Henry Wirz Trial: 1865

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Henry Wirz Trial: 1865

Defendant: Captain Henry Wirz
Crimes Charged: 13 counts of murder, assault, battery, torture and other offenses against Union prisoners
Chief Defense Lawyer: Louis Schade
Chief Prosecutor: Judge Advocate Colonel N. P. Chipman
Judges: Military Commission officers Brevet Colonel T. Allcock, Brevet Brigadier General John F. Ballior, Brigadier General A. S. Bragg, Brigadier General Francis Fessenden, Brevet Major General G. Mott, Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Stibbs, Brevet Major General L. Thomas, and Major General Lew Wallace
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: August 23-October 18, 1865
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: After the Civil War, the Union tried Confederate Captain Henry Wirz for war crimes resulting from his command of a prison camp for Union captives at Andersonville, Georgia. Henry Wirz's trial was the first war-crimes trial in U.S. history and the only trial for war crimes of a Confederate after the Civil War.

Toward the end of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman launched his famous March to the Sea through Georgia. Sherman's troops stripped the land of food and destroyed every plantation, railroad track, and other things of military importance in their path. As they cut a swath 60 miles wide through the heart of the crumbling Confederacy, Sherman's troops encountered some men, nearly starved to death and in tattered clothing, who claimed that they had escaped from a Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, where thousands more like them were still captive. When Union troops took Andersonville, they found these reports were true.

Like the Allied troops in 1945 advancing deep into the Nazi heartland and coming upon Auschwitz or Treblinka decades later, Union soldiers saw how in modern warfare a civilized country could treat its enemies with barbarism. In the middle of some of the South's richest farm land, Union prisoners starved to death. Captain Henry Wirz kept them under heavy guard on a small patch of land, through which a little creek flowed and provided the only source of drinking water and sanitation. The creek was soon fouled with excrement, causing disease to spread like wildfire among the prisoners penned up in Andersonville. Wirz did nothing to ensure that adequate food, clothing, or medical care reached the men under his care.

In his Andersonville diary, John Ransom wrote that in particularly bad months, one-third to one-half of the prisoners in Andersonville died from the terrible conditions there. Although these tragedies were taking place every month, Andersonville's population continued to swell due to fresh battles and Confederate captures of Union troops. For example, in August 1864, there were nearly 40,000 men in Andersonville, which was designed to hold only 10,000.

After Union troops arrived, the liberated prisoners spoke of atrocities Wirz personally committed. According to the prisoners, Wirz had on several occasions shot, tortured, and otherwise mistreated Union prisoners for no reason.

Wirz Tried for War Crimes

General James H. Wilson arrested Wirz and kept him imprisoned at Wilson's headquarters. In May 1865 Wirz was taken under heavy guard to Washington, D.C., for trial. The escort was not so much to prevent Wirz from escaping, but to protect him from being killed en route by his ex-prisoners. To try Wirz, the military authorities in Washington formed a commission, comprised of Major General Lew Wallace, Brevet Major General L. Thomas, Brevet Major General G. Mott, Brigadier General Francis Fessenden, Brigadier General A. S. Bragg, Brevet Brigadier General John F. Ballior, Brevet Colonel T. Allcock, and Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Stibbs. The prosecutor was Judge Advocate Colonel N. P. Chipman.

Wirz's trial began August 23, 1865. His chief defense lawyer was Louis Schade. The prosecution opened the case with witnesses on Wirz's authority as commandant of Andersonville. Ex-Confederate officers' testimony quickly established that Confederate authorities had given Wirz supreme authority over the prison camp. The prosecution could now make its case that, having had the power to alleviate conditions at the prison camp, by not doing so Wirz was responsible for the prisoners' suffering.

Union Prisoners' Testimony Destroys Wirz

First, witnesses testified that Wirz had established a "Dead Line," or boundary about the prison camp, which prisoners could not cross without being shot by guards or attacked by vicious dogs. Then, the prosecution introduced as witnesses several Confederate doctors stationed in Andersonville, such as Chief Surgeon Dr. R. Randolph Stevenson. Stevenson testified to the abysmal medical and psychological condition of the prisoners:

The mental condition connected with long confinement, with the most miserable surroundings, and with no hope for the future, also depressed all the nervous and vital actions, and was especially active in destroying the appetite. The effects of mental depression, and of defective nutrition, were manifested not only in the slow, feeble motions of the wasted, skeleton-like forms, but also in such lethargy, listlessness, and torpor of the mental faculties as rendered these unfortunate men oblivious and indifferent to their afflicted condition.

One of the prosecution's charges was that Wirz and General John H. Winder, one-time commander of Confederate prisons, had conspired to kill as many Union prisoners as possible. Perhaps the prosecution suspected that Wirz and Winder hoped to weaken Union armies by reducing the number of men returned in any prisoner exchange between the Union and the Confederacy. There was testimony that Wirz had boasted he was killing more Union soldiers than the Confederate armies in the field. At any rate, the prosecution went on to argue that not only had Wirz been responsible for the prisoners' suffering in general, but that he had inflicted suffering and death on individual prisoners. Of the Union soldiers' testimony, the following was typical:

On the 8th of July I arrived at Andersonville, with 300 or 400 other prisoners, most of them sick and wounded. We were brought up to Captain Wirz' headquarters; were drawn up in line, four ranks deep, and kept there for a considerable length of time, without any business being transacted. The guards had orders to let none of us go to the water. One of the prisoners was attacked with epilepsy or fits; he fell down; some of his friends or neighbors standing near him ran down to the creek after water.

Question by the prosecution: By permission of the guard?

I don't know; I suppose so; because the guard was tied up by the thumbs for permitting them to do so. First I heard a shot fired, without seeing who fired it. After hearing that shot fired, I looked down to the left, and I saw Captain Wirz fire two more shots, wounding two men.

He asked the lieutenant of the guard, "Where is the guard who allowed this [Union prisoner] to fall out of ranks?" The guard was pointed out, and Captain Wirz ordered him to be tied up by the thumbs for two hours. After this, Captain Wirz pointed out [the Union prisoner], and said, "That is the way I get rid of you damned sons of bitches."

More than 100 witnesses testified at Wirz's trial, and the trial record ran into thousands of pages. In addition to testimony such as the above, Union soldiers related how any prisoner who went near or beyond the Dead Line was either immediately shot or cruelly ripped apart by guard dogs. Given the prosecution's parade of witnesses, defense counsel Louis Schade never really had a chance, despite his various pleas that Wirz should be tried before a civil court and that Wirz was immune from prosecution under the terms of surrender given to former Confederates.

On October 18, 1865, the prosecution ended its case. The military commission declared Henry Wirz guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging. President Andrew Johnson approved Wirz's sentence, and on November 10, 1865, Wirz went to the scaffold. Wirz was the only person tried by the Union for war crimes after the Civil War, and he has the dubious distinction of being the first person in history to be judged a war criminal.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

The Andersonville Diaty & Memoirs of Charles Hopkins. Kearny, N.J.: Belle Grove Publishing Co., 1988.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

Hopkins, Charles. "Hell and the Survivor." American Heritage (October-November 1982): 78-93 (a portion of the book listed below).

McElroy, John. This lVas Andersonville. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957.

Ransom, John L. John Ransom's Andersonville Diary. Middlebury, Vt.: Paul S. Eriksson, 1986.

Rutherford, Mildred Lewis. Andersonville Prison and Captain Henry WVitz' Trial. Plains, Ga.: United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1983.

Stearns, Amos Edward. The Civil WVar Diary of Amos E. Stearns, a Prisoner at Andersonville. London:Associated University Presses, 1981.