Being educated is supposed to mean being aware of the things you aren’t educated about, becoming cognizant of the gaps in your own knowledge of the world. in 1992, Flannery O’Connor was one of those gaps. Being introduced to her in my early twenties was like finding an extra present behind the Christmas tree that you had overlooked. It was a kind of unbelievable gift, that this woman who’d change your life was right in your living room the whole time.
Andersonville, Georgia, was one of those gaps, too. But learning about it was like finding a cigar box full of Nazi memorabilia in your grandfather’s closet. You wish you hadn’t.
I hadn’t learned about Andersonville formally in a classroom, but first heard of it in a song on The Killing Floor, a 1992 masterpiece by The Vigilantes of Love, one of the greatest bands to come out of Athens. The Killing Floor began to turn me out of an unfortunate nutrasweet-country phase in the early 90s. Head Vigilante Bill Mallonee sang about Andersonville, but I didn’t realize what he meant until we ended up there on our first Southern Tour in August 1997.
We were locked in hell in Andersonville
In shebangs hot and stinking
The stream we use as our latrine
Gives water for our drinking
And a hundred of us daily die
To fill those fresh-dug graves
Andersonville wasn’t quite in my living room, but it was basically in the backyard, a hundred and twenty miles south of Atlanta in a deliberately remote part of the state. Andersonville was the site of a notorious Confederate prison camp during the Civil War. Conditions were horrific at Andersonville. Union prisoners were starved and diseased, forced to drink from the same shit-swamp in the middle of the camp that held their own excrement. Contemporary descriptions of the place resemble those of Nazi labor camps in Poland during World War Two, and the likeness is not entirely an accident. Camp Sumter, as the concentration camp in Andersonville was officially called, was a precursor to the camps of the Third Reich. The military tribunal that tried Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz was a model for the Nuremberg trials eighty years later.
Born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zurich, 26-year-old Henry Wirz left his wife and kids in Switzerland and ended up in Louisiana, where in 1861 he enlisted with the Confederate Army. In 1864 he was given command of Camp Sumter, which he ruled with an iron hand. Rumors that he murdered prisoners were not unheard of, nor suppressed. He was arrested in May of 1865.
In Annapolis in 1865, Walt Whitman witnessed a boat load of the newly-freed returning from southern prisons. He said that the treatment of prisoners of war in places like Andersonville “steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapees, endless damnation.” “Reader,” he asked, “did you ever try to realize what starvation actually is?—in those prisons—and in a land of plenty?”
That November, hundreds of Union soldiers and onlookers watched as “The Demon of Andersonville” was hanged from a stockade in Washington within sight of the Capitol. He is one of only a handful of men during the Civil War to be convicted and executed for war crimes.
Outside the boundary of what is now Andersonville National Cemetery, in the middle of Church Street in the tiny village of Andersonville, there is—naturally—a large obelisk in honor of Wirz, erected in 1909 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to “rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice.”
The UDC has long been the organ of the Lost Cause mythology, which still has a strong hold on the imagination of many people in this isolated outpost of Georgia’s upper coastal plain. In other cities and towns, statues of Lee, Jackson, Davis, “Silent Sam” and other monuments to white supremacy have been removed, but the monument to Wirz still looms over Church Street. There have been—as far as I know—no marches for its removal, no op-eds in the local paper arguing that its time has long passed. On the contrary: the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans holds an annual memorial service for Wirz, but not—as far as I know—for the thousands of prisoners who died under his command.
The real monument to Wirz is not, however, the marker on Church Street, but the thousands of white marble headstones for the Union prisoners who did not have to die here. Which leaves the obelisk to Wirz on Church Street to serve another purpose: as a monument to collective forgetfulness, to selective outrage, to the most threatening disease that bedevils American culture at this hour: amnesia.