Andersonville Trial  (1970)






Director:     George C. Scott.

Starring:     Cameron Mitchell (General Wallace), William Shatner (Col. Chipman), Jack Cassidy (Otis Baker), Wright King (Major Hosmer), Woodrow Parfrey (Louis Schade), Martin Sheen (Captain Williams), Richard Basehart (Henry Wirz), Whit Bissell (Doctor Ford), Harry Townes (Col. Chandler), Buddy Ebsen (Dr. John Bates), John Anderson (Ambrose Spencer), Lou Frizzell (Jasper Culver), Michael Burns (James Davidson), Albert Salmi (James Gray), Dal McKennon (First Guard).

Made for TV movie.

a court martialed Confederate officer faces trial for running the notorious prisoner of war camp in Andersonville, Georgia, where over 14,000 Union prisoners died from disease, starvation and neglect




Spoiler Warning:

Introduction by George C. Scott.


Act I. 

Washington, D. C.  August 1865.  The military court by order of the War Department is now in session.  General Wallace introduces the attorneys and the judges.  The prosecutor is Col. Chipman.   The defense attorney is Otis Baker.   All the judges are generals in the Union army.  The defendant is Henry Wirz.  And Captain Williams has to explain to the court that the defendant is late for the trial because he unsuccessfully tried to kill him last night.  He was stopped by the alertness of his guards. General Wallace tells the Captain to make sure that what happened last night will not happen again. 

The gist of the charges against Henry Wirz is that he ran a virtual concentration camp instead of a POW camp.  Out of 40,000  Union prisoners, some 14,000 of them died.  The camp commandant did not provide enough food for the prisoners who were starving; nor did he provide enough medical care or preventive care to prevent the many deaths through various diseases that ran through the camp; nor did they provide enough supplies and shelter for the men. 

Otis Baker asks that the trial be postponed because they otherwise will be working in an atmosphere filled with grieving over the loss of President Lincoln.  That is denied.  Baker says that it's wrong than none of Henry Wirz's superior officers are to be tried, making Henry Wirz the sole scapegoat for the anger of the northern people for the Civil War andt he assassination of Lincoln.  The motion is denied. 

Baker makes the point that the North had it's own Andersonvilles.  General Wallace says the government of the United States is not on trial here.  Baker says that remains to be seen, but then quickly softens the blow soothing words to the court. 

Wirz comes into the courtroom.  He wants to make a statement.  Wallace says he will have a chance to make a statement.  Wirz says it's a statement as to the attempted suicide.  So Wallace allows him to speak.  Wirz says he did not try to kill himself out of any feeling of guilt, for he has no such feelings.  He merely made a calculation that he did not stand a chance with this court and so decided to take his own life and prevent the court from using the trial as a showcase for the Union cause.  This makes Wallace angry.   

The first witness for the prosecution is a Mr. Chandler who was a Lt. Col. in the Confederate army.  His job was to inspect the POW camps run by the Confederacy.  Chandler says there were no provisions for shelter at the camp.  He also says that General Winder was in charge of all the Confederate prison camps.  And it was Winder who decided to cut down every pine tree in the area so that there would be no shade at all for the prisoners.  He testifies that there was a general insufficiency of food, water and shelter.  All the water available to the soldiers was in the small stream going through the camp.  And all human waste went through that same stream.  That made the stream very sluggish and made an overpowering stench in the camp.  The vast number of the prisoners were in rags. 

The corn served was so coarse that it could injure a prisoner's throat going down.  They got some meat, but it was rotten and filled with maggots.  The men considered rats a delicacy.  Some men were driven to cannibalism. 

Mr. Chandler wrote a report saying that Andersonville was a blot on the Confederacy and the prisoners should be transferred to other prisons and the Andersonville prison be closed immediately.  Col. Chipman says that the report was largely ignored by the people in charge of the Confederate prisons.  Chandler says that Gen. Winder says that if half of the POWs died, then there would be twice as much room for the remaining half.  Chipman gets Chandler to admit that the punishments dished out to the prisoners for various violations were in violation of the customs of war and were cruel and inhuman. 

Otis Baker says that Mr. Chandler wrote a second report asking for the dismissal of Gen. Winder, but not of Captain Wirz.  Chandler says he asked the men to speak openly and report any maltreatment by Captain Wirz.  He says the men had no complaints. 

The next man called is Dr. John C. Bates.  The doctor testifies that he kept good records on the prisoners, because when he came to Andersonville he was deeply shocked by what he saw.  In the spring days there were 50 to 70 prisoners dying and in the summer about 100 prisoners per day.  The doctor did suggest improvements in the camp that would bring down the death rate, but Wirz just said that he was a doctor and did not understand the difficulties of running a huge camp.  He also damned the doctor for being a Yankee sympathizer.  "Mr. Wirz dealt with his own difficulties, not on  the men's."

The defense attorney gets Bates to agree that the food rations and the inadequate medical supplies were not determined by Wirz, but by his superior officers.  And Baker keeps referring to the defense that Captain Wirz was just following the orders of his superiors.  The prosecutor doesn't do a good job of handling this issue. 

They now call Ambrose Benson to the stand.  He is a plantation owner a plantation that virtually bordered on the prison camp.  He says there was plenty of food, so that if Wirz had asked for food, he would have got it.  And there were women, including his wife, that tried to bring food to the prisoners, but they were chased away.  Wirz cursed the women, saying they were giving comfort and aide to the enemy.  He said the women were traitors to their country.  Benson also testifies that Wirz boasted that he was killing more Yankees in Andersonville, than Lee was in Richmond. 

Wirz starts to defend himself, but he gives the impression of a man unhinged by his current situation. 

General Wallace throws Baker out of the court for his contempt of court after he went on a rant that damned the whole court and the northern section of the country.  The defense attorney seems to believe that carrying out orders excuses a man from any lack of moral conscience or any moral misbehavior.

The prosecutor, however, says he is sure that the defense attorney will willing purge himself of contempt by apologizing to the court.  Chipman says he doesn't want ever to hear that the defendant was denied the counsel of his choice.  General Wallace will withdraw the charge of contempt, if the defense attorney will apologize for impugning the court and impugning the government of the United States.   The defense attorney does apologize.


Act II.  A Week Later.

An ex-prisoner testifies on the use of dogs to kill a fellow prisoner.  General Wallace gets impatient after hearing so much testimony about the use of dogs to rip the flesh of Yankee prison escapees.  He asks the prosecuting attorney to assure him that he will be finished by this afternoon.  Chipman agrees to finish in the afternoon. 

The defense attorney tries to get the ex-prisoner to admit that he doesn't really know if it was the dogs who were responsible for the death of his fellow prisoner.  This is not a successful approach, because the witness is obviously still in a state of shock over what he saw.  The poor man asks Wirz for permission to leave saying he's got to go home now.  It's as if the witness still thought he was in the prison camp.   That's powerful testimony. 

But then the prosecuting attorney just makes it worse by insisting the man give firm testimony of Wirz's indifference and even perhaps glee over the infliction of pain by the dogs on the escapee.  The prosecuting attorney like the defense attorney knows nothing about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and they don't see that they are psychologically torturing the man, who desperately wants to leave the courtroom.  The man pleads with the prosecutor:  "Let me be, Colonel, please.  I must forget that place." 

General Wallace does show some understanding of the witness's situation.  He sees the man is mentally harmed by what happened to him.  General Wallace says that the 19-year old fellow may now go home. And the court wishes the man Godspeed in forgetting the prison and restoring his health. 

The witness gets up from his chair and slowly starts walking out.  He stops to tell the prosecutor that every night he hears the baying of dogs.  He hears men crying out for help, but there's nobody to help.  He starts walking again and the prosecutor says he apologizes to the witness. 

Everyone seems to be very moved by the plight of this poor soldier. 

General Wallace refuses to hear another witness on the matter of the use of dogs on the prisoners.

The next witness describes a mentally damaged man with only one leg going into the death zone and asking the guard to let him out for ten minutes or so.  The guard says he can't do that.  So the prisoner says he knows a plan to get all the men to escape from the prison.  So the guard calls for Wirz and the prisoner says that the plan is for Billie Sherman to come and blow holes in Andersonville and that's how all the men are going to escape.  Wirz orders the guard to kill the man because he's still in the death zone.  The guard says he can't shoot down a cripple.  Wirz demands that the guard follow his order, so the guard shoots and kills the prisoner. 

Baker says that the witness has told that story so many times that now he is telling a fable, a fairy tale.  He even rewords what Captain Wirz ordered the man to do to make it sound more reasonable and asks the witness to agree to it.  The witness says the words of Captain Wirz were seared into his memory.  And again Baker objects to bringing anything about morality into the case.  Captain Wirz was just doing his duty to keep order in the camp.

General Wallace gets mad at both attorneys for the heated exchange on morality versus duty.   He gives Chipman a chance to speak on the connection between morality and duty, but Chipman does not feel he's capable of handling that question and declines to speak about it. 

Chipman gets really mad at Baker when Baker compares Wirz to Chipman, because like Wirz, Chipman has to follow the orders of his superiors just as Wirz had to.  Chipman is frustrated because he wants to bring up the moral issue, but he just doesn't know how to do it well enough for the court to permit it. 


Act III. 

The following morning.  The next witness is a Yankee sergeant, Grey, who was also a prisoner at Andersonville.  He testifies that he and a man named Stewart went out of the fort on a detail to place a dead prisoner in the dead house.  The dead house was completely fill with bodies.  So they had to lay the body down on the outside on the ground, where there were also many bodies.  Wirz rides up and asks the men what they are doing out here?  Stewart says they are on a work detail.  Wirz says the man is lying.  They're are out here trying to escape.  Stewart says it was not so, they were out there for the purpose stated.  Wirz says:  "If you say that again, I'll blow your brains out!"    Stewart repeats what he said and Wirz shoots him dead. 

Wirz tells Baker there was only Grey out there.  There was no Stewart.  So Baker tries to impeach the testimony of the sergeant.  He says directly that the sergeant is lying and the sergeant vehemently denies that. 

Chipman having finished with his witnesses, the defense will now just use one witness for their defense.  No, it's not Wirz.  It's a Dr. Ford, who is the present doctor of the imprisoned Wirz.  Dr. Ford testifies as to Captain Wirz's health.  The doctor testifies that Wirz did not have the strength and dexterity enough to knock down a man and he could not hold a pistol and pull the trigger.  Then Baker quickly closes the case. 

Wirz says he wants to testify to clear up matters.  He is so worried that his children will think him guilty because he never spoke up for himself.  Wirz came to the US from Switzerland and with time became a naturalized citizen.  He moved around in the US.  He served in the Confederate Army from the state of Kentucky.  He was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. 

Chipman lists a number of things that Wirz could have done to ease the hell at Andersonville, but he did nothing.  Wirz says all those things Chipman mentioned were illegal or forbidden to do.  So Wirz did nothing to help the prisoners, because any human efforts to help the prisoners were prohibited.   

Chipman asks Wirz if Gen. Winder ordered the Captain to kill one of his children, would he do it?  Wirz says no because the order would be insane.  Chipman says then there are some moral considerations in thinking about whether or not to obey orders.

Now Gen. Wallace says he doesn't want Chipman using the moral argument in the courtroom (basically because they are afraid to challenge the idea that a soldier must carry out his orders from a soldier with a higher rank, which would naturally encourage mayhem in the army).  [Contrast this stance with the War Crimes Trials of the Fascist leaders of Germany after WWII where the argument of just following orders was not acceptable if the orders amounted to one having to commit a war crime or some other very immoral deed.  At Nuremberg morality was front and center.]

Chipman says you can't consider criminal deeds without any reference to morality.   Morality always plays a roll in the laws of every land.  Chipman stands up to the General by not giving up on the moral argument. 

Baker says there is no legal case here.  So now the court is going to allow arguments of morality to what should be only a legal case. 

Chipman says that Gen. Winder didn't have absolute power over Wirz.  So the question is:  "Why did you obey?"  Wirz says that he thought to obey Winder because he was his superior.  Chipman says, but the General was not Wirz's moral superior. 

Perhaps our Captain Wirz doesn't have a conscience.  Perhaps he is a psychopath without a conscience. 

And now Captain Wirz talks without really saying much worthwhile. 

Chipman asks Wirz did he want to kill himself because he had no feelings about the prisoners who were suffering so terribly?   Wirz admits that he never had any feelings of compassion for the dying men.  It just wasn't in him. 


Good movie.  For one, it gives a good presentation of just how terrible the situation was at the Andersonville prisoner of war camp.  Even the concentration camps of the fascists provided shelter for their prisoners.  And listening to Wirz and his lawyer try to defend what happened at Andersonville is like listening to the fascists trying to justify their actions as regards the Holocaust and the death camps.  It's also like listening to people trying to justify slavery in the American south.  Morally, these things cannot be justified, but how these psychopaths keep trying. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



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