The Andersonville Trial: Lt. Col. N.P. Chipman vs. Captain Henry Wirz

Chipman, General N.P. (Norton Parker): Judge Advocate of the Military Court.  (1911).  The Tragedy of Andersonville Trial Of Captain Henry Wirz The Prison Keeper. San Francisco:  The Blair-Murdock Company & The Author.  [Free download from Internet Archive and Google Books.]

Few members of the Chipman family have achieved anything in public affairs.  The Chipmans have been witness to history, but rarely made history.  The first of our peculiar spelling to reach this country in 1637 was not an altogether voluntary emigrant. John Chipman was fortunate to marry Hope, the daughter of Mayflower passenger John Howland, and it is from this marriage that our family derives its distinction.

In the case of the Chipmans, pedestrian pursuits like farming have most often been their occupation.  That’s the case with the branch emanating from the Hon. John Chipman, younger of two sons of John and Hope (Howland) Chipman.  His service as assistant governor of Rhode Island, a tiny plot of land noted for receiving Baptists ejected from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is only a footnote.  If, like his nephew, the Rev. John Chipman (Harvard College class of 1711), he had taken precautions in the education of his children, the history of my branch of the family might have been different.  Instead, we traveled as pioneers fom Rhode Island to Delaware, and from there into the Southern States, with no real plan in mind, lured by the promise of a fertile oasis.

General Norton Parker Chipman (1835-1924), who was with Lincoln at the Gettysburg address, was a descendant of Samuel Chipman, elder brother to my ancestor.  I can claim no close relationship to him, but his service in the Civil War, at the Wirz trial, and prominence in public affairs in California make him an interesting study.

The Andersonville Trial was a 1970 teleplay, directed by George C. Scott, and starring William Shatner as N.P. (Norton Parker) Chipman, who at the time of the trial was a Lt. Colonel.  Richard Basehart played Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the Confederate POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia, who was asked to explain why so many Union prisoners died of starvation and disease.  12,913 of them, to be exact.

This photo isn’t of a WWII death camp inmate.  It’s a Union prisoner at Andersonville.

As I recall the teleplay (available on DVD from, the main idea was that human beings were rather easily disposed of if one was persuaded they weren’t really human.  It wasn’t murder, or neglect.  It’s what animals do.  They die.

So if you want to get rid of people, the first thing you need to do is show that they’re not really human.  A second class life-form.  They speak, they beg, they scream in pain and agony, but they’re not human.  After awhile, you don’t hear anything.  It’s like the wind:  Once it passes, there’s no sound left, but the one in your mind—and that’s easily silenced.  With whatever sedative monsters use.

Captain Henry Wirz was convicted and sentenced to death, the only person tried, convicted, and executed for Civil War war crimes.  His plea for clemency to President Andrew Johnson was ignored.  Wirz was hanged in Washington, DC on 10 Nov 1865.

As is often the case with characters like Wirz, there have been attempts to rehabilitate his memory.  His apologists claim the Confederacy didn’t have the resources to properly feed, house, or provide medical treatment to so many Union POWs.  Detractors suggest the humane thing to do would have been to open the gates of the prison and let the prisoners fend for themselves.

(Wirz monument, erected at Andersonville, GA in 1909 by United Daughters of the Confederacy.  The monument outraged Union veterans.)

Unfortunately, there’s one question about the Andersonville affair that will never be answered:  What did Wirz see just before the rope snapped his neck?  A martyr or only the emptiness beneath his feet?

~ by Jeffrey Thomas Chipman on June 11, 2016.

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