The True Story of Andersonville Prison: A Defense of Major Henry Wirz

Written by James Madison
Published by Digital Scanning (March 2001)
ISBN 1582181462
Price $14.95

Customer Reviews
Lt. James Madison Page was captured by Confederate forces in 1863 and eventually was shipped to Andersonville Prison. There he observed Major Henry Wirz firsthand as well as life in this famous Confederate prison for Union prisoners of war. After the war, Major Wirz was tried by military tribunal, found guilty of "war crimes" and hanged. Forty years later, in 1908, Page wrote his memoir to tell "the true story of Andersonville," which was quite different from the popular view, namely, that Wirz and those in his command were deliberately cruel to their captives. Page explains how the prison was designed to hold, at most, 10,000 prisoners at any one time, and then only temporarily while awaiting prisoner exchange. When the exchange was stopped, the prison population quickly swelled to 30,000 prisoners, overwhelming the South's ability to feed, clothe and house the Andersonville prisoners. Although the North advanced many self-serving reasons for stopping the exchange, the real truth was later admitted by Ulysses S Grant in his memoirs, i.e., that the Union POWs were expendable, and that exchanging them for Rebel soldiers would prolong the war by reinforcing the Confederate army. This was a legitimate and understandable strategy of war, one that undoubtedly brought the war to a faster close. In 1865, however, it would have been political suicide to tell the truth to grieving families, that their sons and husbands and fathers were not exchanged because they were considered expendable. The story as Page saw it, was that Wirz was made a scapegoat to appease the wrath of the Northern people over the Andersonville dead (13,000 POWs died out of 45,000 prisoners due to disease and diet). Page tells how many Northern myths about Andersonville simply aren't true, e.g., that the Confederate guards would get a 30 day furlough as a reward for shooting a prisoner, or that the reason the prisoner exchange between North and South was stopped was because of the North's protest against the South's refusal to exchange black Union POWs -- the truth was that blacks were a miniscule number of Union POWs and the exchange was stopped before there were any black POWs. Page describes the trial and the accusations against Wirz, and refutes them convincingly. The trial, as described by Page who was there, was a sham. The prosecution could call any witnesses it wanted, but the defense could only call witnesses approved in advance by the prosecution! The prosecution's key witness was a perjurer who claimed to be former Union POW "Felix de la Baume," but was actually a deserter from the 7th NY infantry named Felix Oeser who was paid off for his false testimony with a job in the Dept of the Interior. Oeser had never even been to Andersonville. James Madison Page's book closely jives with Confederate sources, like the memoir of Confederate guards and officers, who say the same things. Page ends his narrative with "I am just as committed to the preservation of the Union today as I was in 1861, but after forty years we can at least afford to tell the truth." This book wasn't popular in 1908 nor will it be popular in 2001 with those who don't want to hear it.
James Madison Page was my husband's great grandfather and we own a copy of the original edition. Mr. Page went on to be a Montana pioneer and surveyor. The book was very controversial when it was published, but to his dying day Mr. page stood by what he had written. It is quite a contrast to the generally accepted view of Andersonville Prison. Possibly, the prison conditions were not uniform at all times or in all places of the prison. The rather antiquated, but clear, prose alone is reason to read the book and get a taste of the past.
This book was written by a union soldier from a Michigan unit, as the subtitle indicates. He wrote this as a "Defense of Major Henry Wirz." Unlike many of the books written about incarceration in southern POW camps, this soldier was rather positive in terms of the treatment he received by Confederate soldiers during his inprisonment at Belle Isle and Andersonville. He had several personal interviews with Major Wirz, the Commandant of Andersonville prison, petitioning for better conditions for his fellow prisoners. He claims that the Major was as gracious to his requests as the limited supplies of the Confederacy would allow, considering the Union blockade of all supplies including medical. He also includes some information in what appears to be transcripts and letters relevant to Major Wirtz's trial that led to his hanging, which are quite revealing in terms of Secretary of War Stanton's, vendetta against Jefferson Davis and other prominant leaders of the defeated South.