Based on a Broadway play, THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL was a made for television production directed by George C. Scott with a number of major performances, led by William Schatner as the Union Prosecutor, and Jack Cassidy as the Southern born defense counsel for Confederate Captain Henry Wirtz (Richard Basehart). The court-martial is headed by General Lew Wallace (Cameron Mitchell), who is determined to bring in a speedy, clean-cut verdict as quickly as possible. Among the witnesses is Albert Salmi, a Union soldier who survived the camp, but who has a dirty secret that clever Jack Cassidy pushes into the faces of the court-martial judges.
Historically some 49,000 Union prisoners were sent to Andersonville, and 13,000 died there under hideous conditions. Food was scarce. They had little in the way of proper shelter. The camp's sanitation was non-existent.
Who was to blame? Well, at the time blame was on Captain Wirtz, who was commander of the camp. All decisions for the sake of the men were in his hands, and the number of dead was too large to ignore. However, the Confederacy in 1863-65 was having trouble feeding it's troops and it's people. Wirtz actually tried to get supplies, but couldn't get far on that. Also, Northern prisons for Confederate prisons, such as Elmira in New York State, were equally vile. Finally, attempts by the South to get a trade of captured soldiers with the North ground to a halt due to the combined refusal of General Grant or Secretary of War Stanton to agree to it (they reasoned the released trained southern soldiers would resume war work, and lengthen the course of the war).
Wirtz would be found guilty, and would be hanged in November 1865. He was the only Confedrate hanged for a war crime (unless you count the four Lincoln Assassination defendants). The play tries to show the impossible situation that fell on Wirtz's shoulders, with him trying to balance his duty to the southern cause, his duty to his prisoners, and his fears of those prisoners. Basehart's agonizing testimony on the stand, where he keeps thinking of the prisoners tunneling and tunneling out of the camp, is still a memory to me yet, thirty five years after I saw it the first time.
But there is more than that in the play. The scene where Mitchell is trying to get the prosecution to concentrate only on the facts, and not give rise to a theory of unchecked universal evils ("A world of Andersonvilles", as Shatner puts it)is wonderful. Mitchell is trying to remind Shatner that all he has to do is prove a case against this defendant. Finally, in disgust, Mitchell asks a hypothetical question to test the loyalty of Shatner to the U.S.: What if the U.S. had supported slavery in 1860 and the South supported abolition? Shatner shatters Mitchell by insisting a greater loyalty would dictate supporting the Confederacy.
Jack Cassidy has some terrific moments attacking the prosecution, which he rightly considers a show trial and an act of hypocrisy. He even gets under Shatner's skin at one point by showing how Shatner - if he gets a conviction - will have something to build a political career on.
All in all it was a terrific moment of televised drama. It has been shown occasionally and it should be shown more.
Oh, by the way. I mentioned the Northern Prison Camp at Elmira, NY. It's commander was Benjamin Tracy. In the post war eras (he died in 1917), Mr. Tracy became a successful corporate lawyer, leading New York State Republican, and Secretary of the Navy under President Benjamin Harrison (1889 - 1893). He is considered by some the father of the modern U.S. Navy. Wirtz, his opposite number, was hanged. Sometime in the 1950s or so, his grave received a new tombstone from some unknown supporter. It gives his name, dates of birth and death, and puts under it, "C.S.A. Martyr". I leave it for the reader to decide what was justice or what wasn't.