Edward Wellington Boate: The Andersonville POW Who Came to the Defence of Henry Wirz

Waterford’s Edward Wellington Boate belongs to the large cohort of Irish journalists who ended up fighting, or in someway participating, in the American Civil War. His story is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating. A member of the Tammany regiment, the 42nd New York, his capture and incarceration as a POW set him on a path that would eventually see him not only rail against the Lincoln administration, but also come to the support of the loathed Andersonville Commander Henry Wirz. It was an association from which his reputation would never recover. Friend of the site James Doherty has researched Boate’s story and shares his work with us in the guest post below.

Andersonville as it appeared on 17th August 1864 (Library of Congress)

Andersonville as it appeared on 17th August 1864 (Library of Congress)

Edward Wellington Boate was born in Waterford in 1822. He came from a relatively well to do family, with his father working as a Land Waiter (a type of customs official) who would later rise to the position of Port Surveyor. In his early life Boate would pursue a career as a journalist working for the Waterford Chronicle and Wexford Guardian. He married Henrietta Bruce O’Neill in Wexford in 1849 and later moved to London, where he acted as the foreign correspondent for the Wexford Guardian. His career continued to prosper in England, where he worked for the Times as a Parliamentary correspondent and also spent time in the Passport Office. (1)

Sometime around 1861 Boate and his family (by now he had two children) moved to the United States, where he again pursued a career as a journalist. His reasons for joining the army are unknown, but perhaps he felt that he wanted to part of the news rather than just reporting on it.

In the summer of 1863 he joined the 42nd New York Volunteers, a strongly democratic regiment organised by the Tammany Society. Interestingly the Waterford man had joined the Union army using an alias; he enlisted under the name of Edward W Bates. Soldiers fought under aliases for many reasons, some due to previous desertion from other units or armies, some in order to escape past events. In the case of Boate we can only guess. Perhaps due to his background and unusual surname, he wanted to choose a more common name to fit in with the rest of his unit? (2)

Unfortunately for Boate his military career in the field did not last long. He first saw action at the Battle of Bristoe Station on 14th October 1863, a one-sided affair where a blunder by Confederate General A.P Hill saw Southern troops attack a well defended Union position. In the action the Confederacy lost over 1400 men dead wounded or captured whereas Union casualties ran to just over 500. (3)

Sketch of the Battle of Bristoe Station by Alfred Waud. Edward Wellington Boate was captured at the engagement (Library of Congress)

Sketch of the Battle of Bristoe Station by Alfred Waud. Edward Wellington Boate was captured at the engagement (Library of Congress)

One of the captured Federal troops was Edward Wellington Boate. He was initially sent to the Confederate prison camp at Belle Isle and was later transferred to Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Georgia. Andersonville prison camp was built 18 months before the end of the Civil War to hold Union Army prisoners captured by Confederate forces. Located deep behind Confederate lines, the 26.5-acre site was designed for a maximum of 10,000 men. At its most crowded, it held more than 32,000– many of them wounded and starving, living in horrific conditions with rampant disease, contaminated water, and only minimal shelter from the elements. In the prison’s 14 months of existence, some 45,000 Union prisoners arrived there; of those, 12,920 died and were buried in the prison cemetery. (4)

The horrendous conditions in the camp and the causes of these conditions would become a central theme in the rest of Edward Wellington Boate’s life. Even today the topic is controversial; while the conditions suffered in the camp are not disputed, the causes behind them most certainly are. Some believe that the Confederate authorities could and should have done more for the prisoners. On the other hand others argue that the appalling conditions were a direct result of the Union blockade of Southern ports, and that the guards in camps like Andersonville were little better off than the prisoners.

Edward Wellington Boate fell firmly into the latter camp and argued strongly after the war that conditions in Andersonville were a direct consequence of the actions of his own Federal government. After his release Boate published an article in the New York News that was a damning indictment of the government of President Abraham Lincoln:

‘But our men were great sufferers, and deaths were alarmingly on the increase. The Confederate doctors were, as I have already said, themselves startled and alarmed at the progress of disease and death. But they seemed powerless to check it…We were often a fortnight without being able to get medicine. They had no quinine for fever and ague; they had no opium for diarrhea and dysentery.

Our government made medicine a contraband of war, and wherever they found medicine on a blockade runner, it was confiscated, a policy which indicated, on the part of our rulers, both ignorance and barbaric cruelty; for, although no amount of medicine would save  many of our men who have laid their bones in Georgia, I am as certain as I am of my own existence, that hundreds of men died, who, if we had the right sort and proper quantity of medicine, would have been living today and restored to their families. 

Why, the Confederate authorities were suffering many a privation at Andersonville. The surgeons who were in attendance upon the sick had not decent hose or stockings; their shoes and boots being in many instances so patched, that the original leather out of which they had been manufactured had become invisible.’ (5)

One of the famed photos of emaciated Union prisoners, showing the hardships many of them faced. Although often associated with Andersonville, the majority of these soldiers had been incarcerated at Belle Isle. Research by the NPS has identified this as William Smith of the 8th Kenctucky, who had been captured at Chickamauga (Library of Congress)

One of the famed photos of emaciated Union prisoners, showing the hardships many of them faced. Although often associated with Andersonville, the majority of these soldiers had been incarcerated at Belle Isle. Research by the NPS has identified this as William Smith of the 8th Kenctucky, who had been captured at Chickamauga (Library of Congress)

In addition to blaming the Union government for the conditions in the camp, Boate went a step further. He defended the character of the Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz, who would go on to be charged with war crimes after the American Civil War:

‘Let me refer to Captain Wirz, the Commandant of the prison, who was generally regarded as being very harsh. But his position should be considered. He was a mere keeper of prisoners – a work which can never be popular…Between the jailer and the jailed, there could not and never can be any peculiar love; but, under a rough exterior, more often assumed then left, this Captain Wirz was as kind – hearted a man as I ever met.’ (6)

As if the conditions in Andersonville had not been bad enough, a criminal group of prisoners called the ‘Andersonville Raiders’ terrorised other members of the prison population. They preyed on the weak and new prison entrants. Estimates vary, but the strength of the Raiders was probably around one hundred men. As they grew bolder and more violent a prison police force was formed (with the permission of Commandant Wirz) which resolved to deal with the Raiders.

Between the 29th June and 1st July 1864 the prison police force violently confronted the Raiders. They seized their leaders (which included a number of Irish), who were placed outside the stockade walls for their own protection. Some of the Raiders received summary justice as they were forced to run a gauntlet receiving kicks and blows from their vengeful fellow prisoners. Six of the main gang leaders were placed on trial (by their fellow prisoners) and hanged for their crimes. They rest today in a separate area of the prison cemetery. The trial of the Raiders was recorded (due to his clerical skills) by Edward Wellington Boate. (7)

Shortly after the trial of the ‘Andersonville Raiders’ was concluded Boate was chosen by Commandant Wirz to be part of a delegation that would be allowed leave the prison and travel north to meet with President Lincoln. The purpose of this delegation was to appeal for better conditions in the prison and a wholesale prisoner exchange. Boate was one of twenty-one men allowed to make the journey, and on the 7th August 1864 that were to be exchanged with a similar number of Confederate troops. Six of this group were to then meet the President bearing a petition that appealed for the Union authorities to allow supplies through to Andersonville and also calling for wholesale prisoner exchange. Boate fell ill before reaching Washington and passed the petition to another member of the delegation. The group never got to meet President Lincoln and the circumstances behind this failed envoy mission would be hotly debated hotly after the war. (8)

Although his delegation was unsuccessful Boate did not have to wait too long to see the prisoners of Andersonville released. When the Union forces under General Sherman occupied Atlanta in September 1864 it put Union troops within striking range of the camp. The Confederate forces moved the main body of prisoners to different locations out of range of the Union Cavalry. However even when the war entered its dying days Andersonville continued to operate, albeit on a smaller scale, and remained open until April 1865.

The Union forces did not waste time when it came to Commandant Wirz. He was arrested in May 1865 and his trial for the alleged needless deaths of Union prisoners began on the 23rd August 1865. By this stage Edward Wellington Boate had publicly expressed his misgivings on how President Lincoln’s government had handled the issue of the prison camps– soon he would be called as a witness for the defence in the trial of former gaoler Henry Wirz.

News reporters viewing the execution of Wirz (Library of Congress)

News reporters viewing the execution of the sentence against Henry Wirz (Library of Congress)

The trial of Henry Wirz was recorded in detail and Boate’s testimony was hotly contested. Boate attested that the conditions in the camp had been nearly as difficult for the guards as they were for the prisoners, and also testified as to the good character of Henry Wirz. A highly contentious part of Boate’s testimony revolved around the failed humanitarian mission and the fact that Union authorities wouldn’t meet his delegation. By the time of the trial the original petition had disappeared and the Union authorities denied ever receiving it. Wirz’s defence argued that the existence of the delegation and the refusal of the Union authorities to meet with them proved that Henry Wirz was not solely responsible for the horrors of Andersonville. This was simply too much for the prosecution Judge Advocate. He stated:

To prove, in this unheard-of way, a fact which can scarcely be believed of a man whose name and fame are so unstained and so unimpeachable as that of President Lincoln. That this committee were refused a conference with the late President upon a subject of this kind is improbable, and I may say preposterous.This court must not allow a slandel (sic.) of that kind against the memory of so great and good a man as President Lincoln to be repeated by this witness who has no knowledge of the facts. (9)

Alexander Gardner captured a series of images of Henry Wirz's execution in Washington D.c. on 10th November 1865. Here the Death Warrant is being read to Wirz on the Scaffold (Library of Congress)

Alexander Gardner captured a series of images of Henry Wirz’s execution in Washington D.C. on 10th November 1865. Here the Death Warrant is being read to Wirz on the Scaffold (Library of Congress)

Boate’s testimony was wide-ranging and covered incidents of alleged cruelty to prisoners, the issue of the ‘Andersonville Raiders’, availability of medicine and offers made by Union soldiers to join the Confederate Army amongst other topics. But despite this and the best efforts of his defence team Henry Wirz was convicted. The findings of the court run into pages but the paragraph below gives an idea of the mood of the military tribunal, which found Wirz guilty of conspiring to:

Impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives, by subjecting to torture. and great suffering, by coufining (sic) in unhealthy and unwholesome quarters, by exposing, to the inclemency of winter and to the burning suns of summer, by compelling the use of impure water, and by furnishing insufficient and unwholesome food, of large numbers of federal prisoners. (10)

On the 10th of November 1865 Henry Wirz faced his sentence– death by hanging. The event was widely covered by the media. Newspapers like the Washington-based Evening Star devoted a copious amount of coverage to the execution. Their coverage followed the event in minute detail, even publishing copies of Wirz’s last letters. (11)

Adjusting the rope for the execution of Wirz (Library of Congress)

Adjusting the rope for the execution of Wirz (Library of Congress)

Edward Wellington Boate was scathing in his criticism of the Union authorities. He believed that the Naval blockade and the refusal to exchange prisoners were the two main contributory factors that led to the poor conditions in Andersonville. To a prisoner in the camp these issues may have appeared simply remedied; offer a wholesale prisoner exchange and make medical supplies exempt from the naval blockade. However, in the interest of balance it is worth noting that prisoner exchange had operated earlier in the war. In the early days of the conflict exchanges happened on an ad hoc basis between opposing commanders. In 1862 the Dix- Hill Cartel (named after the two opposing generals who signed it) agreement came into effect. This went into great detail in relation to the workings of any exchange. The Cartel offered a scale of equivalencies, such as a captain is worth 15 privates etc. The deal also agreed two locations for exchange. By June 1863 the Cartel agreement had all but collapsed. Mutual distrust in addition to the refusal of the confederacy to recognise escaped slaves as prisoners of war and the disparity in numbers (the Union held nearly twice as many prisoners as the Confederacy) were all items of contention. However exchanges did occur sporadically throughout the duration of the conflict.

The other key issue that Boate blamed on the Union was the lack of medical supplies getting through the blockade. The naval blockade only existed on paper at the start of the conflict, but the Union rapidly expanded their navy and soon had effectively sealed Confederate access to imports. Allowing blockade runners through with medical supplies would be difficult to police. Would the blockade runners allow their boats be boarded for inspection? In addition, how would the authorities guarantee that the medicine would ever reach the camps and not end up in the parlours of the wealthy in Richmond?

A soldier springs the trapdoor, with men looking on from the trees beyond (Library of Congress)

A soldier springs the trapdoor, with men looking on from the trees beyond (Library of Congress)

Edward Wellington Boate may have had valid reason to blame the Union authorities, or he may have failed to understand the complexities around the issue. The allocation of blame for events at camps such as Andersonville is still hotly debated. In Boate’s case, he paid a heavy price for his lambasting of President Lincoln. His opinion pieces seemed to have been received readily enough by the media whilst Lincoln lived, however with the leader’s death, tolerance of any criticism towards Lincoln ended. Boate became a social pariah in New York society after the war. The level of social exclusion he suffered is best typified by his obituary. Upon his death on 19th September 1871 his wife submitted a glowing obituary to the local paper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The editor published the obituary, but not without adding a few thoughts of his own:

Edward Wellington Boate died yesterday in the County Hospital at Flatbush. He was a man of good abilities and much miscellaneous newspaper experience, but of late years sacrificed self-respect to self-indulgence, and from being a writer of items sank to furnishing police items for his former confreres to record. His wife, who has been alternately the assistant of his literary labours and the victim of his neglect and ill usage, is left un-provided for. She, faithful to the last, as women are all the more apparently, when they have the most provocation not to be sent us the following obituary. (12)

The bravery of the Irish soldiers in the American Civil War is often commented on. One of the bravest surely must be Waterford native Edward Wellington Boate. The merits of his moral stance can be debated, but what is certain is that he paid a heavy price for voicing what turned out to be deeply unpopular opinions.

The hooded body of Henry Wirz hanging from the scaffold (Library of Congress)

The hooded body of Henry Wirz hanging from the scaffold (Library of Congress)

(1) Scoop Journalist Database; (2) 42nd New York Roster, US Army Pension Files; (3) Civil War Trust Battle of Bristoe Station Page; (4) Andersonville National Historic Site; (5) New York News July 1865 quoted in SHSP 10: 26; (6) Ibid: 28; (7) Marvel 2006: 100-1; (8) Executive Documents of the Second Session of the Fortieth Congress; (9) Ibid.; (10) Ibid.; (11) Washington Evening Star 10th November 1865; (12) Brooklyn Daily Eagle 21st September 1871;

References

US Army Pension Files.

New York News.

Washington Evening Star.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Roster of the 42nd New York Infantry.

Marvel, William 2006. Andersonville: The Last Depot.

Boate, Edward Wellington 1882. ‘The True Story of Andersonville Told By a Federal Prisoner’ (originally produced in the New York News, July 1865) in Southern Historical Society Papers Vol. 10 Nos 1 & 2, 25-32.

House of Representatives 1866. Executive Documents of the House of Representatives of the United States of the Second Session of the Fortieth Congress, Executive Document No. 23. Trial of Henry Wirz (particularly Edward Wellington Boate for the Defence, commencing p. 687).

Andersonville National Historic Site.

Civil War Trust Battle of Bristoe Station Page.

Scoop Journalist Database.

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Categories: Battle of Bristoe Station, Discussion and Debate, Guest Post, New York, Waterford

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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One Comment on “Edward Wellington Boate: The Andersonville POW Who Came to the Defence of Henry Wirz”

  1. John Murphy
    May 12, 2015 at 12:45 am #

    Excellent presentation of an aspect of Andersonville that I was not aware of and at the same time shows the complexity of attitudes and emotions that prevailed at the time.

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