Henry Wirz & War Crimes, Part 2

Overcrowded, unsanitary, with inadequate food and water, Camp Sumter near Andersonville, Georgia was a ghastly sight. 13,000 of the 45,000 prisoners held there died of scurvy, diarrhea and dysentery. It was a situation so horrible that it prompted the Union government to inflict similar conditions upon Confederate POWs and charge Captain Henry Wirz with war crimes, which led to his execution.

The Union and many historians lay the blame of Camp Sumter’s conditions on Captain Wirz, some even claim it was deliberate. What these historians seem to overlook, or flat out ignore, is that the prison guards were also malnourished and Captain Wirz even contacted the Confederate government and informed them of the conditions they faced and requested more supplies and was denied. The Confederacy even offered to release the prisoners in the summer of 1864 if the Union would retrieve them.

At his trial, 160 witnesses testified; this included prisoners, Confederate soldiers, and nearby citizens. 145 of the witnesses testified that they did not witness Wirz killing anyone. A number of former prisoners testified about the conditions, even accusing Captain Wirz of acts of cruelty, for some of which he was not present at the camp, and the rest remaining hearsay because of a lack of evidence and particulars. Among the witnesses giving testimony was Father Peter Whelan, a Catholic priest who worked with the inmates and testified on Wirz’s behalf. General Robert E. Lee was also called to testify and according to Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of the General, “[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.”

Wirz presented evidence that he had pleaded to Confederate authorities to try to get more supplies and that he had tried to improve the conditions for the prisoners inside but it fell on deaf ears. Wirz asked for clemency in a letter to U.S. President Andrew Johndon, but the letter went unanswered. Despite the overwhelming majority of the testimonies being in his favor, Wirz was found guilty of conspiracy and 11 of 13 counts of acts of personal cruelty.

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. Schade relayed 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.”

Wirz was hanged at 10:32 AM on November 10, 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison. His neck did not break from the fall, and the crowd of 200 spectators guarded by 120 soldiers watched as he writhed and slowly suffocated. He was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Wirz was one of two men tried, convicted, and executed for war crimes during the Civil War; the other being Champ Ferguson.

– Tyler J. Thompson