“He Will Judge Between You and Me”: The 150th Anniversary of the Execution of Henry Wirz

            Forty-one year old Henry Wirz, late major of the Confederate army and commandant of the Camp Sumter prisoner of war camp, sat in his own prison cell and petted a cat.[1] There was little else for the man to do on the last day of his life—Nov. 10, 1865—150 years ago today. Waiting in his cell for Federal guards to come and fetch him to the gallows, Wirz had already written his last letter to his family, concluding, “farewell wife, children, all, I will and must close, farewell … God be with us.”[2]

Shortly after 10 a.m., the guards came. They shackled Wirz and brought him out onto the grounds of the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. He shuffled his way up the stairs, getting closer to the hangman’s noose with each step.

Henry Wirz, Commandant of Camp Sumter.

Henry Wirz, Commandant of Camp Sumter.

The road to the gallows began in February, 1864, with Wirz’s assignment to a newly created prisoner of war camp in Georgia. Though officially known as Camp Sumter, the prison would become infamously known by its inhabitants after the closest railroad station to their new hellish home: Andersonville.

From its creation to the end of the war, the prison camp saw almost 45,000 Federal soldiers marched through gates that were only designed to house 10,000 prisoners. Deplorable conditions led to a horrendous mortality rate; some 13,000 men never left Andersonville—almost 28% of the camp’s population.

As the commandant of the camp, Wirz became an easy target for the Federal government in the aftermath of the war amidst the public’s outcry for someone to be punished for what happened in the Confederacy’s prison camps. The man responsible for the operation of all the sites, John Winder, had inconveniently, for the Federal government’s purpose, died of a heart attack before the end of the war. So, for lack of another scapegoat, Henry Wirz became the target of the Union’s revenge.

Similarly to how the Lincoln Assassination conspirators were tried, a military commission was convened to decide Wirz’s fate. Eight army officers made up the commission, headed by Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace. Wallace already had experience with such commissions, sitting as the second-ranked officer in the Lincoln trials.[3]

Henry Wirz’s trial and the fight for his life began on Aug. 21, 1865. Wirz faced insurmountable odds and charges he would never escape: “Charge I. Maliciously, willfully, and traitorously, and in aid of the then existing armed rebellion against thw United States of America… injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States… to the end that the armies of the United States might be weakened and impaired; in violation of the laws and customs of war.” “Charge II. Murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war.” The second charge carried thirteen specifications, each describing a moment where Wirz either killed or ordered the killing of prisoners in Camp Sumter’s stockade.[4]

The testimonies that followed “were full of horrors” Lew Wallace wrote to his wife. Evidence frequently included photographs of released prisoners that stunned the public and the commission alike. One doctor testified that the pictures were evidence of “Long-continued, improper, and insufficient food, and exposure to the weather,” and another added that one such photograph “presents a true picture of many of [the prisoners].”[5]

Andersonville Survivor

Andersonville Survivor

Knowing the odds against him, and perhaps knowing the futility of his defense, Wirz relied on his religious convictions. About a month into the trial, Wirz requested the presence of a clergyman, writing, “Although I know myself full well that I am wrongfully accused, that an All-seeing, All-knowing God knows my innocence, still I need some encouragement from others, not to sink under the heavy burden which is placed upon me.”[6]

The trial drew to a close in late October, 1865. As most people expected, the commission found Wirz guilty of both charges. Writing with a dramatic flourish, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt commented, “The annals of our race present nowhere and at no time a darker field of crime than at of Andersonville[.]” Then Holt added a comment that historians will likely debate to the end of time: “The investigation of the case was conducted throughout with patience and impartiality, and the conclusion reached is one from which the overwhelming volume of testimony left no escape.”[7] Historian William Marvel certainly does not think so, lambasting Wirz’s trial as filled “with some of the most absurd hearsay that any American judge ever permitted to stand.”[8]

But the historians would come later. Henry Wirz’s fate was sealed with President Andrew Johnson’s endorsement of the commission’s findings: “The proceedings, findings, and sentence of the court in the within case are approved, and it is ordered that the sentence be carried into execution, by the officer commanding the department of Washington, on Friday, the 10th of November, 1865, between the hours of 6 o’clock a.m. and 12 o’clock noon.”[9]

Atop the gallows, an executioner tied a noose around Wirz’s neck. Soldiers stood below the gallows at attention, watching the progression of events; others had climbed into the leafless trees overlooking the Old Capitol grounds and looked down. Looming above the whole thing was the dome of the United States Capitol. With the noose in place, Wirz’s last words rang out across the prison’s square: “I have nothing to say, only that I am innocent, and will die like a man, my hopes being in the future. I go before my God, the Almighty God, and he will judge between me and you.” Then, around 11 a.m., a man knocked the platform from beneath Wirz and he fell to his death.[10] William Marvel described Wirz’s execution as “the final and most deliberate injustice associated with Andersonville[.]”[11]

Henry Wirz is prepared to be hanged at the Old Capitol Prison.

Henry Wirz is prepared to be hanged at the Old Capitol Prison.

Wirz’s corpse was taken down and brought to the Washington Arsenal, scene of the execution of the Lincoln Assassination conspirators. At the Arsenal, soldiers buried him next to George Atzerodt, the man assigned to kill Andrew Johnson.[12] In 1869, Wirz’s body was re-interred in Washington D.C.’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.

As a concluding word, the Old Capitol Prison no longer exists, but tourists can still see where it was located. All they have to do is go to 1 First St NE, Washington, D.C.; the building there is located at the same site as the Old Capitol Prison. Inscribed above the building’s imposing entrance is “Equal Justice Under Law”: it is the Supreme Court of the United States.

______________________________________________________________

 

[1] William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 246-247.

[2] Confederate Veteran, Vol. 8., No. 8., August 1900. “Capt. Wirz’s Last Letter to His Wife,” 365.

[3] Trial of Henry Wirz, 2. http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/pdf/Wirz-trial.pdf  ; Gail Stephens, Shadow Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society), 221.

[4] Wirz Trial, 3-8.

[5] Stephens, 225; Wirz Trial, 152,86.

[6] Wirz Trial, 212.

[7] Wirz Trial, 813-814.

[8] Marvel, x.

[9] Wirz trial, 814.

[10] James J. Williamson, Prison Life in the Old Capitol And Reminiscences of the Civil War (N.p., 1911), 142-143.

[11] Marvel, 308.

[12] Wirz Trial, 815.

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Civil War Events, Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Photography, Sesquicentennial and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to “He Will Judge Between You and Me”: The 150th Anniversary of the Execution of Henry Wirz

  1. wdonohue1 says:

    I would like to hear from Ryan or other ECW historians about the postwar conclusion of other prison camps. I am especially interested in Salisbury, NC, which was as bad or worse than Andersonville. In the meantime, Ryan’s work has my sincere admiration.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Hi there, thanks for reading and thank you for commenting. I admit I am not up to speed on the various camps as much as I should be. I looked through some sources in my library and found the following information giving a brief overview of Salisbury’s conclusion: the prison was evacuated in February, 1865, so that by the time George Stoneman’s cavalry got there in April, 1865, the prison was empty. However, the debris and graves of some 3,500 Federals remained, and Stoneman ordered the prison burned. Your assessment that it was “as bad or worse than Andersonville” is certainly on the mark– the prison housed about 10,000 Federals during its span, and of that, the aforementioned 3,500 died.

      Thanks again for reading.

  2. Wim van de Giesen says:

    See also the testimony of Surgeon B. A. VanderKieft, in charge of United States Army General Hospital Division No. 1, Annapolis, Maryland. Taken at the Hospital, May 31st, 1864:” From my experience of fifteen years of constant medical and military service in Northern Europe, the East Indies, and Mediterranean, as well as in our own army since September, 1861, I affirm that the treatment to which our men have been subjected while prisoners of war in the hands of the enemy, is against all rules of civilized warfare, and that I would prefer to fall into the hands of the Chinese of Borneo, called “Anack Baba,” who murder their prisoners, than to fall into the hands of the rebels, where the lives and comfort of prisoners of war is a matter of such cruel indifference, to say the least, if not indeed, as one might almost be justified in supposing, a matter of determined policy.”

  3. Pingback: Henry Wirz’s Story: Spin Set In Stone | Emerging Civil War

  4. Wayne Hogue says:

    How many died in the prison camp at Florence, SC? Thousands were buried in a common grave with only a stone marker for each company of Union soldiers who were prisoners-of-war – not each soldier.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Thank you for reading and your question. I’m not very familiar with the prison camp in Florence, but the National Park Service, which maintains a National Cemetery there, estimates about 2,700 burials.

  5. A well-written and balanced summary on a very divisive issue in Civil War circles. Kudos to Ryan for keeping cool under fire.

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