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The Execution of Henry Wirz - November 10, 1865

By Daniel Nathan Terry

That Andersonville was a camp of nightmares,
a dark machine that brought slow death
to nearly 13,000 men, is not in dispute.
Survivors tell tales of atrocities: dysentery,

a water supply festering with human
waste, mass graves, a fence called the deadline
where snipers waited for would-be escapees.
And you have seen the starving--ghastly images

of what once were men of valor, whose only crime
was love of country, reduced to living skeletons,
skin stretched over bone, life evident
only in their haunted eyes. That someone should

be held accountable for not only the destruction,
but the desecration of these men, is not open
for debate. And it is a just thing that blame should fall
on the shoulders of the prison's commandant,

Henry Wirz, an immigrant who speaks poor English
even as he professes his innocence. In his defense,
it has been argued that Andersonville was cut off
from food and supplies, that guards died alongside

their charges, that the Union refused
prisoner exchange. It has been suggested
that the President's establishment of a military tribunal
to try Wirz, an American citizen, is not even legal.

And it is whispered that the prosecution was allowed
to call any witness, while defense witnesses
were subject to the prosecution's approval.
Forget all of that for now. Feel the winter sun on your face.

Listen to the jeering crowd: ANDERSONVILLE!

Stand here with Gardner as he looks down
upon the scaffold, wait with him a moment longer,

feel your hands tremble as he reaches for the lens-cap,
as he tries to read the executioner's body, as he predicts
the instant the trapdoor will be released. And remember,
you are not the black-hooded Wirz, rope tightening

around your neck, the good earth dropping away
beneath your feet. You are America--injured but victorious.
You are the crowd, the sky darkening above your head--
the white dome of the Capitol rising like a thunderhead

through the naked trees.

Added: Monday, July 7, 2014  /  From "Capturing the Dead" (NFSPS Press, 2008). Used with permission.
Daniel Nathan Terry

Daniel Nathan Terry, a former landscaper and horticulturist, is the author of three books of poetry: Waxwings (2012); Capturing the Dead, which won The 2007 Stevens Prize; and a chapbook, Days of Dark Miracles (2011). His poems and short stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in numerous publications, including Cimarron Review, The Greensboro Review, New South, Poet Lore, and Southeast Review. He serves on the advisory board of One Pause Poetry and lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his husband, painter and printmaker, Benjamin Billingsley.

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