Henry Wirz Among Most Notorious Confederate Prison Officials

This Civil War-period unmounted albumen print of Andersonville Prison by A.J. Biddle went to auction in June 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

Henry Wirz (1823-65) was born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a tailor. He grew up with an abiding passion for medicine, however, his family had limited resources and his father insisted on a more pragmatic mercantile career. After migrating to America, he ultimately claimed to be a physician and successfully started assisting doctors, despite most certainly lacking any formal training or medical degrees.

At the start of the Civil War, he was living in Louisiana. He enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry and became a sergeant. At the important Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862, Wirz was wounded above his right wrist, which incapacitated him for life. Seven Pines was strategically important since it led to the appointment of Robert E. Lee as Confederate Commander, which had a profound effect on the duration of the war.

In April 1864, (now) Captain Wirz was ordered to Camp Sumter near Anderson in Georgia, where he was given command of the prison that would become known as the infamous Andersonville Prison. It was already crammed with war prisoners and low on critical supplies that would only worsen as the war dragged on. Wirz made a feeble attempt to reorganize, but he lacked the necessary authority and all attempts to gain a promotion were denied. He had the support of superior officers, who called him “major,” but it is not clear if he attained that rank.

Henry Wirz

As the war continued, conditions at Andersonville deteriorated and many prisoners blamed Wirz, describing him as a brutal tyrant. Observers were critical of his accent, excessive use of profanity and outbreaks of rage. By the end of the war, he was among the most notorious Confederate prison officials.

Perhaps because of naïveté or unaware of the North’s anger over prison conditions, he made a tactical blunder and did not join the other prison officials who fled. Instead, he stayed at Andersonville, where he was arrested, taken to Washington and tried on charges of murder and mistreatment of prisoners. A hostile military commission limited his defense against conflicting testimony, found him guilty, and hanged him on Nov. 10, 1865, in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison (near the site where the U.S. Supreme Court stands today).

It was a messy hanging since his neck did not break and he was strangled to death. The trial is controversial yet today. In 1909, the Georgia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to him at Andersonville. It may be a while before monument protestors figure out who he was.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

When Britain Needed Help to Fight the Nazis, FDR Came Through

A Franklin D. Roosevelt inscribed photograph signed, circa 1930s, sold for $1,625 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the idea at a press conference on Dec. 17, 1940, in typical homey, easily comprehended language:

“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches on fire and I have a length of garden hose 400 or 500 feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up to his hydrant, I may be able to help him put out the fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15, you have to pay me $15 for it.’ No! What is the transition that goes on? I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is out.”

The neighbor on fire was England, facing the full ferocity of the Nazi blitz. England was the only major European power still resisting (barely) the German juggernaut. The formal cry for help, a desperate letter from Winston Churchill to FDR, had been received eight days earlier on Dec. 9 when a navy seaplane had touched down next to the USS Tuscaloosa off of Florida’s southern coast. The president was on board the heavy cruiser recuperating from the rigors on his November reelection campaign when the seaplane crew delivered the letter.

The Prime Minister had written, “The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies” … pointing out that the Exchequer was down to its last $2 billion – with $5 billion in orders from American munitions factories outstanding. Roosevelt knew the answer was to find some way around the Neutrality Acts, an isolationist ploy that stipulated that any war belligerents had to pay cash for weapons – and loans were prohibited to any nation that had not repaid debts from WWI.

Harry Hopkins – FDR’s man for all seasons – wrote that his boss mulled it over for two days, then one evening came up with the whole program! The “whole program” quickly became House Resolution 1776, better known as “Lend-Lease.” It granted the president the authority to lend tanks, planes, ships and other aid not only to England but to “any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Leaders across the political spectrum rallied to support H.R. 1776.

One was Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate just defeated in the 1940 presidential election and a staunch opponent of the United States entering the war in Europe. When the Senate quizzed him about this obvious contradiction, he smiled broadly and said, “I struggled as hard as I could to beat Franklin Roosevelt and didn’t pull any punches. He was elected president. He is my president now … I say a world enslaved to Hitler is worse than war, and worse than death.”

The opposition was organized and very powerful. Colonel Charles Lindbergh had even assured the Senate that Britain was already doomed. Fortunately, Congress had more faith in FDR and passed H.R. 1776 by large margins on March 11, 1941. The bill provided Roosevelt with $7 billion in appropriations – the first of $50 billion to be used by the end of hostilities in 1945.

Churchill famously called Lend-Lease “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ Stated Simply the Reasons for Independence

A 1776 edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold for $56,762 at a June 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, it was thought that most colonists were true patriots who favored full separation from England. It was not true then – 15 percent to 20 percent were still loyal to the Crown (Loyalists) and a like number were still undecided – and it was absolutely unresolved as little as six months earlier.

It was true that there had been skirmishes with British soldiers and a series of complaints diplomatically lodged by colonial leaders, however, the Continental Congress had been silent on the issue of indignation. There was still a sense that Parliament in London could resolve disputes. If anything, the colonies vibrated with unarticulated emotions – poised for someone to bring the scattered opinions into focus.

Clarity finally arrived in Philadelphia on Jan. 10, 1776, when an English corset-maker, who had only been in America a little over a year, published a pamphlet titled “Common Sense.” It was originally titled “Plain Truth” (Benjamin Rush suggested the change) and signed anonymously “By an Englishman.” In stunningly clear and moving prose, Thomas Paine gathered up the random, unspoken thoughts of the average smithy or farmer and crystallized the rebellious demand for independence, giving them the courage to accept a radical idea.

Thomas Paine

He wrote, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. … ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest … Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor.” History would be made now or never. Paine wrote. “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected, the whole continent will partake of the misfortune.”

Then came the words from which there would be no turning back: “Every thing that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART!”

“Common Sense” was an immediate success; 100,000 copies circulated in three months to the 2.5 million white residents in the 13 colonies. For the first time, the notion of independence was on the lips of every yeoman in the colonies and a new idea of separate nationality was in their heads.

Paine was the first man to string together the five words we now cherish: the United States of America.

Unadorned and plain, the American voice of simple declarative sentences, set off by vivid imagery, is the pioneering literary achievement of “Common Sense.” John Adams neatly summed up its importance when he said, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of George Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Sounds right to me.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Texians at Alamo Knew They Were Outnumbered, But They Remained

A receipt for supplies signed by William B. Travis while he was at the Alamo sold for $191,200 at a December 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When William B. Travis and 29 other men joined “Texian” freedom fighters at the Alamo on Feb. 2, 1836, they brought the total number of volunteers inside the tiny mission to 130. The arrival of Antonio López de Santa Anna, the president of Mexico and General of the Centralist Army, was only three weeks away. Accompanying him north into San Antonio de Béxar and the Mexican controlled state of Coahuila y Tejas were 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers. Santa Anna could never have foreseen how this small force would help bring an end to his country’s rule over Texas.

Travis

The Texas Revolution began on Oct. 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales – actually more of a skirmish – called by some the “Lexington of Texas.” It exploded on Dec. 10, 1835, when 100 Texian colonists drove a Centralist division from its Alamo garrison. Instead of following orders to blow up the Alamo and retreat, they stayed and waited for Santa Anna. When the uprising’s original leader, Col. James C. Neill, left the Alamo, the 26-year-old Travis, a poet and lawyer, took command.

He had no formal military training.

On Feb. 23, the Mexican Army finally reached San Antonio and General Santa Anna wasted no time in declaring if the colonists inside the Alamo did not surrender, they would be put to the sword. The Texians knew they were overwhelmed, yet even after Travis explained the odds, they remained. The day after Santa Anna’s warning, Travis sent out a messenger with a letter to supporters. It read, “I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his honor and that of his country. VICTORY or DEATH!”

Santa Anna

But neither Travis nor his men were suicidal. They were looking for help from any quarter as the wide net of a Travis’ salutation suggests: “To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World: I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch.”

The final 32 men to join the Texas rebels arrived a week later on March 2, the same day Texas delegates seceded from Mexico. The volunteers now totaled 187. Just before dawn on March 6, the Alamo came under attack. Despite an intense battle, by sunrise every Texian was dead or captured. Two months later, an army of inspired colonists defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto and won independence for Texas. I guess Travis was wrong in the end. Both death and victory were possible, at least for some.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Brooklyn Bridge a Testament to American Ingenuity, Spirit

Photographer Todd Webb’s signed gelatin silver Brooklyn Bridge, NY, 1946, went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1966, the American Society of Civil Engineers started a new honor category, “Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.” The Bollman Truss Railroad Bridge in Savage, Md., was the first to receive this distinction and it remains the only example of an all-metal bridge design used on a railroad. Eventually, they got around to the Brooklyn Bridge and it was added in 1972 as the 27th project recognized.

There is something appealing about bridges and the Brooklyn Bridge surpasses them all. It was the biggest, most famous in the world and is an enduring testament to American ingenuity and spirit. More than a mile long and connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River, its enormous granite towers loomed higher than anything ever seen. Higher than any building in New York or any structure on the North American continent, it became “The Thing” every visitor to NYC craved to see and a spectacle that awed tens of millions of immigrants.

Its designer, the brilliant John Augustus Roebling, promised – with characteristic immodesty – a stunning example of great engineering combined with unique artistic visual effects. Roebling had perfected the suspension form, with bridges at Niagara, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and the masterpiece over the East River was to be his crowning project. Tragically, he died in 1869 before the design was complete after a freak accident crushed his toes. The amputation that followed exposed him to tetanus; another vivid example of the hazards associated with non-sterile medical practices combined with the absence of anti-bacterial drugs.

Fortunately, his son, Washington Roebling, possibly the only other person qualified to take over, was available. A Civil War veteran, he was admired for his intelligence, decisiveness and courage … qualities essential to surmounting the many obstacles ahead. His fearless dedication exposed him to all the potential dangers involved, but he too fell victim to a physical ailment that curtailed his involvement. He spent the next 14 years in confinement, watching over the work with a telescope from a window in his house.

Again, fortune prevailed as his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, visited the site several times a day to appraise the progress firsthand. She also handled the press and the project trustees, gradually becoming familiar with every detail and a remarkable asset for her husband. But because he was never seen, rumors were rampant that Washington had lost his mind and that this daring, great project was actually being run by a woman! In fact, when the towers were complete and the long span was safe, the first horse and carriage to cross included Emily Roebling carrying a rooster as a symbol of triumph.

The bridge opened on May 24, 1883, and President Chester Arthur rode in one of the 1,800 vehicles that crossed it, along with 130,000 people. The fireworks celebration that night was the most spectacular ever seen. The only major incident came six days later when a woman fell down some wooden stairs, causing a stampede that resulted in at least 12 deaths. P.T. Barnum tried to get permission to restore confidence in the bridge’s safety, but it would take a year until May 17, 1884, before he led his famous Jumbo and 21 other elephants across the bridge in a grand show of stability.

Initially, the bridge was designed to provide more space for Manhattan by boosting access to nearby Brooklyn. No one had thought about growing cities up instead of expanding out. As the amazing NYC skyline reminds us today, that was soon to change.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Coney Island Represents America’s Fascination with Outrageous Entertainment

A collection of about 45 historical photographs of Coney Island, from the American Heritage Publishing Archives, went to auction in January 2016.

By Jim O’Neal

Typical stories about Coney Island usually start with some version of huddled masses arriving on America’s Eastern shore at the turn of the century and, before seeing the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge or the newborn skyscrapers, encountering a welcome beacon of bright wonders spread along the sands of the southern tip of Brooklyn. It is a dramatic way to introduce that star of light called the “City of Fire” and some even take it to the next level by comparing it to the bush Moses encountered on Mount Horeb … which burned, but was not consumed.

That does put Coney Island in a revered historical context, but in reality, it is wrong.

From 1885 to 1896, the Elephantine Colossus, a seven-story building (that included a brothel) shaped like an elephant, was actually the first thing immigrants saw when arriving in New York. Designed by James Lafferty – who died broke in 1898 – the 31-room building served as a hotel, concert hall and amusement bazaar. It was built two years before the Statue of Liberty at an estimated cost of $250,000.

It was the second of three elephant buildings built by Lafferty, and on May 30, 1885, The New York Times reported on its opening: “C.A. Brandenburg, manager, hosted a dinner, followed by a tour to the top where he pointed out ‘the spray from Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, a clump of trees in Yellowstone Park, Rio Janeiro [sic], the Bay of Biscay and even the steeples of London and Paris – remarkable, and all for 10 cents!”

This was Coney Island, three great amusement parks – Steeplechase, Luna Park and Dreamland – each outlined and adorned with yet another fresh and wondrous sight: the electric light bulb. When the sun went down, what appeared to those prospective new Americans was the whole island, strung with frozen pearls of fire, spinning and plunging and whirling. Coney Island, even in daylight, was a stunning experience.

By 1910, just inside Luna Park’s main gate were two crosses plunged into a red heart in some transported bit of Catholic iconography; pilgrims entered a fairy-tale ramble of minarets and onion domes, turrets and colonnades, lagoons and trellises. It was Frederick Thompson’s architectural jungle: grossly extravagant amusement created for the hell of it. The moody alcoholic designed many of Coney Island’s rides like the Steeplechase Ride – a relatively minor jaunt on mechanical horses, until suddenly challenged by an obstacle course that included a dwarf in a harlequin suit taking a swing at legs with a cattle prod. Crowds of New Yorkers in bleachers got a big laugh out of it.

Still other exhibitions reflected the era’s less politically correct sense of entertainment, like revelers watching actual premature babies struggling for life in a sideshow that featured the country’s first incubator. You could visit a year-round village filled with dwarfs and midgets, and view African tribesmen living in actual grass huts. Even the furies of the latest global disasters were introduced on huge stages – hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions and war. All products of a time when Americans liked their entertainment tinged with a taste of danger.

Coney was more than a Sunday outing. It was a place where immigrants were literally assimilated in the roiling holiday mobs, a place where they could watch the pageant of their lives displayed like a movie. A conductor-driven rollercoaster called the “Rough Rider” once went ripping through the retaining wall, killing three passengers. It was up and running again the same day. To its wide-eyed audiences, Coney Island was close to real life. Was it any wonder one of the most popular attractions was a fake tenement building that was set on fire and the fire put out by fake firemen – every day, day after day – for a viewing public that itself lived in fire-trap tenements and lived in constant fear?

Coney Island finally played with fire too long, with Dreamland burning in 1911 and Luna Park closing after a fire in 1946. Steeplechase closed in 1964. But the Coney spirit lived on, imitated by the World’s Fairs in Chicago (1933) and New York (1939-40 and 1964-65), and in names of deteriorating amusement parks on the outskirts of many cities. None, though, can hold a candle to that frozen fire that once burned so brightly along the sands of Long Island.

We are left with car chases, oil spills and hurricanes on CNN.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Harvard-Educated Adams Cracked Down on Non-Citizens, Free Speech

An 1805-dated oil on canvas portrait of John Adams, attributed to William Dunlap, sold for $35,000 at a May 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Barack Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, he became the eighth president to have graduated from Harvard, which has educated more U.S. presidents than any other university. Yale is second with five, with George W. Bush counting for both Yale and Harvard (where he earned an MBA).

The first of the “Harvard Presidents” goes all the way back to 1796, when John Adams narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson 71 to 68 in the electoral vote count. It was the only election in history in which a president and a vice president were elected from opposing parties.

However, Jefferson bounced back four years later in a bitter campaign characterized by malicious personal attacks. Alexander Hamilton played a pivotal role in sabotaging President Adams’ attempt to win a second term by publishing a pamphlet that charged Adams was “emotionally unstable, given to impulsive decisions, unable to co-exist with his closest advisers, and was generally unfit to be president.”

When all the votes were counted in 1800, Adams actually ended up third behind both Jefferson and Aaron Burr (who eventually became vice president). John and Abigail Adams took the loss very emotionally and it alienated their relationship with Jefferson for 20-plus years. Adams departed the White House before dawn on Inauguration Day, skipped the entire inauguration ceremony and headed home to Massachusetts. The two men ultimately reconciled near the end of their lives (both died on July 4, 1826).

Adams had been an experienced executive-office politician after serving eight years as vice president for George Washington. However, his four years as president were controversial. It started when the Federalist-dominated Congress passed four bills, collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts, which President Adams signed into law in 1798. The Naturalization Act made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, and the Alien Friends Act allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens deemed dangerous or from a hostile nation (Alien Enemy Act). And finally, the Sedition Act made it a crime to make false statements that were critical of the federal government.

Collectively, these bills invested President Adams with sweeping authority to deport resident non-citizens he considered dangerous; they criminalized free speech, forbidding anyone to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writing against the government of the United States … or either House of Congress of the United States … with intent to defame … or bring them into contempt or dispute … or to excite against them or either of them … the hatred of the good people of the United States.”

Editors were arrested and tried for publishing pieces the Adams administration deemed seditious. Editors were not the only targets. Matthew Lyon, a Vermont Congressman, was charged with sedition for a letter he wrote to the Vermont Journal denouncing Adams’ power grab. After he was indicted, tried and convicted, Lyon was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $1,000.

For Vice President Jefferson, the Alien and Sedition Acts were a cause of despair and wonderment. “What person, who remembers the times we have seen, could believe that within such a short time, not only the spirit of liberty, but the common principles of passive obedience would be trampled on and violated.” He suspected that Adams was conspiring to establish monarchy again.

It would not be the last time Americans would sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security. More on this later.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].