|Birth name||Heinrich Hartmann Wirz|
November 25, 1823|
November 10, 1865 (aged 41)|
Washington, D.C., United States
|Buried||Mount Olivet Cemetery, Washington, D.C., United States|
|Years of service||1861–1865|
|Commands held||Andersonville Prison|
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz, better known as Henry Wirz (November 25, 1823 – November 10, 1865), was a Swiss-American officer of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Wirz is best known as the commandant of the stockade of Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia, infamous for its terrible conditions and the high mortality rate of Union detainees. After the war, Wirz was tried and executed for conspiracy and murder relating to his command of the camp, and was one of only two people convicted for war crimes during the American Civil War.
Since his execution, Wirz has become a controversial figure due to debate about his guilt and reputation, including criticism over his personal responsibility for Camp Sumter's conditions and the quality of his post-war trial.
Career and family
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born on November 25, 1823 in Zurich, Switzerland, to Hans Caspar Wirz and Sophie Barbara Philipp. Wirz received elementary and secondary education, and he aspired to become a physician but his family did not possess funds to pay for his medical education. Instead he became a merchant, working in Zurich and Turin. Wirz had married Emilie Oschwald in 1845 and had two children. In April 1847, he received a four-year prison term for inability to return money that he borrowed. The court commuted his sentence to 12-year forcible emigration, but his wife refused to emigrate and obtained a divorce in 1853.
In 1848, Wirz first went to Russia and the next year to the United States, where he found employment in a factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After five years, he moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and worked as a doctor's assistant. He tried to establish his own homeopathic medicine practice in Cadiz, Kentucky, and also worked as superintendent of a water cure clinic in Northampton, Massachusetts.
In 1854, Wirz married a Methodist widow named Elizabeth Wolfe. Along with her two daughters, they moved to Louisiana, where in 1855 she gave birth to their daughter Cora. In Louisiana, Wirz worked for Levin Marshall as a plantation overseer and physician.
Upon the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, 37 year-old Wirz enlisted as a private in Company A (Madison Infantry), 4th Battalion of Louisiana Infantry of the Confederate army in Madison Parish. 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. (This was Wirz's claim, but there is no other evidence for it and it was suggested that he was instead injured in a stagecoach accident, after the battle; nor is there any evidence that he was promoted for battlefield performance of any kind: see Marvel, Andersonville, 37.) 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, as his adjutant.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis made Captain Wirz a Special Minister and sent him to Europe carrying secret dispatches to 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 initially served on detached duty as a prison commandant in Alabama, but was then transferred to help guard Union prisoners incarcerated at Richmond.
In February 1864, the Confederate government established Camp Sumter, a large military prison near the small railroad depot of Anderson (now Andersonville) in south-western Georgia, built to house Union prisoners-of-war. In April 1864, Wirz arrived at Camp Sumter and remained there for over a year holding the post of commandant of the stockade and its interior. Wirz was praised by his many superiors and even by some prisoners, and was even recommended for, but not promoted to, major.
Camp Sumter had not been constructed to its full plan, and was quickly overwhelmed by the influx of Union prisoners. Though wooden barracks were originally planned, the Confederates incarcerated the prisoners in a vast, rectangular, open-air stockade originally encompassing 16 and a half acres, which had been intended as only a temporary prison pending exchanges of prisoners with the Union. The prisoners gave this place the name "Andersonville", which became the colloquial name for the camp. Camp Sumter suffered from severe overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, an extreme lack of food, tools, medical supplies, and potable water. Wirz recognized that the conditions were inadequate and petitioned his superiors to provide more support, but 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.
At its peak in August 1864, the Camp Sumter held approximately 32,000 Union prisoners, technically 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 the 4th U.S. Cavalry on May 7, 1865, in Andersonville. He was taken first to Macon, Georgia, and then by rail to Washington, D.C., arriving there on May 10, 1865, where he was held in the Old Capitol Prison since the Federal government decided to put him on trial for conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war. A special Military Commission was convened with Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace presiding. The other members were Gershom Mott; John W. Geary; Lorenzo Thomas; Francis Fessenden; Edward S. Bragg; John F. Ballier, U.S. Volunteers; T. Allcock, 4th New York Artillery; and John H. Stibbs, 12th Iowa Volunteers. Col. Norton P. Chipman served as Judge Advocate. During the trial gangrene prevented him from sitting and he spent the trial on a couch.
The military tribunal took place between August 23 and October 18, 1865, held in the Court of Federal Claims, and dominating the front pages of newspapers across the United States. Wirz was charged with "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, then held and being prisoners of war within the lines of the so-called Confederate States, and in the military prisons thereof, to the end that the armies of the United States might be weakened and impaired, in violation of the laws and customs of war" and for "violation of the laws of war, to impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives—by subjecting to torture and great suffering; by confining in unhealthy and unwholesome quarters; by exposing to the inclemency of winter and to the dews and burning sun of summer; by compelling the use of impure water; and by furnishing insufficient and unwholesome food—of large numbers of Federal prisoners." Wirz was accused of committing 13 acts of personal cruelty and murders in August 1864: by revolver (specifications 1, 3, 4), by physically stomping 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). Wirz was also charged with ordering guards to fire on prisoners with muskets (specifications 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.
The court heard the testimonies of former Camp Sumter prisoners, ex-Confederate soldiers, and residents of nearby Andersonville. Out of the 160 witnesses on the stand, 145 testified that they did not observe Wirz killing anybody; others failed to provide particulars and introduced evidence remained hearsay. Twelve said that they witnessed cruelty on the part of Wirz. However, there was one witness whose testimony was particularly damning. He went by the name of Felix de la Baume and claimed to be a descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette, who identified under oath a victim allegedly killed personally by Wirz.
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 testify was Robert E. Lee. According to Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of General Robert E. Lee, "[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."
In his closing statement, the Judge Advocate General (prosecutor) Joseph Holt vilified Wirz and pronounced that, "his work of death seems to have been a saturnalia of enjoyment for the prisoner [Wirz], who amid these savage orgies evidenced such exultation and mingled with them such nameless blasphemy and ribald jest, as at times to exhibit him rather as a demon than a man."
In early November 1865, the Military Commission announced that it had found Wirz guilty of conspiracy as charged, along with 11 of 13 counts of acts of personal cruelty, and 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 by an emissary from a high Cabinet official that if Wirz would implicate Jefferson Davis in the atrocities committed at Andersonville, his sentence would be commuted. Allegedly, Schade repeated the offer to Wirz who replied, "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 of him I would not become a traitor against him, or anybody else, even to save my life." Rev. P. E. Bole received the same visitor and later sent a letter to Jefferson Davis, who included it as well as Wirz's reply to Schade in his book, Andersonville and Other War-Prisons (1890). Andersonville quartermaster Richard B. Winder, who was in the prison at the time, also confirmed this episode.
Wirz was hanged at 10:32 a.m. on November 10, 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C., located next to the U.S. Capitol. His neck did not break from the fall, and the crowd of 200 spectators guarded by 120 soldiers watched as he writhed and slowly strangled. Wirz was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Wirz was one of only 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 were executed for being guerrillas.
The trial and execution of Henry Wirz created a lasting controversy, starting when it was disclosed that the star witness for the prosecution, Felix de la Baume, worked for the United States Department of the Interior, and that he had perjured himself at the trial. He was not Felix de la Baume from France, but Felix Oessel born in the 1840s in Saxony, which was a part of the German Confederation at the time, and was actually a deserter from the 7th New York Volunteers (Steuben) regiment. The Washington Evening Star published on November 27, 1865, the following, "The German witness Baume, who figured extensively in the Wirz trial, has been dismissed from the Interior Department, it having been shown that he was a deserter from the 7th New York (Steuben) regiment. His real name is Felix Oessel." Oessel 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.
The Wirz controversy grew out of the questions remaining after his trial pertaining to guilt and responsibility for multiple deaths of prisoners of war in camps on both sides following suspension of the Dix-Hill Cartel prisoner exchange agreement in July 1863. The Grand Army of the Republic, the United Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, among others, evoked sad memories of Civil War prisoners portraying Wirz either a villain, or a martyr-hero, thus further contributing to the disputation. From 1899 to 1916, sixteen states erected monuments dedicated to the Camp Sumter's prisoners. In response, the United Daughters of the Confederacy initiated a construction of a monument honoring Henry Wirz in Andersonville, Georgia. Until recently, Sons of Confederate Veterans annually marched to a Wirz's memorial in Andersonville along with supporters of a congressional pardon for him.
During and after the trial Wirz was reviled in the court of public opinion as "The Demon of Andersonville". After time passed, some writers suggested Wirz's tribunal was unfair and claimed that "Wirz did not receive a fair trial. Nevertheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to death." Even a few of his former prisoners conceded during the trial that the little support Wirz received from the Confederate government in terms of food, water, and medical supplies made the conditions at Andersonville beyond his scope of responsibility. In 1980, historian Morgan D. Peoples referred to Wirz as a "scapegoat." Wirz's conviction remains controversial.
Despite the surrounding controversy, the Wirz 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 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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