Today in Military History: November 10, 1865,Henry Wirz, Former Commandant of Andersonville POW Camp, is Hanged for War Crimes
Major Henry Wirz, CSA, date and photographer unknown
Image from the National Park Service, courtesy of http://www.nps.gov
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
For today, we will examine the story of Henry Wirz, a Swiss immigrant and Confederate officer, who was one of only two men tried for war crimes during the course of the War Between the States.
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born in 1822 in Zurich, Switzerland. He attended the University of Zurich, but apparently never received a degree. Wirz received medical training, and had a medical practice before immigrating to the United States in 1849. He was a part of a wave of revolutionaries who left Europe in 1848-1849. Wirz established a medical practice in Kentucky, where he met and married a local widow with two children. The family moved to Louisiana, where Wirz continued his medical practice.
With the advent of the War of Northern Aggression, Wirz enlisted in the Confederate army as a private. He participated in the battle of Seven Pines in May of 1862, where he was badly wounded and lost the use of his right arm. Returning to his unit, he was promoted to captain for bravery. Due to his injury, he was assigned to the staff of General John Winder, who was in charge of all Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.
Wirz was fluent in English, German, and Dutch, and was chosen by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to make a secret trip to Europe to give dispatches to two Confederate commissioners in England and France. Upon his return to Richmond in January of 1864, he began working in General Winder’s office.
A depiction of Andersonville Prison by John L. Ransom (1882?)
Image from Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress
In February of 1864, the Confederacy established Camp Sumter, a POW camp near the town of Anderson, GA. Though wooden barracks were originally planned, the Confederates incarcerated the prisoners in a vast, rectangular, open-air stockade originally encompassing sixteen and a half acres. It had been intended as only a temporary prison pending exchanges of prisoners with the North. The prisoners gave this place the name Andersonville. The prison suffered an extreme lack of food, tools and medical supplies, severe overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of potable water.
Wirz took command of Camp Sumter in April of 1864. He recognized that the conditions were inadequate and petitioned his superiors to provide more support, which was denied. In July 1864, he sent five prisoners to the Washington, DC with a petition written by the inmates asking the Federal government to negotiate their release. Nothing came of this act.
Wirz would greet new arrivals to the camp brandishing a pistol – apparently using his useless right hand – cursing at them in his heavily accented English, and threatening to shoot them personally if they attempted to escape or broke the camp rules. That, coupled with the harsh discipline he imposed on the prisoners, which included ball-and-chaining them for even minor infractions, made him hated by those confined there.
At its peak in August 1864, the camp held approximately 32,000 Union prisoners, making it the fifth-largest city in the Confederacy. The monthly mortality rate from disease, dysentery, and malnutrition reached 3,000. Around 45,000 prisoners were incarcerated during the camp’s 14-month existence, of whom close to 13,000 (28%) died.
The camp was finally shut down in May of 1865. Wirz was tracked down, arrested and transported to Washington, and was held in the Old Capitol Prison. He was put on trial by a military tribunal, with General Lew Wallace as the presiding officer. The chief prosecutor was Col. Norton Chipman. The trial was held at the Court of Federal Claims.
The trial last from August 23 through October 18. Over 160 witnesses testified for the prosecution, 68 for the defense. Wirz was found guilty of both charges against him, and most of the specifications. Wirz’s defense team tried to present evidence showing that the Confederacy did not have the wherewithal to provide food, water, and medicine for the «damned Yankees.» Any such evidence was ignored or declared inadmissible. When Wirz’s lawyers tried to introduce evidence about 3000 Union soldiers being released and sent to Savannah to the Union commander there – the officer did not have the supplies to take care of them, so they were sent back – this was also ruled inadmissible. [At least one star prosecution witness was later exposed to be an imposter, but his testimony was not ruled out.]
However, the trial was essentially orchestrated from start to finish by Col. Chipman. He interviewed prospective defense witnesses, and dismissed those he thought would not offer support of his position. Wirz began with a team of five defense attorneys, but three left near the very beginning. As more and more motions went against Wirz, the last two defense attorneys left. In fact, the closing argument for the defense was delivered by Chipman.
The verdict of guilty on both charges was announced on October 24, 1865. Wirz was sentenced to hang. There was a post trial review conducted by Judge Advocate General Holt. Holt had been with the Bureau of Military Justice that had gathered evidence against Wirz. In his review, Holt described Wirz as a «demon» whose work of death caused him «savage orgies» of enjoyment. Holt confirmed Wirz’s conviction and sentence.
The Verdict, and the Final Act
Execution of Henry Wirz, November 10, 1865 moments after
Trapdoor was sprung; photographer unknown; U.S. Capitol in background
Image courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress
On the morning of November 10, 1865, Henry Wirz was brought into the courtyard of the Old Capitol Prison, where a scaffold had been assembled. He was taken from his cell at around 10:00 am, and conveyed to the scaffold. A crowd of about 250 spectators awaited in the courtyard (according to the New York Times, the government had received 1000 further requests for free passes to watch the proceedings). Some spectators climbed nearby trees, while others clambered onto rooftops, and some even mounted the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. In addition, a crowd of Union soldiers gathered outside the prison. Before leaving his cell, Wirz indulged himself with a drink of whiskey and a chaw of tobacco. Upon reaching the scaffold, the final execution order was read to him, he received the comfort of the Catholic Church, then was bound with straps and the noose was placed around his neck.
At 10:32 am, the trapdoor was sprung, and Henry Wirz plunged to his death. [However, he apparently did not expire immediately. He was observed to be gasping and his chest heaved spasmodically, as he slowly suffocated. After several minutes, he was still.] Once it was communicated to the waiting crowd outside that Wirz was dead, the Times correspondent wrote, «…the soldiers sent up a loud ringing cheer, just such as I have heard scores of times on the battle-field after a successful charge. The sufferings at Andersonville were too great to cause the soldiers to do otherwise than rejoice at such a death of such a man.»
Wirz’s body was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington DC. A headstone added later describes him as a «Confederate Hero – Martyr.»
Footnote #1: In 1959 a play was produced on Broadway entitled The Andersonville Trial. It starred George C. Scott as Col. Chipman. Eleven years later, PBS sponsored a TV movie of the play, directed by Scott. It starred William Shatner in the role of Chipman, and Richard Basehart (Admiral Nelson from the 60s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Other cast members included Cameron Mitchell, Jack Cassidy, Buddy Ebsen, Albert Salmi, John Anderson, Whit Bissell, and Alan Hale, Jr. (the «Skipper» from Gilligan’s Island). The TV production won three Emmy awards and a Peabody Award.
Old Capitol Prison c. 1860-65
Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
Footnote #2: The Old Capitol Prison had been used as the temporary Capitol of the U.S. after the British burned Washington in 1814. It was built in 1815, with the funds coming from local real estate developers fearful of the U.S. Government leaving the District. It was used by Congress until 1819, when repairs to the U.S. Capitol Building were completed. Between 1819 and 1861, it was first used as a private school, then a boarding house. The brick building was purchased by the Federal government in 1861 to house Confederate prisoners. Sold in 1867, the building was converted into rowhouses. In 1929, the Federal government acquired the property by eminent domain, tore it down and shortly afterward began construction of the U.S. Supreme Court Building.