A note on an old story

Chris Mohney

As a young writer, I put together a history of Captain Henry Wirz, the only Confederate soldier executed for war crimes after the Civil War ended. This was for the Spring 1995 issue of Alabama Heritage, the erudite pop-history magazine published by the University of Alabama.

I still like this story for being richly intriguing, having no particular heroes, and its relative obscurity. Wirz ran Andersonville, the massive and lethal Confederate camp for Union prisoners in Georgia. Though I was born and raised in the South, my family is from the North and fought for that side in the Civil War. My great-great-great grandfather, William Botkin, was a private in the Forty-fifth Ohio; he was captured in Tennessee and sent to Andersonville, where he died on May 25, 1864. He’s buried in plot 1368.

The contemporary American alt-right movement’s veneration of Confederate monuments reminded me of the Wirz story and, having some free time lately, I decided to republish it fully online, something I always meant to do. Apologies for the visible folds in some images, which I just scanned out of the magazine.

This article is over twenty years old, and it’s entirely possible scholarship on the subject has progressed (I haven’t paid much attention to this area in the past couple decades). If such new work has bearing, I’ll be happy to revise and link it up to this version of the story. Also, somewhere in this version of the article is a chronological error that a subsequent Alabama Heritage letter-writer pointed out, but I can neither find the AH issue with the letter, nor remember where the error itself is. If you spot it, let me know!

While Alabama Heritage isn’t a Lost Causer propaganda rag, its editorial tone was carefully neutral on most matters regarding the Civil War. And while I’m still happy with 90% of this article, the last paragraph reads to my current mind like a classic gotta-hear-both-sides rhetorical cop-out. Whether or not Wirz was personally culpable for war crimes, or personally committed murder, he still served the Confederate slave state. As an American, as a southerner, as a human being, I’m lot less inclined to overlook that than maybe I once was. So despite my wish that I felt the same back in 1995, I’ll leave the original conclusion intact for transparency.

Chris Mohney

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Writer and editor and eater and drinker.

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