Little Bits of History

War Criminal

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 10, 2011

Henry Wirz

November 10, 1865: Major Henry Wirz is hanged. His full name was Heinrich Hartmann Wirz and he was the only Confederate officer tried and executed at the end of the Civil War. He was the officer in charge of Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville Prison. Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland and studied medicine there. He had a practice in Switzerland prior to coming to the US in 1849. He was imprisoned prior to his emigration for reasons unknown. He settled first in Kentucky and then moved to Louisiana where he successfully practiced medicine.

Wirz joined the Fourth Battalion of the Louisiana Volunteers as a private in May 1861. He was injured in battle, losing the use of his right arm. He was detached as a prison guard first in Alabama and then in Virginia. He was assigned to General John Winder who was in charge of all Confederate prison camps. In February 1864, Camp Sumter was established in Georgia. Wirz took command of the camp in March of that year.

Wooden barracks were planned to house what should have been temporary prisoners. The sides had been exchanging prisoners, but stopped doing so as soldiers were being returned to the field of battle. The sixteen acres eventually held 32,000 Union soldiers who were suffering from lack of food, water, and shelter. This, combined with poor sanitary conditions and lack of medical treatment led to Andersonville being the worst prison in the South. It was open for fourteen months and during that time, 13,000 or 28% of the prisoners assigned there had died.

Wirz was arrested in May 1865. He was taken to Washington, D.C. for trial on the charges of conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war. A military tribunal was established with Major General Lew Wallace presiding. The trial lasted for two months with evidence presented by former prisoners. The star witness against Wirz was a perjurer, but this wasn’t discovered until eleven days after the execution. Wirz was one of two men tried, and the only one executed, for war crimes during this bleak part of American history.

“There is so much filth about the camp that it is terrible trying to live here,” Michigan cavalryman and prisoner John Ransom , wrote in his diary

“With sunken eyes, blackened countenances from pitch pine smoke, rags, and disease, the men look sickening. The air reeks with nastiness.” – an unnamed prisoner from Camp Sumter

“Since the day I was born, I never saw such misery.” – an unnamed prisoner from Camp Sumter

“A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him.” – Winston Churchill

Also on this day:
Brought to You by the Letters J and H and the Number 1 – In 1969, Sesame Street come to PBS, bringing along a whole cast of characters.
Winning – In 1928, Notre Dame played Army at Yankee Stadium.

One Response

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  1. J. G. Burdette said, on November 16, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Considering the wretched conditions, it seems to be a miracle that anyone came out alive through that ordeal.


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