A Brief History
On November 10, 1865, the long sad saga of the Camp Sumter prisoner of war camp located in Andersonville, Georgia finally came to a conclusion of sorts when the Camp Commandant, Confederate Major Henry Wirz was hanged for the crimes of conspiracy and murder for his terrible treatment of Union soldiers held captive at the camp popularly known as “Andersonville.”
The name, Andersonville, has become synonymous in the US as being a hell-hole of a prison camp, a place where men starved and died of disease every day. Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born in Switzerland in 1823 and emigrated to the United States in 1849, moving around the country and trying various careers until settling in Louisiana in 1854 where he worked as a plantation overseer and physician.
When the Civil War began, Wirz enlisted as a Private, and worked his way up the ranks due to his heroism which cost him the use of an arm in 1862. Wirz was used as a special envoy to Europe, and in 1864 was assigned to the section of the Confederate Army that dealt with prisoners of war. Wirz was given command of Camp Sumter in April of 1864 and held that post for a year, gaining a promotion to Major. Camp Sumter covered only 16 ½ acres and was only 2 month old when Wirz took over. The camp was intended to house prisoners in barracks, but those were not built and the 32,000 Union prisoners were kept in the open air, exposed to the elements. The incredible overcrowding was exacerbated by lack of food, clothing, shelter, medical care and especially potable water. Sanitation was horrible. Wirz was appalled at the conditions for the prisoners and petitioned his superiors for the means to take care of the prisoners properly, but was provided nothing to improve the situation. Wirz took the extraordinary step of releasing 5 prisoners and sent them back to the Union to plea for some sort of negotiation for the release or exchange of the prisoners before mass amounts of men would die. The Union did not act on this overture. Of the 45,000 or so men held captive at Andersonville, at least 13,000 died while in captivity, mostly of starvation, malnourishment, and dysentery.
After the war Wirz was arrested by the Union Army and charged at a military tribunal with cruelty to his prisoners, including the terrible conditions as well as ordering his guards to shoot and kill prisoners, stomping prisoners to death, and siccing dogs on men trying to escape. He was also charged with personally shooting a prisoner with a revolver. Wirz was found guilty of all the charges except the shooting with the revolver, in spite of testimony by 145 of the 160 witnesses that he did not personally do anything wrong. A Catholic priest tending to the prisoners testified on behalf of Wirz, but damning testimony from a Union soldier that claimed to be a descendant from the Marquis de La Fayette compelled the guilty verdicts. It was later discovered that eloquent witness was a charlatan, an imposter that was really a Union deserter! Confederate General and US military icon Robert E. Lee testified on behalf of Wirz, explaining that he himself had attempted to set up prisoner exchanges and was denied by Union officials, and that the Union blockade of Southern ports prevented the import of badly needed medicines.
Wirz was hanged in front of 200 witnesses on November 10, 1865, one of only 3 Americans executed for war crimes stemming from the US Civil War. Unfortunately for Wirz, the drop while being hanged did not break his neck as designed, causing him to choke to death instead, flopping around on the rope in agony while he slowly died.
The execution of Wirz became controversial soon after the hanging, with revelations about false testimony and questionable reasons for executing the man that did his best to save Union lives. Debate over whether or not Wirz was wrongly convicted and whether or not he should be granted a pardon have continued through the years since 1865, part of the long, painful recovery from the costliest war in American history. (Note: The other 2 confederates executed for war crimes during the Civil War were Champ Ferguson, accused of murdering 53 Union soldiers taken prisoner and Robert Kennedy, for the terrorist planting of bombs in New York City.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think Henry Wirz deserves a posthumous pardon? If yes or no, tell us why. Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Drew, Ken. CAMP SUMTER: The Pictorial History of Andersonville Prison. Americus, GA Good Image Printers, 1989.