This past Memorial Day, as a part of marking the Civil War sesquicentennial, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at the yearly ceremony held at Andersonville National Cemetery. I made it clear to the park officials at Andersonville that I would use the occasion to respectfully, but honestly, address the enduring problem of how Civil War memory has always been contested and controversial, particularly in the case of Civil War prisons. The rangers warned me that in straying from the usual pattern of patriotic affirmation, I could expect a strong reaction to my speech. They were right.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, several individuals lingered in the cemetery to speak with me. I was approached first by a couple of African American gentlemen who were intrigued about how the vibrant emancipationist tradition had once played such a prominent role in defining Andersonville’s Memorial Day past only to be forced aside during the rise of Jim Crow. “You blew my mind,” one of them said to me, “thank you. More people need to know about this.”
Feeling pretty good about myself at this point, I turned and almost bumped into a white gentleman who had been waiting to pounce. He represented the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and he was angry that I had apparently disgraced the Memorial Day occasion by speaking about the white South’s persistent defense of Captain Henry Wirz, the Andersonville commander executed in November 1865 for committing war crimes against Union prisoners. “Henry Wirz murdered people with his bare hands,” he yelled at me, clearly outraged by the nerve of white southerners to want to remember the war in their own way, and by my nerve to try and explain why those memories were so enduring.
With my mood now sinking, I managed to escape. As I did so, I caught a glimpse of a man I’d been introduced to earlier that weekend—Heinrich Wirz. That’s right, Henry Wirz’s great-grand-nephew, also named Heinrich Wirz, was in attendance. The current Heinrich Wirz is a retired Swiss army officer in his mid-70s whose main passion is the campaign to exonerate his infamous namesake. He even asked me if I thought a presidential pardon for Captain Wirz was possible (short answer: no). Seeing Heinrich Wirz, a man dedicated to the Lost Cause memory of the war, right on the heels of being accosted by a man vehemently opposed to the legitimacy of white southern memory, confirmed what I write about in Haunted by Atrocity. Although it was 2011, not 1911, the echoes of the dominant memories of Andersonville’s past not only still remain—they still retain the power to define us.
Benjamin G. Cloyd teaches history at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi. His book, Haunted by Atrocity, can be purchased at 40% off during LSU Press’s Civil War Sale.