Photograph taken during the autopsy of Andersonville Prison commandant Henry Wirz after his execution, 1865.
Henry Wirz was arrested by a contingent of federal cavalry in May 1865 and taken by rail to Washington, D.C., where the federal government intended to place him on trial for conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war. A military tribunal was convened with Major General Lew Wallace presiding. The other members of the commission were Gershom Mott, John W. Geary, Lorenzo Thomas, Francis Fessenden, Edward S. Bragg, John F. Ballier, T. Allcock, and John H. Stibbs. Norton P. Chipman served as prosecutor.
The military tribunal took place between August 23 and October 18, 1865, convened in the Capitol building, dominating the front pages of newspapers across the United States. The court heard the testimony of former inmates, ex-Confederate officers, and even nearby residents of Andersonville. Among those giving testimony was Father Peter Whelan, a Catholic priest who worked with the inmates, who testified on Wirz’s behalf.
The charges against him were for ‘combining, confederating, and conspiring, together with John H. Winder, Richard B. Winder, Joseph [Isaiah H.] White, W. S. Winder, R. R. Stevenson, and others unknown, to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States’, and for ‘Murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war’. The 13 murders committed by Wirz personally were by revolver (specifications 1, 3, 4), by physically stamping and kicking the victim (specification 2), and by confining prisoners in stocks (specifications 5, 6), by beating a prisoner with a revolver (specification 13) and by chaining prisoners together (specification 7). All murders occurred in 1864.
Wirz was also charged with ordering guards to fire on prisoners with muskets (specification 8, 9, 10, 12), and to have dogs attack escaped prisoners (specification 11). Wirz was found guilty of all charges except the murder in specification 4.
Some of the evidence was hearsay, but there was one witness whose testimony was particularly damning. His name was Felix de la Baume, and he claimed to be a descendant of the heroic Marquis de Lafayette. He was able to name a victim killed directly by Wirz. This eyewitness was a skilled orator and his story was so compelling that he was given a written commendation signed by all the members of the commission for his part in the trial. He was also rewarded with a position in the department of the Interior while the trial was still in progress. Another witness was in Andersonville with his father. He described his father as having scurvy, and not being able to stand. Because he could not stand, Wirz repeatedly stomped and kicked him, and his father died a few days later.
In early November of 1865, the commission announced that it had found Wirz guilty of conspiracy as charged, along with 11 of 13 counts of murder. He was sentenced to death.
In a letter to U.S. President Andrew Johnson, Wirz asked for clemency, but the letter went unanswered. The night before his execution, Louis Schade (an attorney working on behalf of Wirz) was told that a high Cabinet official wished to assure Wirz that if he would implicate Jefferson Davis with the atrocities committed at Andersonville, his sentence would be commuted. Schade repeated the offer to Wirz and was told, “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 about him, I would not become a traitor against him or anybody else even to save my life.”
Wirz was hanged at 10:32 a.m. on November 10, 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison, by the US Capitol, the present-day site of the Supreme Court of the United States. His neck did not break from the fall, and the crowd of 250 spectators watched as he writhed and slowly suffocated. He was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife and one daughter.
Eleven days after the execution, it was claimed that the star witness from the trial had perjured himself. He was not Felix de la Baume from France, but Felix Oeser, born in Saxony, Prussia. He was actually a deserter from the 7th New York Volunteers.
Henry Wirz was one of three men tried, convicted, and executed for war crimes during the Civil War (the other being Confederate guerrillas Robert Cobb Kennedy and Champ Ferguson). His conviction remains controversial today.Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans annually march to a Wirz memorial, along with supporters of a congressional pardon for Wirz.
Some writers have suggested Wirz’s trial was unfair. because the South had low food rations and there was a Northern blockade of all medicines, both of which were out of Wirz’s control. Even some of his former prisoners conceded that the low support he received from Confederate government in terms of food, water, and medical supplies made the conditions at Andersonville beyond his scope of responsibility. The trial, one of the nation’s most famous early war crimes tribunals, created enduring moral and legal notions and established the precedent that certain wartime behavior is unacceptable, regardless if committed under the orders of superiors or on one’s own. In a 1980 study, the historian Morgan D. Peoples refers to Wirz as a “scapegoat“.
- “…the arm was kept as proof that it was not injured to the degree that he professed and the vertebrae were kept to demonstrate that they did not fracture when he was hung.” (Source)