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Chapter 19

CAPT. HENRI WIRZ--SOME DESCRIPTION OF A SMALL-MINDED PERSONAGE, WHO
GAINED GREAT NOTORIETY--FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH HIS DISCIPLINARY METHOD.

The emptying of the prisons at Danville and Richmond into Andersonville
went on slowly during the month of March. They came in by train loads of
from five hundred to eight hundred, at intervals of two or three days.
By the end of the month there were about five thousand in the stockade.
There was a fair amount of space for this number, and as yet we suffered
no inconvenience from our crowding, though most persons would fancy that
thirteen acres of ground was a rather limited area for five thousand men
to live, move and have their being a upon. Yet a few weeks later we were
to see seven times that many packed into that space.

One morning a new Rebel officer came in to superintend calling the roll.
He was an undersized, fidgety man, with an insignificant face, and a
mouth that protruded like a rabbit's. His bright little eyes, like those
of a squirrel or a rat, assisted in giving his countenance a look of
kinship to the family of rodent animals--a genus which lives by stealth
and cunning, subsisting on that which it can steal away from stronger and
braver creatures. He was dressed in a pair of gray trousers, with the
other part of his body covered with a calico garment, like that which
small boys used to wear, called "waists." This was fastened to the
pantaloons by buttons, precisely as was the custom with the garments of
boys struggling with the orthography of words in two syllables. Upon his
head was perched a little gray cap. Sticking in his belt, and fastened
to his wrist by a strap two or three feet long, was one of those
formidable looking, but harmless English revolvers, that have ten barrels
around the edge of the cylinder, and fire a musket-bullet from the
center. The wearer of this composite costume, and bearer of this amateur
arsenal, stepped nervously about and sputtered volubly in very broken
English. He said to Wry-Necked Smith:

"Py Gott, you don't vatch dem dam Yankees glose enough! Dey are
schlippin' rount, and peatin' you efery dimes."

This was Captain Henri Wirz, the new commandant of the interior of the
prison. There has been a great deal of misapprehension of the character
of Wirz. He is usually regarded as a villain of large mental caliber,
and with a genius for cruelty. He was nothing of the kind. He was
simply contemptible, from whatever point of view he was studied.
Gnat-brained, cowardly, and feeble natured, he had not a quality that
commanded respect from any one who knew him. His cruelty did not seem
designed so much as the ebullitions of a peevish, snarling little temper,
united to a mind incapable of conceiving the results of his acts, or
understanding the pain he was Inflicting.

I never heard anything of his profession or vocation before entering the
army. I always believed, however, that he had been a cheap clerk in a
small dry-goods store, a third or fourth rate book-keeper, or something
similar. Imagine, if you please, one such, who never had brains or
self-command sufficient to control himself, placed in command of
thirty-five thousand men. Being a fool he could not help being an
infliction to them, even with the best of intentions, and Wirz was not
troubled with good intentions.

I mention the probability of his having been a dry-goods clerk or
book-keeper, not with any disrespect to two honorable vocations, but
because Wirz had had some training as an accountant, and this was what
gave him the place over us. Rebels, as a rule, are astonishingly
ignorant of arithmetic and accounting, generally. They are good shots,
fine horsemen, ready speakers and ardent politicians, but, like all
noncommercial people, they flounder hopelessly in what people of this
section would consider simple mathematical processes. One of our
constant amusements was in befogging and "beating" those charged with
calling rolls and issuing rations. It was not at all difficult at times
to make a hundred men count as a hundred and ten, and so on.

Wirz could count beyond one hundred, and this determined his selection
for the place. His first move was a stupid change. We had been grouped
in the natural way into hundreds and thousands. He re-arranged the men
in "squads" of ninety, and three of these--two hundred and seventy men
--into a "detachment." The detachments were numbered in order from the
North Gate, and the squads were numbered "one, two, three." On the rolls
this was stated after the man's name. For instance, a chum of mine, and
in the same squad with me, was Charles L. Soule, of the Third Michigan
Infantry. His name appeared on the rolls:

"Chas. L. Soule, priv. Co. E, 8d Mich. Inf., 1-2."

That is, he belonged to the Second Squad of the First Detachment.

Where Wirz got his, preposterous idea of organization from has always
been a mystery to me. It was awkward in every way--in drawing rations,
counting, dividing into messes, etc.

Wirz was not long in giving us a taste of his quality. The next morning
after his first appearance he came in when roll-call was sounded, and
ordered all the squads and detachments to form, and remain standing in
ranks until all were counted. Any soldier will say that there is no duty
more annoying and difficult than standing still in ranks for any
considerable length of time, especially when there is nothing to do or to
engage the attention. It took Wirz between two and three hours to count
the whole camp, and by that time we of the first detachments were almost
all out of ranks. Thereupon Wirz announced that no rations would be
issued to the camp that day. The orders to stand in ranks were repeated
the next morning, with a warning that a failure to obey would be punished
as that of the previous day had been. Though we were so hungry, that,
to use the words of a Thirty-Fifth Pennsylvanian standing next to me--his
"big intestines were eating his little ones up," it was impossible to
keep the rank formation during the long hours. One man after another
straggled away, and again we lost our rations. That afternoon we became
desperate. Plots were considered for a daring assault to force the gates
or scale the stockade. The men were crazy enough to attempt anything
rather than sit down and patiently starve. Many offered themselves as
leaders in any attempt that it might be thought best to make. The
hopelessness of any such venture was apparent, even to famished men,
and the propositions went no farther than inflammatory talk.

The third morning the orders were again repeated. This time we succeeded
in remaining in ranks in such a manner as to satisfy Wirz, and we were
given our rations for that day, but those of the other days were
permanently withheld.

That afternoon Wirz ventured into camp alone. He was assailed with a
storm of curses and execrations, and a shower of clubs. He pulled out
his revolver, as if to fire upon his assailants. A yell was raised to
take his pistol away from him and a crowd rushed forward to do this.
Without waiting to fire a shot, he turned and ran to the gate for dear
life. He did not come in again for a long while, and never afterward
without a retinue of guards.

John McElroy