Leader of Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison Executed for War Crimes
There are many horrors in a war such as the American Civil War, which killed more than 600,000 soldiers, wounded over 400,000 more, and caused an unknown number of civilian casualties. However, many historians think the war’s greatest horror was what happened to Union soldiers held at Andersonville (Camp Sumter), the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Macon County, Georgia, where nearly 13,000 prisoners died gruesome deaths from starvation, disease and mistreatment. On Nov. 10, 1865, the leader of Andersonville prison—Captain Henry Wirz—was executed as a war criminal for what happened in his prison. His trial, conviction and execution remain controversial to this day.
There is no denying that what happened in Andersonville prison was a crime against humanity. Opened in February 1864 as a stockade enclosing 23 acres of open land, Andersonville held almost 50,000 prisoners during its 14 months of operation. The Confederacy, which lacked sufficient food to feed its own soldiers in 1864, spared little for Union prisoners-of-war. The Andersonville prisoners lived in utter filth and squalor, lacking food, medical care and proper sanitation, and forced to drink contaminated water. They were basically left to rot and die of exposure, starvation and disease.
When the camp was finally liberated in May 1865, photographs of barely-living skeletons were taken and published in Harper’s Weekly in June. These pictures shocked the Northern public just as photos from Nazi concentration camps disgusted and revolted the world in 1945. An outcry arose demanding that someone be held responsible. There was talk of arresting top Confederate officials, including President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, for allowing such conditions to exist. In the end, it was deemed politically expedient to hold one man entirely responsible: Captain Henry Wirz, who had been assigned command of Andersonville in March 1864.
Wirz was the only Confederate soldier convicted of war crimes. (One other Confederate, Champ Ferguson, was also convicted and executed for war crimes during the Civil War, but he was a guerilla, not a regular.) The debate that began during Wirz’s two-month trial and continues to this day is this: was he a sadist who committed crimes against humanity at Andersonville, or simply a loyal soldier who followed orders in a deplorable situation not of his making, who was made a scapegoat?
Wirz was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His simple tombstone reads:
Captain Henry Wirz, C.S.A.
Died Nov. 10, 1865.
The following two historical newspaper articles are about Wirz’s execution. The first article is a remarkably detailed first-hand account of his actual hanging, including the last letter Wirz wrote and his final words. The second article concerns attempts by Wirz’s lawyer to get President Johnson to commute his death sentence. These two articles were published by the Daily Constitutional Union (Washington, D.C.) on Nov. 10, 1865, the day of Wirz’s execution:
The Execution This Morning
A Sketch of Henry Wirz—Scenes Outside and Inside the Old Capitol—Levity and Noise the Predominating Features in the Crowd—He Dies Game to the Last
Sketch of Wirz
This unfortunate man who today paid the great penalty of the law, the forfeit of his life, was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on the 25th of November, 1823, where at the time of his birth his father was engaged in the business of a tailor which he followed until 1834. After receiving a very liberal education and studying the medical profession he went to Italy in 1842 where he remained one year. In 1843 he entered an office as clerk but becoming tired of the duties he soon relinquished it. In 1846 he married the daughter of a wealthy merchant, but owing to incompatibility of disposition they did not live happily together and were finally divorced.
In 1849 he left his native country and emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in April of that year, where he intended to follow the medical profession but his entire ignorance of the English language presented such an obstacle to his success that he abandoned the idea and removed to Lawrence, Mass., where he became engaged in a shawl factory. In 1851 he removed to Kentucky where he again married in 1855, and removed from there to Louisiana in 1856, where he resided until the breaking out of the war.
In consequence of the trouble which his wounds occasioned him he obtained a furlough and went to Europe in the summer of 1863, where he spent three or four months. On his return in the fall of that year he was assigned to duty at Andersonville, Ga. [correction: 1864—ed.], where he remained until the close of the war. He has a brother, who is blind, and a son and daughter by his first marriage, living in Zurich, Switzerland. His second wife, with one child, resides in Kentucky [she also had two daughters from a previous marriage—ed.].
The following letter was written by him to Mr. Schade [his attorney—ed.], a few moments before his execution:
Old Capitol Prison,
November 10, 1865.
Dear Sir—It is no doubt the last time that I address myself to you. What I have said to you often and often, I repeat: Accept my thanks, my sincere, heartfelt thanks, for all you have done for me. May God reward you; I cannot. Still, I have something more to ask of you, and I am confident that you will not refuse to receive my dying request: Please help my poor family—my dear wife—my children. War, cruel war, has swept everything from me; and today my wife, my children, are beggars. My life is demanded as an atonement; I am willing to give it, and I hope that after a while I will be judged differently from what I am now. If anyone ought to come to the relief of my family, it is the people of the South, for whose sake I have sacrificed all.
I know you will excuse me for troubling you again.
Farewell, dear sir; may God bless you.
The Outside of the Old Capitol
As we approached the building, at ten o’clock this morning, we found on the east end of the Capitol grounds the trees and iron railings crowded with the curious, who could only get a peep at the top of the gallows. On the roof of a dwelling adjoining the east side of the Old Capitol on A street north, there were congregated some fifty or more men, and on the roof of the dwelling adjoining this, we are sorry to say, were a lot of females and males, all anxious to get a peep at the dreadful “taking off” of the condemned. A humming noise, of many voices, could be heard, emanating from the crowd. Now and then a shout resounded from some unruly person.
At the entrance of the gloomy doorway we handed our ticket of admission to the chief clerk of Provost Marshal Major Russell, who kindly pointed out the way to the prison yard, by passing down a long and narrow entry, along which many a blasted heart had walked before, leaving hope behind, to be entombed for indefinite periods. In the yard we found the military already assembled, with a number of civilians grouped around, anxiously awaiting the hour for the execution.
The gallows was a very plain structure, built of rough planks and boards, with the trap in the centre. The rope was about half the thickness of the one used at the execution at the old Arsenal building. A single stool sat under the swinging noose, for the benefit of the condemned, when he should be led forth. The gallows was built in the southeast corner of a paved court or yard, directly adjoining a line of sheds.
A hollow square was formed around the gallows, consisting of one hundred and twenty men of the 214th Pennsylvania, commanded by Major Worrall; the guard of the 18th Veteran Reserves; and one company of the 195th Pennsylvania regiment.
Outside of this guard, there hovered around a motley assemblage of correspondents, newspaper reporters, civilians, and officers in full uniform—many of them wearing the huge old fashioned epaulettes, long since discarded by military men, except on State occasions.
At the northeast corner of the yard Professor Gardner, the photographist of Seventh street, stationed one of his most powerful instruments ready to sketch the condemned as soon as the drop would fall.
Within ten feet of the gallows, on the west, some twenty Veteran Reserves were observed hanging to the fence. Loud laughter and shouts were heard continually on the outside of the walls, as though a circus or a show was about to be opened.
While awaiting the hour, a number of the gentlemen of the press, together with two well-known actors of Grover’s Theatre, sat on a step leading up to the second story of a frame building, on the north side of the yard, when Mr. Gardner, the celebrated photographic artist of Seventh street, in the “Intelligencer Building,” turned his instrument on them, and in a second he had a negative of the group.
One man stood directly in front of the gallows, at the rear of the military, with a little boy, not over ten years of age. The appearance of the couple at this place was much commented upon by both civilians and soldiers...
At fifteen minutes past 10 o’clock a guard with the prisoner, and two clergymen, Fathers Boyle and Wiget at his side, unexpectedly made their appearance from a side door of the main building. The cry of “here comes Wirz” drew the attention of all hands to the presence of the condemned, who was costumed in a black gown, made of common glazed muslin, with a large hood on the back of it. Capt. Wirz proceeded along, unbound, with a steady step and unflinching countenance. He appeared to be prison bleached, but not in any wise paled with fear, but a deep anxiety seemed to pervade his mind. His tall figure could be easily perceived above the surrounding group. He wore a black beard and moustache, and on his feet were low shoes and white stockings, somewhat soiled.
As soon as the condemned and others reached the gallows, Wirz sat down on the small stool, and placed his right leg over his left, as if for rest or convenience. At the four corners of the gallows a sentry, in the uniform of the Veteran Reserves, was placed. One man, in citizen’s clothes, leaned on the railing directly in front of the prisoner, and two with an officer at the rear. Father Boyle took a position on the right and Father Wiget on the left, and Major C. B. Russell, the Provost Marshal, also on the right, directly at the head of the steps leading up to the gallows, who at once commenced to read the specifications and charges, which the prisoner listened to with marked attention, and occasionally smiling and shaking his head, as though he meant to say certain parts of it were not true.
The reading of the charges occupied about fifteen minutes, and when over, Wirz was directed to stand up, and while talking to Major Russell, the executioner, who had been standing in the rear, bound his arms and feet, assisted by the civilian who was with him. During all this painful operation, the prisoner stood as calm and collected as any man in the place. Something was said to him by Major Russell, when he shook his head and smiled, and then the rope was placed around his neck, with the long hangman’s knot under the left ear. The executioner wore a pair of black kid gloves, and was in the height of fashion. He gracefully dangled the rope from the prisoner’s neck.
While this reading was going on, the prisoners inside the building were peering through the bars, and the air blew cool and the sun shone with brilliancy. Inside the courtyard all was still as death, while from the outside all sorts of noises prevailed, which at times seemed to drown the Major’s voice. Father Boyle all the while whispering comfort to the condemned, and pressed the cross to his lips.
The scaffold was cleared, the clergymen took leave of the dying man, the executioner placed the black hood over Wirz’s head, and then stooped to unlatch something or draw some bolts, and the Provost Marshal stepped down from the gallows, and uncovered his head, which seemed to be a signal for the props or supports to be knocked from under the trap, which was immediately done, and at half-past 10 o’clock the prisoner was launched into eternity. The body for a moment or so swung to and fro from the fall, and then eight shrugs of the shoulders and drawing up of the feet were perceptible, when the body became still in death, with a slight swaying motion, caused by the wind.
The trap, a large and heavy one, fell with a thug, which was heard on the outside by the crowd, who at once made the air resound with their untimely shouts.
The last words uttered by Wirz was to his confessor, as he was about leaving him, which was: “I am innocent—I will have to die, and will die like a man, and my hopes are in the future.”
While the body was hanging several sheds broke down on the outside of the Old Capitol, which caused considerable excitement, with shouts of laughter among those on the housetops.
The body hung about fifteen minutes, when it was lowered down to the ground by the executioners, who placed it upon a stretcher, and it was then carried by soldiers to the second story of the building fronting on A street, passing up the steps where the representatives of the press had been resting. No civilian was allowed to view the body, but pieces of the rope were thrown out or down to several who desired such relics. The coffin, a plain pine, stained brown, was carried up the steps, shortly after the body, which is to be handed over to Father Boyle for internment.
The prisoner’s counsel, Louis Schade, Esq., was not at the execution, but was at the President’s endeavoring to get a reprieve.
A number of gentlemen, who received tickets of admission, did not reach the scene of the execution until the whole affair was over—they believing it would not take place until after 11 o’clock.
At about a quarter to 10 o’clock, the prisoner wrote in the Album of the Provost Marshal’s chief clerk, in a plain and steady hand:
Old Capitol Prison,
Nov. 10, 1865.
Capt. and A.A.G., C.S.A.
The condemned slept well all night, and this morning partook of a hearty breakfast, and appeared quite indifferent to his fate.
By 11 o’clock the assemblage withdrew from the precincts of the building, and the crowd outside dispersed.
We could not ascertain whether the neck was broken or not by the fall, but when the hood was withdrawn from the head of the body, the knot appeared to be almost at the top of the left side of the head.
The Application for Clemency in the Wirz Case
Louis Schade, Esq., counsel for Henry Wirz, made a final, but unsuccessful, appeal to the President this morning, for a commutation of the sentence of the penalty of death in the case of his client, in whose behalf he has so assiduously and earnestly exerted himself. The President gave Mr. Schade assurance of his sincere desire and determination to award simple and even-handed justice to all, in the humane, but just, administration of the affairs of the Executive Department of the Government, and in view of all the circumstances presented for his consideration, much as he regretted the necessity for the exercise of the extreme penalty of the law, in any case of capital conviction, he could not interfere to prevent its being executed upon the body of Captain Henry Wirz. Mr. Schade, although he wished and sought for clemency, feels deeply grateful to the President for the considerate attention and courtesy extended to him and for the earnest interest taken in the matter to which his attention was so earnestly invited.
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