Was Confederate Captain Henry Wirz America’s first war criminal, or was he merely a scapegoat?
Captain Henry Wirz, a Swiss citizen and Confederate officer during the American Civil War, was commandant of the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia. In August 1865, Wirz faced the first war crimes trial by a military tribunal in American history, charged with murdering and mistreating Union prisoners of war (POWs). During the Civil War’s final 14 months, nearly 13,000 Union POWs, or 29 percent of the inmates, died at Camp Sumter, the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Ga. – a death rate higher than at any of the other approximately 100 Civil War prisons (although 24.3 percent of Confederate POWs perished at the Union camp in Elmira, N.Y.). Reports of atrocities at Andersonville circulated widely in the North, along with horrifying photos of severely emaciated prisoners, who to 21st-century eyes bear an unnerving resemblance to inmates at Nazi concentration camps. By the end of the Civil War, Wirz, as Andersonville’s commandant, was one of the most infamous men in America.
Hartmann Heinrich Wirz was born November 25, 1823, in Zurich, Switzerland, as the youngest of eight children. He longed for a medical career but was denied this by his father and the family’s economic circumstances. He worked as an assistant to his father at the Zurich customs house and was arrested by city authorities January 12, 1847 (possibly for embezzlement or unpaid debts). After a year’s imprisonment, Wirz was released for health reasons. He left the country, and following a short interlude in Moscow, he traveled to the United States, arriving in New York City April 23, 1849. After working in a number of jobs at various locations, he was running a medical practice in Milliken’s Bend, La., when the Civil War broke out.
In 1861, Wirz enlisted as a private in A Company, 4th Battalion, Louisiana Volunteers, becoming one of approximately 6,000 Swiss (out of 52,327 Swiss living in the United States) who took up arms during the Civil War. His regiment fought bravely at the 1862 Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond, Va., where then-Sergeant Wirz was severely wounded in his right arm. On June 12, 1862, after treatment at Richmond’s military hospital, Wirz was commissioned captain “for bravery on the field of battle.” Subsequently, he served in prison-related assignments in 1862-63. During this time, he commanded the Confederate prison at Tuscaloosa, Ala., earning a sterling reputation among the POWs – not one allegation of cruelty.
After an overseas mission for the Confederacy, Wirz was named commandant of the new prison at Camp Sumter March 27, 1864. His jurisdiction was restricted to the prison compound and did not include the entire facility. Therefore he was not responsible for the incomplete planning and construction of Camp Sumter, nor did he have control over the camp’s severely limited logistics. Wirz served in this capacity at Andersonville until the prison was closed April 10, 1865. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested, sent to Washington, D.C., and placed in the Old Capitol Prison May 10, 1865, to await trial.
Wirz was the only Civil War combatant tried and convicted for what today would be considered “war crimes.” He wasn’t helped by the fact that he was an immigrant at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment ran high. In September 1865, one newspaper even wrote: “Thank God he is not an American.” Although Wirz was charged with 13 counts of murder, not one actual victim was identified, despite that the Confederates at Andersonville kept precise death records and there were scores of eyewitnesses to Wirz’s actions within the stockade.
A military commission of nine prominent Union officers convened Wirz’s tribunal in the U.S. Capitol building August 21, 1865. The event was documented voluminously; the court transcript comprised 815 pages of the Congressional Record, and the trial’s written record was 2,301 pages. Over the course of more than 60 days, 160 witnesses testified, the majority of whom were former Andersonville POWs. From the start, the trial was a circus. The prosecutor, Colonel Norton Chipman, had enormous powers in the court. Not only did he advise the court and prosecute, he also could reject witnesses. Star prosecution witnesses perjured themselves, and the commission’s president, General Lew Wallace (future author of Ben Hur), was likely intent on rescuing his poor wartime performance. For his efforts, Wallace was later appointed territorial governor of New Mexico.
To the defense, the trial seemed a farce. Many witnesses Wirz wanted to call were never summoned, and his lawyer complained that the military commission violated “all rules of law and equity.” Wirz pleaded not guilty to all charges. The defense motioned that the charges should be dismissed because they were unconstitutionally vague and, incredibly, although there were 13 specific allegations of murder, not a single murder victim was named. Prosecutor Chipman did not respond to the motion, and it was denied without comment.
After a two-month show trial, Wirz was found guilty, despite the fact that 145 of 160 witnesses declared that he did not murder or mishandle prisoners. Although 15 witnesses testified to Wirz’s crimes in colorful detail, their statements must be taken with healthy skepticism. A majority of historians and legal experts now agree on a critical point: Wirz was denied due process under the law.
The sentence was death. On November 3, 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered the execution carried out. A week later, November 10, Henry Wirz stood atop a scaffold in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. He maintained his innocence until the end. “I know what orders are, Major,” Wirz reportedly told his executioner, “and I am being hanged for obeying them.” Wirz’s remains were buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where they still reside under a tombstone that reads: “Confederate Hero-Martyr.”
Not mentioned at Wirz’s trial was the culpability of the Union Army and U.S. War Department in prolonging and increasing the suffering of Northern prisoners at Andersonville. In the fall of 1864, as Union General William T. Sherman’s army marched to the sea from Atlanta, his troops destroyed the single railroad track supplying Andersonville, and they came within miles of the camp but made no attempt to free the POWs. More devastating, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had ended prisoner exchanges in 1863 on the grounds that the South had more to gain from them than did the North. In July 1864, Wirz even sent a committee of Andersonville prisoners to Washington on parole to explain the hardships and plead for an exchange – yet Stanton refused to see them.
The precedent-setting Wirz case laid the legal foundation for the World War II Nuremberg War Crimes trials and the Global War on Terror military tribunals. Captain Henry Wirz and the Andersonville trial testify to the enduring importance of the issue of proper treatment of prisoners of war and remind us that the historical examples of the Civil War remain relevant today.
Kevin D. Stringer, a 1987 West Point graduate, has a PhD in history/international relations from the University of Zurich. He is a professor of international affairs and a reserve military officer.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.