Henry Wirz

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Henry Wirz

Born November 1823
Zurich, Switzerland
Died November 10, 1865
Washington, D.C.

Confederate commander of Andersonville Prison

Only Confederate official executed
for his actions during the Civil War

"Our feelings cannot be described as we gazed on these poor human beings. . . . Such squalid, filthy wretchedness, hunger, disease, nakedness and cold, I never saw before."

A Union soldier, commenting on his fellow prisoners at Andersonville.

Henry Wirz was the commander of Andersonville Prison, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp that housed more than forty thousand Union soldiers during the Civil War. More than twelve thousand Union prisoners died of disease and hunger at Andersonville, making the prison the most notorious of the many prison camps operated by the Union and Confederate armies. In November 1865, Wirz was hanged by the Federal government for crimes committed at Andersonville. He was the only Confederate official executed for his actions during the Civil War.

Swiss native sides with Confederacy

Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born in Switzerland in 1823. As a youth he attended schools throughout Europe, including Zurich, Switzerland; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany. He was interested in studying medicine, but pressure from his father led him to abandon a medical career and go into business. In 1849, Wirz immigrated to America. Changing his first name to Henry, he took a job as a doctor's assistant in Kentucky. By the time the Civil War started in 1861, Wirz had moved down to Louisiana, where he provided medical services at a plantation.

The Civil War came about because of long-standing disagreements between America's Northern and Southern states. One major area of disagreement was slavery, which was still practiced in the South. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish (eliminate) it. But the economy of the South had been built on slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice. The two regions also disagreed about the appropriate balance between state and Federal authority. The Northern states favored a strong central government, but Southern states supported the concept of states' rights, which held that people in each state could make their own decisions about slavery and other issues. America's westward expansion during this time made these disputes even worse, since both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states.

In early 1861, these differences became so great that eleven Southern states voted to secede from (leave) the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. The North, though, was not willing to let the secessionist states break up the Union without a fight. In the spring of 1861, the two sides finally went to war.

When the Civil War began, Wirz quickly sided with the South, which he had adopted as his homeland. He joined Louisiana's Confederate forces in June 1861 as a private. Over the next fifteen months, he rose through the ranks of the army to the position of captain. His military record during this period, however, was controversial. For example, Wirz claimed that he was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862. But some historians doubt that he was even present at the battle.

Andersonville Prison

In 1863, Wirz was assigned to a military prison in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In March of 1864, he was ordered to take command of a prisoner-of-war camp outside of Andersonville, a village in Sumter County, Georgia. The Andersonville prison had opened one month earlier. Located on sixteen acres of open land, it was designed to hold about ten thousand men. For the first two years of the war, the two sides managed to limit the number of prisoners they held by engaging in prisoner exchanges. Each side would exchange a certain number of prisoners for the same number of its own soldiers that had been captured by the enemy. In mid-1863, though, prisoner exchanges between the Federal and rebel (Confederate) armies ground to a halt because the Confederacy refused to turn over black prisoners. In the meantime, newly captured Union soldiers continued to pour into Andersonville, sometimes at the rate of four hundred a day.

By August 1864, Andersonville held more than thirty-three thousand Union soldiers, making it the fifth-largest city in the entire Confederacy. The size of the prison was increased to twenty-six acres, but this did not do much to improve the dreadful living conditions that the prisoners endured. Wirz did not allow them to build shelters, so most of them dug holes in the dirt and used scraps of clothing and blankets to protect themselves from the hot sun. In addition, widespread food shortages across the South meant that inmates at Andersonville received very little to eat. Each inmate's daily ration of food consisted of a teaspoon of salt, three tablespoons of beans, and a small amount of unsifted cornmeal. The water situation at Andersonville was terrible as well. A small stream ran through the camp, but prisoners were forced to use it both as their sole source of drinking water and as a latrine to carry away human waste. After awhile, the stream backed up and flooded large portions of the camp, turning some flooded sections into swampy areas crusted with human waste.

As the summer of 1864 came to an end, an average of more than one hundred Andersonville prisoners died each day from typhoid fever, gangrene, diarrhea, dysentery, and malnutrition. A small number were shot trying to escape or died when their burrows caved in on them, burying them alive. As the conditions worsened with each passing day, the morale of the hungry and feverish soldiers plummeted. Many imprisoned soldiers became hopelessly depressed at the idea of surviving major battles like Gettysburg (July 1863) or Antietam (September 1862), only to die slowly of diarrhea or dysentery.

The situation at Andersonville became so bad that when newly captured Union soldiers arrived at the camp, they could hardly believe their eyes. "Hunger, sickness, exposure, and dirt had so transformed them that they more resembled walking skeletons, painted black," recalled one Union soldier who was part of a group of prisoners sent to Andersonville in the fall of 1864. "Our feelings cannot be described as we gazed on these poor human beings. . . . Such squalid [dirty], filthy wretchedness, hunger, disease, nakedness and cold, I never saw before."

Freed prisoners continue to suffer after the war ends

By the time the Civil War finally ended in the spring of 1865, conditions at Andersonville had claimed the lives of an estimated thirteen thousand Union prisoners of war, 29 percent of its total prisoner population of forty-five thousand But many of those who survived felt the effects of their imprisonment for the rest of their lives. Some never fully recovered from the physical stress that they endured, while others struggled to deal with emotional problems that developed as a result of being in the middle of so much death and suffering.

Northerners were horrified when they learned about the prison conditions at Andersonville. Their anger became even greater on April 27, 1865, when the boiler of an over-loaded steamship called the Sultana blew up on the Mississippi River. An estimated seventeen hundred passengers drowned or burned alive in the accident. Most of the casualties were freed prisoners from Andersonville, on their way home to their families. The Sultana disaster remains the worst maritime disaster in American history.

Wirz on trial

In May 1865, Wirz wrote to Union officials asking for permission to return to Switzerland. "The duties I had to perform were arduous [difficult] and unpleasant and I am satisfied that no one can or will justly blame me for things that happened here and which were beyond my power to control," Wirz stated. But he was instead arrested and sent to Washington to be tried for war crimes.

Wirz's trial took place before a special military court that was charged with determining whether Wirz had committed war crimes during his command at Andersonville. Many historians believe that the Confederate officer did not receive a fair trial. For example, some witnesses who were friendly to Wirz were prevented from testifying. Other witnesses claimed that Wirz personally shot or assaulted prisoners on dates when he was actually absent from the prison on medical leave. Prosecutors, though, also presented many other witnesses who testified about Wirz's cruelty and the camp's awful living conditions. After listening to the testimony, the court found Wirz "guilty of murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war," and ordered his execution. Just before he was to be executed, Union officials offered to spare his life if he would testify that Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) engaged in a conspiracy to kill Union prisoners. But Wirz refused the offer, saying that "Jefferson Davis had no connection with me as to what was done at Andersonville." Wirz was hanged on November 10, 1865, in Washington's Old Capitol Prison. Wirz thus became the only Confederate official or soldier to be executed for his wartime activities.

Today, historians continue to debate Wirz's responsibility for conditions at Andersonville. Some people believe that the commandant was a cruel and evil man who did not care whether the prison's Union inmates died. Others, though, say that Wirz was only an inefficient administrator who found it impossible to provide for prisoners at a time when the entire Confederacy was crumbling.

Where to Learn More

The Court Martial of Henry Wirz Official Records. [Online] http://www.civilwarhome.com/wirzcourtmartial.htm (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Hesseltine, William B. Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1930. Reprint, 1998.

Marvel, William. Andersonville: The Last Depot. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Page, James Madison. The True Story of Andersonville Prison: A Defense ofMajor Henry Wirz. New York: Neale, 1908. Reprint, Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 1999.

University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law. Famous AmericanTrials: The Trial of Captain Henry Wirz. [Online] http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wirz/wirz.htm (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Civil War Prisons

The Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia, is the best known of the many prisoner-of-war camps that operated during the American Civil War. But captured soldiers imprisoned at other camps endured horrible conditions as well. According to mortality (rate of death) statistics, Andersonville was not even the worst prison in the South. That distinction goes to a Confederate prison in Salisbury, North Carolina, where 34 percent of the 10,321 Union soldiers imprisoned died (by comparison, 29 percent of the Union prisoners held at Andersonville died). Meanwhile, at the Belle Isle Prison in Richmond, Virginia, prisoners received so little food that 90 percent of the Union soldiers who survived weighed less than one hundred pounds. "Can these be men?" asked writer Walt Whitman (1819–1892) when he saw several former prisoners at Belle Isle. "Are they not really mummied, dwindled corpses? They lay there, most of them, quite still, but with a horrible look in their eyes and skinny lips (often with not enough flesh to cover their teeth). . . . The dead [at Belle Isle] are not to be pitied as much as some of the living that have come from there . . . many of them are mentally imbecile [suffered mental collapse], and will never recuperate."

Prison conditions at some Union prisons were extremely poor as well, even though the North had far greater supplies of food, medicine, and other supplies. At the prison in Elmira, New York, for instance, approximately one out of four Confederate prisoners of war died. And at the Union prison in Rock Island, Illinois, a smallpox epidemic killed eighteen hundred Southern prisoners in a matter of weeks. Altogether, more than 56,000 Civil War soldiers (25,976 Confederate and 30,218 Union) lost their lives in prisoner-of-war camps. These terrible statistics make it clear that "the treatment of prisoners during the Civil War was something that neither side could be proud of," remarked James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom.

The terrible conditions that existed at many Civil War prison camps developed because the two sides stopped exchanging prisoners in May 1863. This halt came about because the South refused to trade black Union soldiers that it captured. Instead, they forced these black soldiers back into slavery in the South. This policy outraged President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) and his administration, which announced that all prisoner exchanges would cease until black Union soldiers were included. This in turn caused the war prisons to become filled far beyond their normal capacity and made it harder for prison officials to provide for all of their inmates' needs.

"The prison camps in the Civil War were inhuman," wrote Bruce Catton in Reflections on the Civil War. "[But] with very few exceptions, like perhaps Wirz at Andersonville, the men in charge of the camps did the best they could. . . . The big trouble was that in North and South alike, as far as the authorities were concerned, the prison camps came last. They got what was left over when all of the other needs had been met. They were last on the line for food supplies, for medical supplies, for doctors, for housing, for clothing, for guards, for all of the things that are needed to run a prison camp."

As time passed, the end of prisoner exchanges hurt the South much more than the North, since they began to suffer from a severe shortage of soldiers. Because of this, some people have charged that the North was actually most responsible for ending the prisoner exchanges because it knew that a halt benefited its efforts to break the Confederate Army. But most historians agree that it was the South's refusal to exchange black soldiers that caused the deadlock. In fact, prisoner exchanges did take place from January 1865 forward, after the Confederate government finally agreed to exchange black, as well as white, Union troops.