By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — As the court heard the accusations against Capt. Henry Wirz it seemed certain they were reminded of past horrors, the genocide of the Armenians in World War I, the man-made Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust of World War II, the Cambodian killing fields and Rwandan massacres.
Wirz was the commander of Andersonville, the most notorious prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. In 1865 he was put on trial for war crimes. And the reason his judges could factor in a string of horrors yet-to-come is simple — this trial took place yesterday and continues today at Peabody City Hall.
It was mock court with 81 Peabody High School seniors and juniors playing the parts of Wirz, his accusers, his defenders and prosecutors.
“It’s the sixth annual mock trial,” said the high school’s mock trial teacher Abbie Gore, who picked the Wirz case. “Two classes put on the trial.” They are pitted one against the other and it’s a responsibility taken very seriously. “We’ve been doing research and preparing for this since January.”
The mock trial has the kind of impact, says Gore, that led 13 of her former students to seek out careers in the law.
Yesterday, with people including parents, Superintendent Joe Mastrocola and Mayor Ted Bettencourt looking on, the students showed a grasp of the Wirz case and the subtleties of courtroom procedure. Students not directly involved remained rapt as testimony was given.
“I thought it was great,” said Bettencourt, a lawyer himself, who watched during the morning and then came back for more in the afternoon.
“I was impressed with the performances of the students,” he said. “They showed a deep knowledge of the subject and they knew courtroom procedure. It was great to hear passionate arguments. At times I thought I was watching a real trial. They are definitely kids with bright futures.”
“The prisoners were treated with cruelty,” said Union soldier Robert Tate — as played by Andrew Truong. He told of men near starvation and death harassed and threatened, forced into stocks, made to stand when they could no longer stand, sometimes by Wirz personally.
Courtney McNeil, portraying prisoner James Burns, recalled the line of death, a point in the camp that prisoners were killed for crossing. “Do you recall a man named Chickamauga crossing the deadline?” asked defense attorney Melissa McCarthy.
“He wanted to die,” McNeil/Burns replied. “Yes.”
He was shot down.
As the trial proceeds a PowerPoint presentation flashes photos on a screen showing the camp, the stocks, the emaciated bodies of prisoners.
The grim testimony aimed at Wirz didn’t deter senior James Christopher, representing the defense. Taking a break, he sparred with prosecutor Ricky Aiello, also a senior, over evidence uncovered after hours and hours poring over history texts and the transcript of Wirz’s actual trial in 1865.
When Aiello complained that Wirz’s prison was grossly overcrowded, crammed with more than 30,000 men, living with no shelter and little food, Christopher shot back, “That wasn’t under the control of Captain Henry Wirz. He wasn’t even the most senior person in the camp.”
Aiello praised the program for helping develop good “public speaking skills.” Christopher, who wants to be lawyer for real one day, added, “It also teaches working together with other people for a collaborative goal.”
At the close of his trial in 1865 Wirz, a Swiss immigrant who moved to Louisiana and took up the Confederate cause, was hanged for war crimes. Given the emotions and anger swirling around Andersonville — photos of freed Union soldiers conjure up more recent images of starving concentration camp victims — doubts over the fairness of his trial have persisted over the years.
He was not a sympathetic figure with his Germanic accent and a history of establishing tough discipline at Andersonville. But testimony also revealed his pleas to be given more resources or that the Union resume prisoner exchanges. He maintained to the last he had been obeying his orders like any soldier.
Whether he will be found guilty once again by posterity lies in the hands of his youthful judges.