Friday, June 14, 2013

The Tragedy of a Single Death: Making Sense of the Statistics of Atrocity

I asked a friend of mine, Chris Barr, to guest blog here at History and Interpretation. Chris worked as a high school history teacher for several years before working as a park ranger at Andersonville National Historic Site. 

Responding to Winston Churchill’s concerns over the loss of life in World War II, Joseph Stalin reportedly said, “When one man dies it is a tragedy.  When thousands die, it's statistics.”  Whether or not this exchange happened or not is questionable, but it reveals a lot about how our society deals with atrocities.  We see this all time today – the nation goes into an uproar over the tragic deaths of individuals like Caylee Anthony or Trayvon Martin, while recent reports that the death toll in Syria has exceeded 90,000 barely registers as a blip on our radar.  Single deaths we can make an emotion connection with.  Hundreds or thousands of deaths we have trouble understanding. 

If the self-styled man of steel reveals a lot about how we see the world around us, it also shapes our interpretation of historical atrocities.  Perhaps nowhere in our nation’s collective memory is this more evident than the tragedy of Andersonville.  Open for fourteen months at the end of the Civil War, around 45,000 Union prisoners of war were held in an open stockade in rural Georgia with inadequate food, shelter, clean water, and medical care.  In August of 1864 the population peaked around 32,000. Just fewer than 13,000 of these men died in captivity.  

Those are big numbers - the “statistics” that Stalin talked about.  We can’t comprehend numbers that large.  So it’s easy to gloss them over.  Even in the cemetery, where there are 13,000 headstones of the prisoners who died, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the size of this tragedy, but after just a few moments the individual headstones blend into a single mass of white stone. Stretching into the horizon. 

Just a portion of the Civil War graves at the National Cemetery

So the question remains – how do we interpret this statistic we can’t comprehend?  Turning to Stalin, the unlikely Civil War prison historical interpreter,  “When one man dies it is a tragedy…” In order to grasp the tragedy of Andersonville, we focus on the individuals who suffered and died there.  By telling the story of one man’s death, we can better tell the tragedy of Andersonville.

Henry Wirtz

But there is a challenge to this “one death is a tragedy” motif: Whose death is a tragedy?  Are all deaths tragedies?  Are all deaths equal?  Who are the victims?  For many, Captain Henry Wirz is the tragic victim of Andersonville because he is easily the “one death” that Stalin talked about. The tragedy of Henry Wirz became cause célèbre for the Lost Cause.  Writers like James Madison PageRandolph Stephenson, and Mildred Rutherford told the story of Andersonville as the tragic martyrdom of HenryWirz.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to Wirz in the nearby town of Andersonville.  Every November, the Alexander H. Stephens Camp of theSons of Confederate Veterans holds a memorial service for Wirz on the anniversary of his death.  Wirz’s death may have been a tragedy as a victim of a military tribunal system that remains controversial even in our own time.   But the people who see Wirz as the tragic victim oftenoverlook that statistic – 12,920 deaths.  The tragedy of Andersonville is not the blame.  The tragedy is that in the summer of 1865, there were 12,920 empty chairs at dinner tables across the nation.  

12,920 American soldiers of every race, religion, and national origin imaginable died at Andersonville in service to their country.  We must take that sea of headstones and share the tragedy of each one with the vigor and passion that Wirz’s story has been told.  This is our mission.  We tell the story of Edwin Niver and the fifty years of grief his sister went through.  We tell the story of Samuel Melvin and how he just wanted to go home.  We tell the story of Osceola Pochontas and how he sacrificed himself to preserve a nation that he lived in less than a yearWe tell the story of John Jameson and how his friends and family arranged to have him exhumed and returned for burial in Hartford, CT.  We tell the story of James Gooding, who wrote to President Lincoln demanding equality of treatment and pay for black soldiers.  We have thousands more tragedies to learn and share.   

Historic overlay photo of Emogene Marshall at Edwin Niver's grave

By examining each of these 12,920 deaths individually, we can begin to understand the tragedy of the Civil War.

*Thoughts contained in this post were written and published during free time and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Park Service. 

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