Spanish Fort, not much else beyond a stretch of trenches remain. “The sites of the fortifications at Spanish Fort have been lost to development,” says a web page describing the Civil War Trust’s contributions to preservation of Fort Blakeley.

Spanish moss accents a tree at the park (Library of Congress)

Road to Mobile starts here

Bunn wrote an article for the Encyclopedia of Alabama about the Battle of Fort Blakeley. Although Union Adm. David Farragut bottled up Mobile in the summer of 1864, the city remained in Confederate hands and had three rings of defenses to the west. 

Brig. Gen. Liddell
The arrival of additional Federal troops in early 1865 brought about the campaign to take Fort Blakeley, Spanish Fort and other guardians east of Mobile, a vital transportation and supply center.

“There are good elevations around here,” Bunn told the Picket. “If you want to take Mobile the easiest route would be via the eastern shore … and come from the north.””

By this time, Confederate commanders used soldiers and slaves to build these earthen fortifications. Fort Blakeley was built following designs typical for a defense against a ground attack. It was commanded by Brig. Gen. St. John R. Liddell.

Click this Mobile campaign map to enlarge (Library of Congress)

Black troops played significant part

Officials say the park has some of the best-preserved fortifications remaining from the Civil War.

A self-guided tour takes visitors to the remains of nine defensive redoubts, trenches, Union gun emplacements, rifle pits and more.

Union troops laid siege of Blakeley for about a week. On the day of the assault, 16,000 blue-clad warriors quickly overwhelmed Brig. Gen. John Lindell’s 3,500 Confederates, half of whom were veteran troops.

Among the stops on the tour is a “zig zag” trench.

“This approach trench, dug under fire a short time before the final charge, served as a protected connection between the main Union line and advanced rifle pits. It is designed to protect troops from enfilade fire. As the siege proceeded, ‘zig-zag’ trenches such as this would ultimately help form new lines.’”

Redoubt #4 (Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

The campaigns for Blakeley and Spanish Fort included more than 4,000 U.S. Colored Troops, among the heaviest concentration of black soldiers in one battle.

“The siege and capture of Fort Blakeley was basically the last combined-force battle of the war. African-American forces played a major role in the successful Union assault,” the National Park Service says. Mobile fell within days.

An interesting side note: Confederates placed ineffective land mines, called "subterra shells," on the approaches to the fort.

Fierce, but brief, fighting

Maj. Gen. Canby
Maj. Gen. Edward Canby’s forces first surrounded Spanish Fort on March 27, 1865. Most of the Confederate troops escaped to Mobile or Blakeley and the fort fell on April 8. Two Union commands combined to storm Fort Blakeley the following day, unaware of Lee’s surrender in Virginia.

Sheer numbers breached the Confederate earthworks, compelling the Confederates to capitulate,” the National Park Service says.

Bunn, in his encyclopedia article, describes the scene:

A view or redoubt #6 (Courtesy of HBSP)

“Once the Union troops reached the Confederate line, fierce, close-quarters combat briefly raged. Some defenders threw down their arms and surrendered or turned and ran after the Union troops had overrun their position, but others fought on even after being surrounded. Despite their resistance, the Union attackers overwhelmed the Confederate line and the fighting was over within 30 minutes. A very small number of Confederate soldiers, perhaps a few dozen, escaped via the river.”

Fort Huger sat in this spot on river near main fort

About 75 Confederates were killed and the Union lost 150, with several hundred wounded.

“Allegations that some Confederates were shot even after they surrendered to USCT troops surfaced almost immediately after the battle and the truth of what happened in its chaotic last moments continues to be the subject of research and speculation today,” Bunn wrote. “Available evidence indicates some Union soldiers indeed may have fired on Confederates who had surrendered, but there was no large-scale massacre.”

As for the land mines?

“Some of the Union casualties occurred after the battle, as the mine-ridden battlefield continued to claim victims until captured prisoners were forced to point out their locations,” Bunn wrote.

Historic Blakeley State Park has Civil War tours several times a year and the Delta Explorer makes journeys related to nature and Mobile. A Civil War re-enactment and living history is held in late March or early April. The next Civil War cruise is set for Nov. 11. Please call 251-626-0798 to register. Tickets are $27 for adults, $15 for children ages 6 to 12.

Interpretive panels on site (Courtesy of HBSP)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Talk to focus on Sherman, Johnston

Lee White, a ranger at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park and a writer for Emerging Civil War, will give a presentation, “Sherman & Johnston through North Georgia,” on Sept. 11 at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. “Sherman and Johnston’s opening quadrille in early May 1864 at Dalton was the opening of the ball known as the Atlanta Campaign.• Smoky Mountain News article

Friday, September 1, 2017

#WirzTrial: Andersonville reflects on first week of live tweets, interaction with followers

Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia has begun its second week of “live tweeting” the trial of Capt. Henry Wirz, the stockade commandant at Fort Sumter during last year of the Civil War. Park guide Jennifer Hopkins (in a video summarizing the first week, above) talks below with the Picket about how the effort to enhance the site’s social media use has gone thus far: #WirzTrial.

Q. Overall, how the experience gone over the first 7-8 days?

A. The first week of tweeting the Wirz trial went pretty well. We gained some followers on Twitter, and received more interaction with them than usual. I'm hopeful to see what the coming weeks will bring. 

Q. Can you briefly summarize what followers had learned so far, and what type of testimony will follow the next week or so?
A. I think our followers are learning how not so black and white Wirz's trial was. However, some who are following the trial have stated that the positive testimonies about Wirz desn't change their negative view of him. But we've seen a good balance of positive and negative testimonies. In the coming week, we'll be hearing more from Confederate guards who were stationed at Andersonville. We'll also see an argument between, Mr. Baker (Wirz's lawyer), the judge advocate and the president of the tribunal. Mr. Baker points out that the majority of the testimonies are so general they shouldn't be considered when time comes for the verdict. 

Q. I see there have been a few Twitter replies and likes during the past week. How would you describe the reaction thus far? Do you get more on Facebook, though obviously almost all of this is on Twitter?
A. We have about 8,000 more followers on Facebook, so naturally Facebook posts will receive more likes, comment and shares than our Twitter posts. Through Twitter analytics. we are seeing an average of about 13 people following the trial, which is a great thing -- especially since most of the tweets don't include photos. Our other non-photo tweets get around 1-6 people clicking on (them). 

Henry Wirz
Q. Any tweaks planned moving forward, or is everything on track?
A. So far, everything is on track. We'll be talking less about conditions moving forward and start to focus a bit more on Wirz and what people have to say about him and his control over the prison specifically. We'll weave prison descriptions in there every once in a while, but I think everyone gets that the conditions here in 1864-65 were pretty horrible. The video I did at the end of week 1 was on a whim, but I think I'll keep that going each week. It received a lot of traffic and I think it's good to keep a running summary of what's happening. 

Q. Any reaction the staff has heard from other sites or visitors?
A. So far, everything is quiet. There are a few tweets where we'll start tagging other parks because that tweet pertains to them, so we might get some feedback then. 

Q. Any other thoughts?
A. I'm really hoping conversations pick up pertaining to the trial. It was one of the most talked about trials of its time, and yet there are still a lot of questions surrounding it. But I'm pleased with the reactions and comments from our followers so far. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Re-enactment group meets with police

Representatives of an Ohio organization planning a Civil War reenactment said they have been meeting with police to discuss safety concerns about next month's event after the deadly rally and protests in Charlottesville, Va. • Article

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Bust of Civil War statue found by police

Officials in Philadelphia say the stolen bust of a Civil War general has been found under a bridge. The bust of Gen. James A. Beaver was found Friday under an Interstate 95 bridge near FDR Park. It's believed to have been stolen from the Smith Memorial Arch, a Civil War monument in West Fairmount Park. • Article 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Man donated Civil War artifacts to Monocacy battlefield. He called police about one rejected item. It turned out to be a live shell

Park was able to keep these artillery rounds, bullets (NPS)

A middle-aged man who lived within several miles of Monocacy National Battlefield near Frederick, Md., called rangers earlier this week. He had a box of artifacts that had been collecting dust for years and he wanted the park to have it.

The staff, interested in using Civil War items to educate visitors – even if they had no firm connection to the 1864 battle – met with him Tuesday and looked at the “very nice collection,” said curator Tracy Evans.

There were a cartridge box, breastplate, belt buckle, canteen, bullets, a cap box, two solid-shot shells -- and one more artillery round that got their attention.

Replica 10-pound Parrott gun (Charles Edward/wikipedia)

They could see the fuse for the 10-pound Parrott rifle shell had been removed, but because of rust and corrosion, they could not tell whether the round had gunpowder. “You are looking for evidence of a hole where it had been drilled (to remove the powder),” said Evans. “That’s when we said we were not sure if it was live or not.”

They told the man they could not accept it. The alarmed collector left and within minutes called police from the parking lot, setting in motion the 90-minute closing of the visitor center and the summoning of a state police bomb squad that detonated the round in a nearby field, Evans told the Picket on Friday.

The technicians used a small amount of C-4 explosives to bust the Parrott shell open.

“The C4 actually ignited the powder that was in it. It was live,” said Evans. Inside the cylindrical  shell was case shot with black powder.

Federal cartridge box among donation (NPS)

Park officials said they believed this was the first time a piece of live munitions had been brought by a layman to this particular National Park Service property.

The Office of the State Fire Marshal told the Frederick News-Post that there is always the potential for a citizen in historic areas of the state to find such an item.

“All the time we hear about someone saying I got this from my great-grandfather and this was in the house when I bought it,” said Evans. Park officials are advising people to be aware of the potential for problems with such ammunition.

A collector may think the round is solid shot, without black powder. “It can be very dangerous,” she said.

Police or other agencies almost always destroy artillery rounds when they get a call. The park's Facebook post about the incident drew many comments critical of the detonation, saying it was a waste of an artifact. The staff had this reply:

“As powder gets older it becomes more unstable. There is no way to know if it would never be a danger or explode even under the best conditions. Considering the lives of staff and visitors as well as the artifacts we house, it is our policy no to accept live projectiles. It is up to the owner to decide if they want to keep or dispose of it.”

Canteen will be shown for educational purposes (NPS)

Evans said the donor was “a very nice guy” who later told them “he always kind of wondered” about the shell’s status.

The park is keeping the rest of the items, including the solid shots. “To have … an actual historic piece really brings it to life to people,” Evans said.

The episode could have even more of a disruption if it occurred one day earlier. About 1,000 people were at the park and visitor center for the total solar eclipse.

Note: The Picket was unable to obtain a photo of the detonated shell

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New findings on H.L. Hunley sinking

A former Duke University student believes she has solved the mystery of how the eight Confederate crew members on board the world's first submarine to sink an enemy warship were killed, but the researchers with access to the H.L. Hunley in South Carolina say her theory is not new. • Article

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Henry Wirz: Monster or scapegoat? You can decide, talk about it as Andersonville NHS 'live tweets' stockade commander's trial


Beginning Wednesday, Capt. Henry Wirz will be retried for his actions as stockade commander at the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga.

The staff at Andersonville National Historic Site will begin “live tweeting” highlights of the proceedings against Wirz, considered a cruel, indifferent commander by some and a scapegoat by others. A military tribunal in Washington, D.C., began hearing the case against the Swiss-born officer on Aug. 23, 1865.

The staff will typically tweet 15-20 posts for each day the court was in session, said park guide Jennifer Hopkins. The tag will be #WirzTrial.

(Picket photo)
“We'll have discussion-prompting questions almost every day, at least once,” said Hopkins. “The questions will usually come after a testimony to try to get our Twitter audience involved in the trial and voice their opinions on the testimonies, objections, and rulings.”

(NON-SPOILER ALERT: This Picket post will not divulge the verdict in the case.)

Nearly 13,000 soldiers and civilian captives died at Camp Sumter over 14 months -- an average of more than 30 a day in that span. I visited the central Georgia site on Aug. 13. The 1864 tally for that day, during the heat of the summer, was 109.

Reporters who covered trial (Library of Congress)

Wirz’ controversial trial was a national sensation, covered by newspapers just a couple months after the trial of accused conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Officials who decided to try the officer in a military -- rather than a civilian -- court said the country was in some ways still in a state of war. The defense considered itself at a disadvantage on the rules of evidence.

A litany of accusations was made against Wirz for his management of the prison.

The first was a conspiracy charge, claiming he “maliciously, willfully, and traitorously conspired to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States, then held prisoners of war; in violation of the laws and customs of war.”

Did he, for example, wantonly withhold food and shelter and aid for those inside?

The second was murder, with specific allegations of personally killing or ordering guards to shoot prisoners.

A.J. Riddle photo of the prison in August 1864

One of the great paradoxes of the Wirz trial is that both prosecution and the defense sought to prove that Wirz was following orders,” the National Park Service says. “The prosecutors hoped to convict higher-ranking Confederate officials and Wirz hoped to absolve himself by passing responsibility up the chain of command.

This will be the first time the park will do a live tweet. The project will go well into the fall, and the hope is that it will help facilitate discussion on controversial topics. Some of the conversations also will be carried on the park's Facebook page.

Walking careful line on testimony

Hopkins said she and a few other staffers have spent a few months poring through testimony of about 140 witnesses, which included prisoners, guards, civilians and Confederate and Federal officials.

“We are trying to stay to as close to the transcript as possible so people will not accuse us of being biased,” she said.

Stocks along recreated wall (Picket photo)

There is no question that conditions at Camp Sumter were horrendous. Foul water, the heat, poor sanitation and contaminated water made life miserable for those held in the stockade. Wirz’ defenders say he did the best he could and he could not control decisions made by superiors outside the stockade, such as putting too many POWs on the site. Also, command at Sumter was compartmentalized, making it difficult to control all aspects of the camp.

The end of prisoner exchanges led to the rapid overcrowding.

The officer had a track record of inconsistent treatment of prisoners, even before he arrived in Georgia.

“At times, he proved helpful and sympathetic. On other days he flew into what one prisoner described as a ‘spasmodic rage,’ the park says of his tenure at Andersonville. “Unable to carry out his orders to maintain the stability and security of the stockade by military means, Wirz used his reputation and behavior to maintain order.” That included withholding rations or ordering harsh punishment for minor infractions.

The commandant was accused of personally killed or ordering the shooting or mistreatment of POWs. During his trial, some of that was found to be hearsay. On the stand, Wirz was asked about a guard shooting a prisoner. He said he issued the order, but meant it as a threat and thought the soldier would not do it.

“The guards hated him,” said Wade Barr, a volunteer on site.

Entrance to national cemetery at Andersonville (Picket photo)

The different sides of Henry Wirz

The officer also tried to help those suffering inside, said Hopkins. He wrote to superiors asking for help and tried to have dams placed in a stream to improve sanitation. That request was denied. Wirz testified he allowed captive drummer boys to be kept outside the stockade.

But then there was the other side of Wirz: “He turns away wagons full of supplies,” Hopkins said, including an offer of assistance from women living near the camp.

Paul Finkelman, a professor at Albany Law School in New York, told an audience in 2014 that defense lawyers said Wirz did the best he could under terrible circumstances and a lack of food.

“Georgia is full of food,” said Finkelman, adding that Wirz could have had prisoners bring in barrels of fresh water. “Instead, he thinks of new ways to harass prisoners and prevent them from getting basic nutrition and any kind of basic health.”

To this day, the fact that Wirz was the only officer to be tried over conditions at Andersonville remains controversial. Defenders said plummeting conditions in the Confederacy in the last year of the war and the lack of materiel assistance made the commandant the target of a vengeful nation.

A monument (right) in the small hamlet of Andersonville was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909. One panel said Wirz showed humanity under “harsh circumstances.”

Hopkins acknowledged many are passionate about the Civil War, Andersonville and Wirz.

She said the trial tweets are designed to have people do their own research. “Here is what the trial says. You can make your own decision.”

Coming soon: A closer look at the case for, against Wirz