November 25, 1823|
|Died||November 10, 1865
Washington, D.C., United States
|Place of burial||Mount Olivet Cemetery, Washington, D.C.|
|Service/branch||Confederate States Army|
|Years of service||1861–65|
|Commands held||Andersonville Prison|
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz better known as Henry Wirz (November 25, 1823 – November 10, 1865) was a Swiss-born Confederate officer in the American Civil War. He is best known for his command of Camp Sumter, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia; he was tried and executed after the war for conspiracy and murder relating to his command of the camp.
Medical career and family
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Wirz attended the University of Zurich, but there is no evidence he obtained a degree. Wirz practiced medicine for a time before he emigrated to the U.S. in 1849, when many Forty-Eighters were fleeing the Swiss Sonderbund war and the failed Revolutions of 1848 in the German states and elsewhere. Wirz, who had married in 1845 and had two children, was imprisoned briefly in the late 1840s for unknown reasons.
He established a medical practice in Kentucky, where he married a Methodist widow named Wolfe. Along with her two daughters, they moved to Louisiana. In 1855 his wife gave birth to their daughter, Cora. By 1861, Wirz had a successful medical practice.
Wirz enlisted as a private in Company A, Fourth Battalion of Louisiana Volunteers of the Confederate States Army in May 1861. He took part in the Battle of Seven Pines in May 1862, during which he was wounded by a minie ball and lost the use of his right arm. After returning to his unit on June 12, 1862, Wirz was promoted to Captain "for bravery on the field of battle". Because of his injury, Wirz was assigned to the staff of General John H. Winder, who was in charge of Confederate prisoner of war camps.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis made Captain Wirz a Special Minister and sent him to Europe carrying secret dispatches to the Confederate Commissioners, James Mason in England, and John Slidell in France. Wirz returned from Europe in January 1864 and reported back to Richmond, Virginia, where he began working for General Winder in the prison department. Wirz then served on detached duty as a prison guard in Alabama, then transferred to help guard Federal prisoners incarcerated at Richmond.
In February 1864, the Confederate government established Camp Sumter, a large military prison in Georgia near the small railroad depot of Anderson (as it was called then), to house Union prisoners of war. In April 1864, Wirz took command of Camp Sumter, where he remained for over a year. Shortly before the end of the war, Wirz was promoted to the rank of major.
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, which 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 recognized that the conditions were inadequate and petitioned his superiors to provide more support; this was denied. In July 1864, he sent five prisoners to the Union with a petition written by the inmates asking the government to negotiate their release.
Wirz would greet new arrivals to the camp brandishing a pistol, 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.
Trial and execution
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Wirz was arrested by a contingent of federal cavalry in May 1865 and taken by rail to Washington, D.C. and held in the Old Capitol Prison, where the federal government intended to place him on trial for conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war. A military tribunal was convened with Major General Lew Wallace presiding. The other members of the commission were Gershom Mott, John W. Geary, Lorenzo Thomas, Francis Fessenden, Edward S. Bragg, John F. Ballier, T. Allcock, and John H. Stibbs. Norton P. Chipman served as prosecutor.
The military tribunal took place between August 23 and October 18, 1865, held in the Court of Federal Claims, dominating the front pages of newspapers across the United States. The court heard the testimony of former inmates, ex-Confederate officers, and even nearby residents of Andersonville. Among those giving testimony was Father Peter Whelan, a Catholic priest who worked with the inmates, who testified on Wirz's behalf. Also among those called to testified was Robert E. Lee. According to Fitzhugh Lee, in his biography of his uncle, "(Lee) knew the captain had done all that was possible with the resources at his disposal; subsistence for them had been most difficult to procure, their exchange for an equal number of Southerners had been refused, while the Federal blockade kept out medical supplies."
The charges against him were for 'combining, confederating, and conspiring, together with John H. Winder, Richard B. Winder, Joseph [Isaiah H.] White, W. S. Winder, R. R. Stevenson, and others unknown, to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States', and for 'Murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war'. The 13 murders committed by Wirz personally were by revolver (specifications 1, 3, 4), by physically stamping and kicking the victim (specification 2), and by confining prisoners in stocks (specifications 5, 6), by beating a prisoner with a revolver (specification 13) and by chaining prisoners together (specification 7). All murders occurred in 1864.
Wirz was also charged with ordering guards to fire on prisoners with muskets (specification 8, 9, 10, 12), and to have dogs attack escaped prisoners (specification 11). Wirz was found guilty of all charges except the murder in specification 4.
Some of the evidence was hearsay, but there was one witness whose testimony was particularly damning. His name was Felix de la Baume, and he claimed to be a descendant of the heroic Marquis de Lafayette. He was able to name a victim killed directly by Wirz. This eyewitness was a skilled orator and his story was so compelling that he was given a written commendation signed by all the members of the commission for his part in the trial. It is claimed that his real name was Felix Oesser and that he was a deserter from the 7th New York (Steuben) regiment.
In early November 1865, the commission announced that it had found Wirz guilty of conspiracy as charged, along with 11 of 13 counts of murder. He was sentenced to death.
In a letter to U.S. President Andrew Johnson, Wirz asked for clemency, but the letter went unanswered. The night before his execution, Louis Schade (an attorney working on behalf of Wirz) was told that a high Cabinet official wished to assure Wirz that if he would implicate Jefferson Davis with the atrocities committed at Andersonville, his sentence would be commuted. Schade repeated the offer to Wirz and was told, "Mr. Schade, you know that I have always told you that I do not know anything about Jefferson Davis. He had no connection with me as to what was done at Andersonville. If I knew anything about him, I would not become a traitor against him or anybody else even to save my life."
Wirz was hanged at 10:32 a.m. on November 10, 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison, by the US Capitol, the present-day site of the Supreme Court of the United States. His neck did not break from the fall, and the crowd of 250 spectators watched as he writhed and slowly suffocated. He was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife and one daughter.
Eleven days after the execution, it was claimed that the star witness from the trial had perjured himself. He was not Felix de la Baume from France, but Felix Oeser, born in Saxony, Prussia. He was actually a deserter from the 7th New York Volunteers.
Henry Wirz was one of two men tried, convicted, and executed for war crimes during the Civil War (the other being Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson). Confederate soldiers Robert Cobb Kennedy and John Yates Beall were executed for spying and Marcellus Jerome Clarke and Henry C. Magruder executed for being a guerrilla). His conviction remains controversial today. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans annually march to a Wirz memorial, along with supporters of a congressional pardon for Wirz.
Some writers have suggested Wirz's trial was unfair. Even some of his former prisoners conceded that the low support he received from Confederate government in terms of food, water, and medical supplies made the conditions at Andersonville beyond his scope of responsibility. The trial, one of the nation's most famous early war crimes tribunals, created enduring moral and legal notions and established the precedent that certain wartime behavior is unacceptable, regardless if committed under the orders of superiors or on one's own. In a 1980 study, the historian Morgan D. Peoples refers to Wirz as a "scapegoat".
In popular culture
In Saul Levitt's 1959 play The Andersonville Trial, Wirz was first played by Herbert Berghof. When the play was recreated for an episode of PBS's 1970-71 season of Hollywood Television Theatre, Wirz was portrayed by Richard Basehart. Wirz was portrayed by actor Jan Tříska in the American film Andersonville (1996).
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- Horwitz, Tony, Confederates in the Attic.
- Heidler, David Stephen et al. Encyclopedia Of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, NY: Norton, 2001. "Wirz did not receive a fair trial. Nevertheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to death."
- History TV Shows – History.com
- Morgan D. Peoples, "Henry Wirz: The Scapegoat of Andersonville", North Louisiana History, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Fall 1980), pp. 3–18.
- Chipman, Norton, P. The Tragedy of Andersonville; Trial of Captain Henry Wirz, the Prison Keeper, (Sacramento, 1911).
- Futch, Ovid. History of Andersonville Prison, (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1968).
- Harper, Frank. Andersonville: The Trial of Captain Henry Wirz, MA Thesis, (University of Northern Colorado, 1986).
- Page, James Madison, The True Story of Andersonville Prison: A Defense of Major Henry Wirz , 1908.
- Marvel, William, Andersonville: The Last Depot
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Henry Wirz.|
- Entries from Wirz's diary made days before his execution
- Henry Wirz biography
- Documents suggesting Wirz's innocence
- Trial of Captain Henry Wirz
- Wirz on german page – Gefangenenlager Andersonville