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Wirz, Henryfree

(25 November 1823–10 November 1865)
  • Arch Fredric Blakey

Henry Wirz.

At the reading of the death warrant prior to his execution.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8171-7752).

Wirz, Henry (25 November 1823–10 November 1865), the only Confederate officer executed as a war criminal, was born Hartmann Heinrich Wirz in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of Hans Caspar Wirz, a tailor, and Sophie Barbara Philipp. After completing elementary and secondary school at the lower Gymnasium in Zurich, Wirz wanted to study medicine, but family finances did not permit medical school. Instead, he received commercial training at a Zurich firm and then worked for one year in Torino, Italy. He was listed as a merchant and also assisted his father, who was custodian of the customhouse in Zurich from 1834 to 1852. In 1845 he married Emilie Oschwald; they had two children. Shortly after his marriage Wirz borrowed 4,200 Swiss francs and was not able to repay the loan on time. He was sentenced to four years in prison on 3 April 1847, but the court decided the following June that he could be freed if he agreed not to return to Zurich for twelve years. Wirz decided to emigrate, but his wife refused, and they divorced in 1853.

After a year in Russia, Wirz came to the United States in 1849 and worked at a factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, for a short time. He was employed as a doctor’s assistant at Hopkinsville, Kentucky, by 1853 and moved to nearby Cadiz in 1853 or 1854. In 1854 he married Elizabeth Wolf; they had one daughter. Wirz practiced homeopathic medicine in Cadiz for a year but moved to Louisville and became superintendent of a water cure establishment in 1855. There he met Levin A. Marshall, a planter from Natchez, Mississippi, who hired him to oversee one of his plantations for $300 per year plus a horse. Wirz ran Milliken’s Bend plantation for Marshall as overseer/physician until the war came.

On 16 June 1861 Wirz enlisted in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry as a private but was promoted to sergeant the next year. He later claimed that he was severely wounded in the right arm at the battle of Seven Pines on 31 May 1862. Whether he was even at that battle is debatable, but he was injured sometime that year, losing the use of his arm and suffering great pain for the rest of his life. Promoted to captain, he was assigned to the staff of Brigadier General John Henry Winder, who put him in command of the Richmond military prison. Called “Dutch Sergeant” by the prisoners because of his accent, he was not unpopular with them at that time. In fact, when he was sent to the prison in Cahaba, Alabama, later in 1862, he was much esteemed by the inmates there; they petitioned to keep him in command, a rarity at any time.

Wirz went to Europe sometime in 1863 and traveled for the rest of the year. He may have been on official Confederate business, but he may simply have been seeking medical help for his wound. The Confederacy he returned to in February 1864 had fallen on hard times as he found out when Winder placed him in command of the stockade at the Andersonville, Georgia, prison in March of that year. The exchange of prisoners had ceased, and the overpopulated compound rapidly became a hell on earth for everyone there. The Confederacy was so short of the basic necessities that even Confederate troops in the field were near starvation. Prisoners ranked last in importance, and Wirz was lucky to be able to feed his charges anything at all. Food, medicine, housing, even water were in short supply by that summer. As Union prisoners died by the thousands, the northern press characterized both Winder and Wirz as “inhuman fiends” and “monsters.”

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln further inflamed the North, already sickened and enraged over the prisoner issue, and the public demanded that someone pay for these crimes. Winder died of a heart attack on 6 February 1865, thus depriving vengeful Union authorities of any opportunity of trying him as a war criminal. That left Wirz, who was arrested in May 1865, still tending to the sick at Andersonville. The Wirz “trial” lasted for three months; he was charged with murder and abuse of prisoners and of conspiring with Jefferson Davis, James Seddon, and others to murder the prisoners en masse. Lies and distortions were accepted as fact, and Wirz was sentenced to hang “for impairing the health and destroying the lives of prisoners.”

According to Andersonville quartermaster Richard Bayley Winder, an officer and gentleman highly respected for his veracity as well as for his untiring attempts to relieve the agonies of the inmates, shortly before he was to be executed Wirz was approached by a secret emissary from the War Department, who offered him a full reprieve if he would swear that Davis had headed a conspiracy to murder Union captives. Wirz indignantly refused, but as he was being conducted to the gallows at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., he told the officer charged with hanging him, “I know what orders are, Major—I am being hung for obeying them.”

Wirz was a controversial figure, as was John Winder. Both have been savaged as beasts, but both were trapped in an impossible situation. Winder praised Wirz as one of the few truly able and energetic officers on his staff, and Wirz did make every effort to improve conditions at Andersonville. He dammed the creek trying to collect clean water, built sinks, and practically worked himself to death during August 1864. His health was so bad that many suspected he might not live to the end of his trial.

There is no question that Wirz did not receive a fair trial. Testimony by men who were not even at Andersonville was routine, accusations that he committed murder when he was not even there were accepted as unimpeachable facts, and he was not allowed to have anyone testify for his defense. Still, Wirz was not a likable figure; by all accounts he was rough, profane, and hot-tempered, and no one could deny the horrors of Andersonville. That no one could have performed any better, given the low priority that both governments assigned to the care of captives, was overlooked; the North demanded that someone pay for these tragedies. So it was that Wirz, poor, friendless, and foreign-born, was sacrificed.

Bibliography

A book about Wirz published in Switzerland is Jurg Weibel, Captain Wirz, Eine Chronik: Ein Dokumentarischer Roman (1991). For his trial see U.S. Congress, Trial of Henry Wirz. Letter … Transmitting a Summary of the Trial, 40th Cong., 2d sess., 1867–1868, Executive Doc.; and the New York Tribune, 11, 12, and 22 July 1865. Wirz is also discussed in Otis Futch, Andersonville (1968); Arch Fredric Blakey, General John H. Winder, C.S.A. (1990); and William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot (1994).