1610: Blessed George Napier 1761: John Perrott, bankrupt debtor

1865: Henry Wirz, for detainee abuse

November 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Henry Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C. for running a notorious Confederate prison camp.

A Swiss-born doctor (“Henrich” was the real handle) whom time and tide found practicing in Louisiana at the onset of the Civil War, Wirz apparently got into the prison-guarding ranks when a war injury left him unfit for the front lines.

But it was front-line fitness in the northern army that would set the scene for his controversial hanging.

The North’s advantage in men and materiel shaped Union strategy as the war progressed, and it eventually caused the Union to halt prisoner exchanges. Exchanging casualty for casualty was a winning strategy on the battlefield, so why return to your enemy a man for a man? Besides,

[Grant] said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us.

-Benjamin Butler (we’ve met him before)

As designed, then, the South began piling up more and more POWs to maintain with its ever-straitened resources late in the war. And if exchange was out, that really only left one form of “release”.


Andersonville Prison survivor John L. Ransom’s view of the prison, from the Library of Congress.

Andersonville — officially, Camp Sumter, located near the tiny Georgia town of Andersonville — was only established in 1864, but acquired considerable notoriety in northern propaganda for the year and change that Wirz ran it. The prisoners didn’t enjoy it much, either.

Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.

-Union prisoner diary, July 1864. Note the prisoner’s anger at Washington — whose refusal to exchange naturally infuriated its stranded POWs

Out of some 45,000 prisoners held at Andersonville during its existence (not all at one time), nearly 13,000 succumbed to disease and malnutrition.* After the war, photos of wasted survivors inflamed (northern) public opinion, already tetchy over Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walt Whitman wrote of Andersonville,

There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless damnation.

Damnation is up to higher powers, of course, but the North wanted somebody to answer for Andersonville on this mortal coil. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson overruled mooted charges against Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War James Seddon, leaving — in that great American tradition — Heinrich Wirz holding the bag.**

Shatner sighting!

The trial had an undeniable aspect of victor’s justice.† Even at the gallows, the Union guards chanted, “Wirz, remember Andersonville!” as the condemned man was readied for the noose, and then dropped. The hanging failed to break the man’s neck, and he strangled as the chant continued.

Southern efforts to reshape the story of Andersonville began in the lifetimes of Wirz’s contemporaries; this fulsome volume supporting the charges answered Jefferson Davis in terms that sound strikingly contemporary:

So long as Southern leaders continue to distort history (and rekindle embers in order to make the opportunity for distorting it), so long will there rise up defenders of the truth of history … To deny the horrors of Andersonville is to deny there was a rebellion. Both are historic facts placed beyond the realm of doubt.

But of course, it does not require denying the horrors of Andersonville to notice the circumstances — the privation of the entire South late in the war — and to wonder that Wirz and Wirz alone was held to account. Plenty of people think he got a bum rap.


Daughters of the Confederacy monument to Wirz. (cc) image from divemasterking2000.


Pro-Wirz marker in Andersonville, Ga. (Click for easier-on-the-eyes version, reading in part, “Had he been an angel from heaven, he could not have changed the pitiful tale of privation and hunger unless he had possessed the power to repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes”). (cc) image from Mark D L.

Recommended for general reading: the UMKC Famous Trials page on this case, several of whose pages have been linked in this entry. A number of nineteenth-century texts by (or citing) Andersonville survivors are available from Google books, including:

Since this is a controversy of the Civil War — and one that can be engaged without having to get into that whole slavery thing — there have been thousands of published pages written about it, with many more sure to come in future years.

A few books about Henry Wirz and Andersonville

As an interesting aside, Civil War POW camps including Andersonville (but not only Andersonville) gave us the term “deadline,” which had a more startlingly literal definition in the 1860s — a perimeter beyond which prisoners would be shot on sight, which policy could make a handy stand-in for walls. Gratuitously killing an insane prisoner who crossed Camp Sumter’s “dead line” was one of the atrocities laid to Wirz, who we take it would not have been at home to the word’s decreasingly urgent appropriation in the wider culture.

* Wirz’s defense showed, to no avail, that the prisoners and the guards received the same rations, with similarly deleterious effects among both, and that the commandant was on record pleading with his superiors for more.

** Wirz’s attorney claimed that his man was offered (and refused to take) a last-minute pardon on November 9 in exchange for implicating Jefferson Davis.

† Wirz and borderlands guerrilla Champ Ferguson were the only Confederates executed for their “war crimes”. There was at least one other prison guard who faced similar charges of prisoner maltreatment, John Henry Gee; Gee was acquitted and released in 1866. (For more on the latter, see “A Little-known Case from the American Civil War: The War Crimes Trial of Major General John H. Gee” by Guénaël Mettraux in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2010.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Separatists,Soldiers,U.S. Federal,USA,War Crimes,Washington DC,Wrongful Executions

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