Your RDA of Irony

Abu Gharaib is just Arabic for Andersonville

On this day in 1865 Henry Wirz was hanged. Being born 150 years too soon, he was the only American to be executed for war crimes. The Swiss-born Confederate had no qualifications but a German accent to be the commandant of a prisoner-of-war camp. Under his sadism and neglect, the prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia could have been advertised as Club Dead. Its 45,000 prisoners lacked housing, had only theoretical meals and a trickle of a stream for both drinking and sewage. How could they survive under such conditions? They really were not supposed to; and 13,000 did not. The rest held on until the Union won the war and liberated them.

Among those wretched survivors was my great-grandfather.

George Cohen was not the brightest of my ancestors. Arriving from Danzig, Prussia in 1863, the teenager obligingly signed any paper handed to him by the immigration officials on the wharves of New York. One of those papers was an enlistment in the Union Army: surprise! General Sherman must have felt reassured to have such capable men in his command.

Private Cohen was on picket duty outside of Atlanta when the Confederate forces launched an attack. The Battle of Peach Tree Creek is remembered as an Union victory, but the Confederates had the consolation of capturing Private Cohen. I imagine that he was the only Private Cohen at Andersonville.

Whatever deprivations he suffered there, it did not prevent from eventually fathering 14 children.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    Nothing like an extended near-death experience to ramp up that joie de vivre and lust for life (among others)!

    I can’t help ascribing his capture to the language barrier. To a newly arrived immigrant, accents are really a luxury for which they haven’t yet acquired taste or ear. The tonal difference between “Charge!” as spoken by a Confederate Sergeant from Savannah and a Union Sergeant from Hoboken is a subtlety for a quieter, more reflective time than the heat, confusion, smoke and blood of battle.

    Hooray for Private Cohen! To bring Faulkner to mind, he didn’t just survive, he prevailed.

  2. Mary Ann Jung says:

    We can thank Clara Barton for an amazing crusade to get the 13,000 numbered graves marked with the deceased actual names. It’s quite a saga of how a prisoner named Dorence Atwater secretly copied the names and eventually got them to Clara who helped create Andersonville a National Cemetery. How did a grateful government thank Mr. Atwater for his service and risk? Put him on trial of course, saying they owned the list and didn’t have to pay what they promised him. Clara was so mortified she nearly left the country. Wirz wasn’t the only one who should be ashamed…

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