Redecorating the Beast: The Life and Death of Captain Henry Wirz, CSA
“We redecorate the beast in all sorts of political coats, hoping that we change him, but is he to be changed?” — Saul Levitt, The Andersonville Trial
ON A SUNNY FRIDAY MORNING, November 10, 1865, four companies of United States infantry filed into the common yard of the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D. C., where a tall scaffold fitted with a single noose stood in the center of the yard. Outside the prison’s wooden fences, dozens of other soldiers, not invited to the ceremony, peered over the towering walls from high in the trees, where they had climbed to witness the upcoming spectacle. After a few moments, a small group of officers and civilians escorted a hobbling, bearded man out of the prison and up the scaffold stairs. Derisive cries rang out from the tree-perched men, and, as the noose was slipped around the prisoner’s neck, the ranked soldiers began to chant, “Remember Andersonville! Remember Andersonville!”
It was seven months and a day after Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. The victorious Union was still angry after the assassination of President Lincoln, and the shattered South was writhing under the boot of a military government enforcing Reconstruction policy. And here, at the execution of Swiss immigrant and former Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, the Civil War claimed one of its last victims.
Dubbed the “Butcher of Andersonville,” Wirz had been in charge of the Georgia military prison. During his command, nearly thirteen thousand Union prisoners of war died from disease, exposure, and starvation. After the war, Wirz was arrested and charged with conspiring to exterminate the prisoners under his care, as well as personally murdering a dozen of them. In short order, he was tried, found guilty, and executed.
Wirz’s guilt or innocence will probably never be determined for certain; like so many historical events, the truth has vanished under an avalanche of conflicting accounts, suspect evidence, and shaky theories. There are dozens of books, diaries, and memoirs concerning Andersonville, and in them Wirz appears as everything from martyred hero to demonic villain.
War crimes trials always occupy a shady area of civilian and military jurisprudence, and Wirz’s was no exception. He was convicted of a conspiracy, but no conspirators, other than himself, were ever brought to trial. He was convicted of murder, but no victims or bodies could be positively identified. He was convicted by testimony that was highly suspect if not false. Wirz’s defense to all charges was either vehement innocence or respondeat superior — following orders. Nevertheless, he was convicted and hanged. Looking back from a contemporary perspective, one finds that Henry Wirz’s story and the circumstances surrounding the Andersonville tragedy are tangled and interlocking tales. Searching through them with diligence, we may get to know Wirz a little better, experience Andersonville as he did, and understand how and why he had to die.
HENRY WIRZ WAS BORN in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1823. Some evidence suggests that he was the son of a leatherworker. In any case, most sources agree that he graduated from the University of Zurich and studied medicine briefly in Paris and Berlin. At twenty-one, he married and subsequently fathered two children, Paul and Louisa Emily. In 1849 he left his family and emigrated to America. In 1853 his wife divorced him for abandonment.
By most accounts, Wirz was of medium-to-small height and slim build. Many narratives published by former prisoners portray him as a “creeping,” “cowardly,” “rat-like” man, but these descriptions tend so much toward the overdramatic that it is hard to lend them much credence. One unsympathetic author, Ambrose Spencer, spared no pejorative in describing Wirz:
The appearance and physiognomy of Wirz was neither attractive nor interesting save by its repulsiveness. In height he was five feet eight inches, with a slender weazened form, stooping shoulders, and emasculated gait. His features were pinched and disagreeable, rendered more unpleasing by a light gray eye, surmounted by a heavy protruding brow, restless, unfixed, and incapable of a manly, self-sustained look at the person with whom he happened at the time to be conversing. His low, retreating forehead, with head of small size, displayed a greater amount of animal than intellectual nature, and was a fitting apex to one destined hereafter to become so notorious.
Wirz wore a beard and his face was notably Germanic in appearance (he was often mistaken for a German or Austrian). His English was heavily accented, and he was given to frustrated fits of anger during which he would mangle the language even further and sputter in his native tongue. Wirz’s foreignness and his temper made him all too easy to vilify.
His first home in his new country was in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Wirz worked for several years in a textile factory. In 1854 he moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to work as a doctor’s assistant; here he met and fell in love with a widow named Elizabeth Wolf. The two married that same year, and Wirz adopted Elizabeth’s two daughters, Susan and Cornelia. By 1855 the Wirzes had a new daughter named Cora.
Sometime later, the Wirz family moved to Madison Parish, Louisiana, where Henry Wirz served as a physician to slaves on local plantations. As tensions between North and South increased, Wirz sided with the Confederacy. (Ambrose Spencer described him as “a violent partisan of the rebel cause.”) He enlisted as a private in the Confederate army on June 16, 1861, and was sent to Richmond, Virginia, where he was mustered into Company D of the Fourth Louisiana Battalion.
It is difficult to pinpoint Wirz’s exact movements and promotions in the early years of the war, but it is clear that he became involved in prison work early on. The Fourth Louisiana Battalion was assigned to protect Confederate President Jefferson Davis and to guard Libby Prison inside Richmond. By December 1861, Wirz had been transferred to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the Confederacy had established a makeshift prison in a downtown hotel. According to the diary of William J. Crossley, a Union private from Rhode Island who was captured in Richmond and imprisoned in Tuscaloosa, “They have made a lieutenant of Wirz, and put him in charge here. He has taken Burt, my chum, and of my company, for his bookkeeper.”
Wirz commanded the Tuscaloosa prison for a few months at least, as Crossley mentions him again in a diary entry dated February 22, 1862. In that entry, Crossley notes that the prisoners, upon seeing a crowd of slaves outside the hotel, had thrown open their windows (a shooting offense back in Richmond) and begun singing patriotic Union songs,
… until, from down the street, with coat tails on the horizontal, comes old Wirz, up the stairs, two at a clip, and into our room, chirping “What in Hades you tam fools trying to do? I thought you Rhode Island chaps pretty good fellows, but py tam you get no more meat for two, three, four days, do you see?” No, we didn’t see any meat for two days.
Here, Wirz seems almost a comical figure, a far cry from the man later accused of vicious and murderous behavior at Andersonville.
A turning point in Wirz’s life occurred in the spring of 1862, when — at some point — he sustained a severe injury to his right arm, shattering the bones between his elbow and wrist. The injury, which never healed properly, not only removed Wirz from field duty permanently; it led to chronic pain which would torment him for the rest of his life. More than one author has attributed Wirz’s angry rages at Andersonville to the agony resulting from this wound. Years later, in a letter to Gen. J. H. Wilson, Wirz claimed that he had sustained the injury in the Battle of Seven Pines, which took place near Richmond between May 31 and June 1, 1862; however, there is no record of the Fourth Louisiana Battalion — or Wirz himself — having participated in this battle.
By August 1862, Wirz was promoted to captain and detailed to the staff of Gen. John H. Winder, provost marshal of the city of Richmond. Winder took Wirz on as his assistant adjutant-general, putting him in charge of Richmond prisons. Few records remain of Wirz’s time in Richmond, but it is clear that Wirz worked directly under Winder for several months, and then in September 1862 he returned to Alabama briefly to look for missing prison records, spending most of his time in Montgomery.
In early 1863, still troubled by his arm, Wirz asked for permission to travel abroad to seek specialized medical help. Jefferson Davis granted his request, designating Wirz a special diplomatic envoy with orders to carry secret dispatches to Confederate commissioners in England and France, as well as to all Confederate financial agents in Europe. Wirz departed in late 1863, performed his duties, and underwent several surgeries on his arm to alleviate the constant pain. But medical treatment proved fruitless; the bones and flesh were too damaged to heal correctly. When the pain was too great, Wirz, according to several sources, found temporary solace in alcohol or morphine. Dejected over the failure of the operations, he returned to Richmond in February or March 1864
THE LATTER HALF of 1863 had been devastating for the South. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been turned back at Gettysburg, and, further south, Vicksburg and Chattanooga had been lost. Richmond itself had been under blockade and bombardment for some time, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, in command of Northern forces, was gearing up for a coordinated offensive on all fronts.
The Confederacy was also burdened with a huge prisoner-of-war population. The prisoner exchange arrangement with the North had been discontinued by Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who deemed it unwise to let veteran Confederate troops return to the field once captured; this action choked off the only release valve available to the Southern prison system. With no other options available, the Confederates planned a new prison, an open stockade meant to house thousands of inmates and serve as a way station for prisoner transfers. After brief consideration by officials, the hamlet of Andersonville, Georgia, near Americus, was selected as the site.
Andersonville, idyllically situated in a pine forest on an elevated ridge, was served by the Southwestern Railroad and traversed by the Sweetwater Creek. Lumber, fuel, water, and transportation seemed unlikely to pose problems, and Andersonville’s distance from enemy action made it appear reasonably secure.
Construction of the prison began in January 1864. Using pine logs twenty feet long and one foot thick, workers built a fifteen-foot-high stockade enclosing sixteen-and-one-half acres. The Sweetwater Creek, about five feet wide, ran through the prison yard, dividing it roughly in half. This small stream was to serve as both drinking water and a mass latrine for thousands of inmates in the months to come.
Wirz, assigned by General Winder to serve as the prison commandant, arrived at Andersonville in March 1864 and took command. By then the prison compound was already close to its capacity of ten thousand men, and some four hundred new prisoners were arriving daily from across the Confederacy.
Problems plagued the prison from the start. Because prisoners were provided no protection from the elements, most cobbled together whatever shelter they could from scrap wood and clothing; some burrowed holes into the earth. The typical prisoner wore only rags. Many were barefoot. Order was only lethargically enforced by the guards, and some men preyed upon others for their meager possessions.
Food was in short supply and usually consisted of rough-ground cornmeal and uncooked bacon, with occasional rice, beans, or molasses; such a poor diet resulted in rampant scurvy and all manner of digestive disorders. Three doctors attempted to serve the prisoners but, because the hospital was overcrowded, had to reject at least as many critical cases as they admitted. With few medical supplies, they fought a losing battle. By the time Wirz arrived, barely a month after the prison had opened, three hundred men had already died from illness.
THE REASONS FOR these terrible conditions were essentially threefold. First, the design of the Andersonville stockade might have sufficed for a reasonable number of prisoners who were decently equipped and well-protected from the elements. Unfortunately, very few prisoners still had their gear by the time they reached Andersonville, and those who did often had it stripped away by thieves or had to use it to barter for food. The skyrocketing prison population only made the problems of malnourishment and exposure increase geometrically, causing almost all other areas of prison management to experience a similar failure.
Secondly, the chain of command at Andersonville was cloudy and inefficient. The Confederate prison system had evolved in a sluggish, reactionary way, such that the command structure was often redundant or contradictory. Wirz was still under General Winder’s command, but Winder, still in Richmond, remained aloof. Concerned with the growing problems in his own backyard, he seems to have turned a blind eye to problems he was in the best position to correct at Andersonville. Complicating the situation was the local command structure. The Andersonville prison was actually attached to the adjacent military post of Camp Sumter, headed by Lt. Col. A. W. Persons. Wirz, a captain, served as the commander of the prison, or the “commandant of the interior.” In order to acquire supplies or process orders involving the prison, Wirz had to appeal to either the quartermaster or the adjutant of the post of Camp Sumter, who happened to be Capt. W. S. “Sid” Winder and Maj. Richard B. Winder — General Winder’s son and nephew, respectively.
Wirz, who possessed equal or even lesser military and bureaucratic rank than either of the younger Winders, found their responses to his requests indifferent and lethargic. He repeatedly requested a promotion, which was even recommended by General Winder in May 1864, but the promotion never materialized.
Lastly, and most importantly, the South was losing the war. With the Confederate bureaucracy strained at all levels, interior departments — like the prison system — were left out in the cold. The Confederacy’s support systems fell apart. Supplies were late if they arrived at all. Indeed, the only regular shipment to Andersonville was more prisoners.
UNDETERRED BY his daunting task, Wirz approached the problems methodically. One of his first acts was to parole the approximately forty drummer boys held in the stockade so they might escape the horrid conditions. He began to keep meticulous prison records: counting the prisoners regularly; noting arrivals, departures, escapees, and deaths. He reorganized the prisoners in ways that suited his ideas of order, splitting them into groups of ninety instead of the standard one hundred, and assigning a prisoner sergeant to head each 270-man detachment. Such manic attention to detail and a strict insistence on security and discipline would distance him further from the prisoners, who began to perceive him as a strutting martinet exercising power for its own sake.
By the end of April 1864, Wirz’s first month in command, the prison population exceeded ten thousand; almost six hundred died that month alone. As prisoners continued to pour in, conditions only got worse. Concerned about security and the increasing number of escape attempts, Wirz instituted a new boundary — a line of wooden posts — about fifteen feet inside the perimeter of the stockade. Prisoners were told if they stepped across this line they could be shot without warning. A rumor even circulated that the guards would receive a thirty-day furlough if they shot a prisoner. The effect of the new perimeter, soon to be called the “dead-line,” crowded the prisoners further and only made conditions worse. And it made Wirz no friends among the inmates.
Almost without exception, witnesses to Wirz’s behavior at Andersonville describe him as an angry and vicious man. Prisoners who annoyed him or who broke one of his rules, it was said, were placed in the stocks or shackled with ball and chain. Some prisoners who crossed the dead-line were shot by the guards, and Wirz was accused of ordering some of these deaths personally. He was even accused of killing prisoners by his own hand — shooting them with his sidearm or kicking them to death.
As his reputation grew worse, there was no crime, in the prisoners’ eyes, too vile for Wirz to commit. Whether he actually committed murder seems unlikely, as he once arrested a Richmond prison guard for shooting an inmate under his care; if nothing else, it would have been out of character for Wirz not to have made some record of such an incident.
By June 1864, with the simmering heat of the Georgia summer taking its toll, conditions deteriorated. Wirz wrote a letter to Richmond requesting better bread for the prisoners and new buckets to distribute food, as the ones they had were too few and rotten. It is doubtful that his request was ever fulfilled. Unable to ignore reports of the conditions at Andersonville, General Winder himself came down from Richmond to take charge of Camp Sumter, in whose bureaucracy the prison camp fell. Despite the horrors before him, Winder effected no policy changes in the running of the prison, but on June 18 the stockade was enlarged to twenty-six acres.
Still, overcrowding remained a serious problem. By the end of the month, the prison population stood at 26,367, with 1,201 deaths that month. As the summer progressed, the interior of the stockade became a morass of sick and dying men who huddled in filthy clusters of lean-to shanties, called “shebangs.” The stream running through the center of the camp ran thick with human waste, its surface crawling with flies. If the prisoners did not want to drink from the stream, they had to dig makeshift wells and bail water with their cups or shoes; some wells went as deep as fifty feet, but few produced much water. The merciless sun, alternating with hot rains, brought dysentery and other diseases. All prisoners were infested with lice and fleas, and open wounds of any kind were likely to become gangrenous.
As resentment of Wirz grew to a feverous pitch, he rarely entered the stockade without a heavily armed escort. Winder, too, became increasingly villainous in the prisoners’ minds; the Confederate general became the evil genius, and Wirz, his instrument.
IN THE MIDST of this misery, disorder and violence among the inmates increased. Several of the prisoners, some of whom were former criminals from the slums of New York, formed gangs. Called “N’Yarkers” or “raiders” by the other prisoners, the gang members, in all likelihood, had joined the Union army via the North’s “substitution” policy, whereby one man could pay another to take his place in the military draft. Often, the man paid would take the money, then desert his unit and return to re-enlist. All in all, they were an unsavory and brutal lot, given to attacking and even murdering other prisoners in order to steal their possessions.
As the summer of 1864 wore on, conditions worsened in the camp, but the raiders, having amassed considerable wealth and goods at the expense of their victims, prospered. A small prison police force comprised of club-wielding inmates was established to combat the raider problem, but the raiders — healthier, better fed and better equipped than the police — evaded capture. Tired of hearing complaints about the raiders, Wirz declared that no food would be issued until the raiders had been turned over to him.
Hungry but determined, the prisoners beat various minor gang members until they named names. By the end of three days, a hundred bloodied and battered raiders, stripped by the prisoners of their ill-gotten booty, were turned over to the Confederates. Wirz called a meeting of all the prison sergeants, telling them that the Confederate military could not punish the raiders because the action might invite reprisal on Southern prisoners in the North. He advised the sergeants to form a court, hold a trial, and administer justice as they saw fit.
The trial proceeded with considerable decorum, despite the fact that the men involved were dirty and half-starved. At Wirz’s suggestion, twelve sergeants recently admitted to Andersonville served as the jury. Each man was tried individually, and all but six were acquitted for lack of evidence. The remaining six were found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death.
Wirz again declined to carry out the sentence for fear of Northern reprisals, but he allowed the prisoners to construct a gallows inside the prison. According to one eyewitness — John I. Faller, a member of the Seventh Pennsylvania Reserve — the execution was carried out on July 11, 1864. When none of the prisoners volunteered to serve as executioner, Wirz promised “a pass through Confederate lines to any man who would consent to hang the murderers.” According to Faller:
A gigantic fellow know as “Limber Jim” accepted the offer. … Over the head of each prisoner he drew a meal sack — one of the sacks in which our rations were furnished, and which sacks, by the way, were kept in use for rations after the execution. As soon as all the caps were adjusted the trap was dropped and the murderers swung to their death.
After the executions, the raider problem diminished dramatically — one of the rare instances of an Andersonville problem finding a relative solution. Even Wirz’s harshest critics allowed him grudging admiration for his fair conduct in this incident.
DESPITE THE PASSING of the raiders, general conditions continued co deteriorate as rapidly as before. The guards and staff were almost as vulnerable to disease as were the prison inmates (it is said even General Winder suffered from gangrene of the face), and in mid-July, Henry Wirz became ill. His wounded arm, having become gangrenous, pained him severely, and he was granted three weeks of sick leave in August.
While on leave, Wirz wrote to Lt. Col. D. T Chandler, one of the Confederate officers in charge of prison inspection, who was in the process of submitting a report to Richmond about conditions at Andersonville. Wirz asked for relief at Andersonville, pointing out the prison’s inadequate supply of tools, food, and building materials. The stockade, he wrote, was ridiculously overcrowded; at the end of July, the prison population was teeming with over thirty-one thousand inmates, making it one of the largest cities in the Confederacy. “A long confinement has depressed the spirits of thousands and they are utterly indifferent,” wrote Wirz. Lastly, he complained about the quality of the guards: “With the exception of a portion of the Fifty-fifth Georgia, the balance are militiamen, and are perfectly undrilled and undisciplined.”
In an oddly anticlimactic way, everything at Andersonville came to a head during Wirz’s furlough. With Sherman marching through Georgia and prisoners from General Johnston’s running battle with him being sent directly to Andersonville, the stockade population grew to its highest mark, over thirty-two thousand. There was much talk in Andersonville that Sherman would liberate the prison, but Sherman made no move toward Andersonville, and instead drove forward to capture Atlanta on September 2.
Meanwhile, inside the stockade, nearly three thousand men died, some shot and killed by skittish guards, during the month of August, the highest monthly mortality rate at Andersonville or any other prison. The blackest day of all was August 23, when ninety-seven prisoners died between dawn and dusk.
Wirz returned to duty in time for the aftermath. Disturbed by the sudden proximity of the front lines to Andersonville, Jefferson Davis ordered the bulk of the prisoners transferred further inside the Confederacy. Forthwith, about twenty thousand residents of Andersonville were redistributed throughout the South; only eight thousand remained. The death rate stayed high, however, because most of the prisoners left in Andersonville were too sick to travel, and, indeed, over half of the prison population died in October 1864. By November, with few new prisoners arriving, the camp, now more of a hospital encampment than a prison, contained less than two thousand men.
With the dispersal of Andersonville inmates and other prisoners throughout the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis decided to centralize the prison bureaucracy. To that end, on November 21, 1864, he placed General Winder in charge of all prisons east of the Mississippi. In January, Winder embarked on a tour of Confederate prisons, and on February 7, 1865, while inspecting a facility in Florence, South Carolina, he suffered a massive stroke and died. His abrupt removal from the field would have dire implications for Henry Wirz.
Despite a war churning towards conclusion and a diminished range of responsibility, Wirz continued to perform his duties. On February 26, he wrote a letter to the commissary requesting leather for prisoners’ shoes; this letter, like most of his others, went unheeded. Andersonville served for another month as a prison hospital and way station until April 9, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Suddenly the Civil War was over. The prison closed the following day — its population count: fifty-one men.
Confident that he was included in the terms of surrender and general amnesty, Captain Wirz remained at Andersonville with his family. On April 17, 1865, a formidable Union cavalry column under Gen. James H. Wilson occupied Columbus. Learning that Wirz was still at his post, General Wilson dispatched Capt. H. E. Noyes of the Fourth Regimental Cavalry to liberate any remaining prisoners and arrest the commander of Andersonville. Wirz, arrested on May 7, was indignant and immediately sent a letter to General Wilson:
The duties I had to perform were arduous and unpleasant, and I am satisfied that no man can or will justly blame me for things that happened here, and which were beyond my power to control. … Still I now bear the odium, and men who were prisoners have seemed disposed to wreak their vengeance upon me for what they have suffered. … My life is in danger, and I most respectfully ask of you help and relief. … My intention is to return with my family to Europe as soon as I can make the arrangements.
Wilson was unsympathetic. On May 16, the general reported to his superiors that Wirz was in his custody, and added, “I respectfully request that this miscreant be brought before a general court-martial in Washington, D. C.” It was a dangerous time for Wirz and other prison camp commanders. As John McElroy, a former Andersonville prisoner from Illinois, noted at the time, all Confederate prison keepers “had made deadly enemies among those whom they had maltreated who, had they known where they were, would have walked every step of the way thither to kill them.”
Indeed, several attempts were made on Wirz’s life as he was escorted, under heavy guard and the watchful eye of Captain Noyes, to Washington. In Chattanooga and Nashville, the would-be attackers were nearly successful. Finally, in Louisville, Kentucky, Noyes ordered Wirz to shave off his beard and don a black suit and beaver hat, a disguise that proved effective for the rest of the trip.
Wirz was incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, across the street from the Capitol. Imprisoned with him were others from Andersonville: W. Sidney Winder, Richard B. Winder, and two of the prison surgeons, Isaiah White and R. Randolph Stevenson. From this group, only Wirz would stand trial.
BY EARLY AUGUST 1865, the U. S. government was ready to present their case against Wirz. Col. Norton P. Chipman, the judge advocate of the military court and the chief prosecutor, laid out the hard evidence at Wirz’s arraignment. He presented reports on the mortality rate and conditions at the prison chat shocked the country: 12,912 Union men dead, more than at any single Civil War battle. Almost immediately calls rang out for Wirz’s execution, some coming from such influential publications as the New York Times and Harper’s Weekly.
Wirz was charged, along with all three Winders (Gen. John Winder being posthumously indicted), Isaiah White, Randolph Stevenson, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and members of Davis’ cabinet with “[m]aliciously, willfully, and traitorously … combining, confederating, and conspiring together … to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military of the United States … in violation of the laws and customs of war.” Wirz himself was also charged with personally murdering thirteen prisoners, all of whom were unnamed; each victim was distinguishable only by the method of alleged homicide — from “shooting with a pistol” to “jumping upon and stamping to death,” to attacking with “ferocious dogs.” Wirz pleaded not guilty to all charges.
There was a problem with the Union case, however. Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton became nervous about coupling Wirz with the likes of Lee and Davis, as the latter two retained a certain eminence and respect even in the North. When the military court adjourned the following day, a startled Colonel Chipman received a packet from the War Department containing orders to dissolve the court. After much maneuvering, the court was reconvened and Wirz was rearraigned, again pleading not guilty. This time, however, the names of Lee, Davis, and Davis’ cabinet were removed from the charges and replaced with “persons unknown.” The trial began on August 23, 1865. It would last until October 24.
Wirz must have been a pathetic-looking figure in court. Weakened by stress and confinement, he had become seriously ill, and his wounded arm had become inflamed. At times he lacked the strength to sic upright. For most of the trial, he reclined on a couch which had been brought into the courtroom for him.
Wirz’s defense fell to two prominent Washington lawyers, Louis Schade, a Swiss like Wirz, and his associate, O. H. Baker. Wirz seemed doomed from the start. He had already been tried , convicted, and executed by the Northern press. Over the course of the trial, almost two hundred witnesses, one hundred and sixty of them former prisoners (actual and alleged) testified, the outstanding majority to the disadvantage of the defendant. James H. Davidson, a former prisoner from the Fourth Iowa Cavalry, quoted Wirz as bragging chat he was “killing more damned Yankees [at Andersonville] than Lee was at Richmond.” But there were bright spots for Wirz as well. The former post commander, A. W. Persons, testified that Wirz was not responsible for the overcrowding. He himself, Persons said, had asked Winder “to send no more prisoners, but they kept coming.”
A dozen witnesses implicated Wirz in the murder charges. Most often he was accused of ordering a guard to shoot a prisoner, as in the testimony of J. H. Burns, a former prisoner from Connecticut. “I have known [Wirz] to ill treat prisoners in his custody. I saw him order the guard to shoot a man named Chickamauga for going inside the dead-line.”
The rest of the witnesses testified about conditions at Andersonville and Wirz’s handling of the situation. These reports were rarely favorable, as the testimony of A. G. Blair of New York illustrates: “I have heard a great many questions asked Captain Wirz about rations whenever he would come into the camp. His reply was generally an oath, saying that we would get all the rations we deserved, and that was damned little.”
The court documents of the Wirz trial run to almost a thousand pages and have been extensively dissected and redissected both by Union proponents and Wirz apologists. Schade and Baker did their best to discredit the prosecution’s witnesses and the court as a whole. Responding to the two main charges, they argued that it was Gen. John Winder who desired to destroy prisoners under his supervision, that under the circumstances Wirz did everything an inferior officer could do to improve the prisoners’ lot while still following orders, and that all the testimony concerning Wirz’s personal involvement in the murder of inmates was contradictory, indefinite, and false.
All their legal maneuvering, however, was to no avail. Sentencing was set for November 6, but it was painfully apparent what the sentence would be. Disgusted, Schade sent a letter to President Andrew Johnson on October 26, airing his grievances. He accused the military court of excluding testimony favorable to his client. He pointed out the contradictory testimony of many of the witnesses, including the fact that thirteen cases of “personal cruelty and murder” were supposedly committed by Wirz in August 1864, a month when about sixty other witnesses testified that Wirz was on sick leave. “That,” wrote Schade, “proves sufficiently how much stress is to be laid upon such testimony.” Schade closed by pleading for clemency.
But clemency was not to be found. On November 6, 1865, the military commission reconvened for the last time, long enough for the court to hear the verdict of guilty on all counts and the sentence of death by hanging. President Johnson concurred with the verdict and ordered the sentence carried out with all due haste. The date was set for November 10, 1865.
In the final days before the execution, few voices were raised on Wirz’s behalf, although President Johnson received at least two letters regarding Wirz’s situation early in November. The first came from a Washingtonian named Estwick Evans, who urged Johnson to reprieve Wirz or at least commute his sentence, as “The praise of the vulgar, who thirst for his blood, will be no honor to you.” John Hitz, the consul-general of the Swiss embassy, also pleaded for mercy on Wirz’s behalf, writing “Does the great body of the American people demand that to the deplorable multitude of widows and orphans caused by the late sinful rebellion, another widow, other orphans shall be added? Oh, no, it cannot be.”
Henry Wirz himself wrote a letter in his cell the morning before his execution:
My Dearest Wife and Children:
When these lines reach you, the hand which wrote them will be stiff and cold. In a few hours from now I will be dead. O, if I could express myself as I wish! if I could tell you what I have suffered when I thought about you and the children! I must leave you without the means to live, to the mercies of a cold, cruel world. Lize, do not grieve, do not despair; we will meet again in a better world; console yourself; think as I do, that I die innocent.
Who knows better than you that all those tales of cruelties and murder are infamous lies, and why should I not say it? A great many do call me hard-hearted, because I tell them I am not guilty, that I have nothing to confess. … Lize, I die reconciled; I die, as I hope, a Christian. … Live for the dear children. O, do take good care of Cora. Kiss her for me; kiss Susan and Cornelia, … tell them that my last thought, my last prayer, shall be for them. …
I shall hand this letter to Mr. Schade, who will send it to you with some other papers and books. … And now,farewell, wife, children, all; farewell,farewell; God be with us.
Your unfortunate husband and father,
And so, between the hours of ten and eleven A.M. on Friday, November 10, 1865, former Confederate Captain Henry Wirz was hanged before a jeering and singing crowd. According to a reporter from the New York World, his last words were “I am innocent of the charge brought against me. I am going before God, who will judge between me and my accusers.”
Wirz was interred in the arsenal burial grounds of the Old Capitol Prison, next to the Lincoln assassination conspirator, George Atzerodt, also executed by hanging. Three years after Wirz’s death, Louis Schade petitioned President Johnson on behalf of the Wirz family, asking that the remains be given over for burial. Johnson acceded to this request, but a letter from Schade to Johnson on February 26, 1869, provides a grisly postscript:
The coffin, however, which was delivered to me at the Arsenal contains only the frame, the head, right hand and spine being missing. … the skull and some other parts of the body had been exhibited at the Old Capitol Prison by a discharged soldier for money.
Schade asked that the missing parts of Wirz’s body be returned, but he later stated that he did not know if they ever had been. Regardless, a formal funeral was held a few days later at Mount Olivet Cemetery, Washington, D.C., where the remains of Henry Wirz were buried for the final time.
BECAUSE OF ALL the tangled and emotional issues involved, the trial and execution of Henry Wirz has generated interest for more than a century. In the 1890s, Jefferson Davis wrote a series of articles vindicating Wirz in Bedford’s Magazine. In response, Norton Chipman, Wirz’s chief prosecutor, published a circular refuting Davis’ charge that Wirz had been “judicially murdered.” Then, on May 12, 1909, the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a monument to Wirz at Andersonville Cemetery. The dedication was performed by Cora Wirz Perrin, who had been ten years old when her father was executed; she had since married and was living in Natchez, Mississippi. The monument so incensed Chipman that he expanded his previous work to a detailed report of over five hundred pages and published it privately in 1911 as The Tragedy of Andersonville.
Of course, the question remains: Was Henry Wirz guilty or innocent? It seems he was guilty in the North and innocent in the South, and the truth, like so much else, lies somewhere in between. Andersonville was the worst of a bad lot, and Wirz was no model officer, or even an admirable human being; his main strength appears to have been a talent (or even an obsession) for bureaucracy. Still, it seems incontestable he was the victim of an injustice, which is no more excusable when practiced on the lowly. As far as Wirz personally murdering prisoners, the evidence that convicted him would not stand a chance in a contemporary court of law. In fact, the trial’s many irregularities make it seem uncomfortably close to a kangaroo court. But then, one must take into consideration the tempo of the times, a country sundered by warfare and drenched in its own blood, a Union hungry for someone to blame for the prison dead, for the war, for everything. Henry Wirz may not have been a sacrificial lamb or fatted calf, but he was no less a sacrifice.
Originally published in Alabama Heritage, Spring 1995, Number 36.