A Letter from Denver

Brigadier General John W. Denver (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

While researching material for a volume on Andersonville (forthcoming as part of the ECW series, published by Savas Beatie), I came across the following fascinating letter from John William Denver to his wife describing, in part, the upcoming trial of Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville prisoner of war camp and commenting on the political landscape.

At the time he wrote the letter, Denver was a Washington, DC lawyer.  His early career featured the practice of law in Ohio and Missouri before he served as a captain in the twelfth U.S. infantry during the Mexican War.  Elected to the House of Representatives in 1854 and later served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs and territorial governor of Kansas.  Interestingly, during his tenure the capital of Colorado was founded, then in the Kansas territory, and was named for him.  In August 1861, Denver was commissioned a brigadier general in the Union army until resigning in 1863.  During the siege of Corinth, Mississippi in May 1862, Denver earned distinction earning the praise of both generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant.[i]


Washington, D. C., August 13th 1865.

My Dear Wife,

I arrived here night before last at eight o’clock without an accident or incident of any kind… I found things here pretty much as I anticipated — over head and ears in business. The firm had taken in twenty seven hundred and fifty dollars in cash and had received quite a large number of new cases.

On Tuesday next the case of Capt. Wirz is to come up before a military commission. It is attracting a great deal of attention and the Germans have got very much enlisted in it. Quite a number who were prisoners have come forward and say that they will testify to his good conduct and kind treatment as far as he had power, and if they prove what they say they will he ought to be acquitted, but I am of opinion that the intention is hang him and that no stone will be left unturned to effect it. It seems a little strange that this man should have been selected to be tried first when there are several prominent and well known leaders among the rebels who are now in custody on the same or similar charges. Is it because he was thought to be a poor, friendless “Dutchman” who was not able to employ lawyers to defend him, & with whom an example could be made and nobody to take his part? If this was the expectation it was a mistake. The card published by our firm, of which you may have heard August speak, has called out a great many who were prisoners under charge of Capt. Wirz, and it has aroused a great deal of interest for him.

I have just received a letter from Arthur. He gives very little of general interest except the political quarrels in the Republican ranks between the “Long Hairs and Short Hairs.” From his account of it they seem to be in quite a ferment — boiling and bubbling. The Long Hairs wouldn’t affiliate with the Short Hairs even in celebrating the 4th of July, and the Short Hairs wont support any Long Hair for any office, and vice versa. Wonder if these are to be the names of political parties hereafter…

Give my love to all the family. Kiss the babies and believe me as ever, Your Own Will.[ii]



[i] United States Congress, “DENVER, James William,” accessed January 17, 2024, https://bioguide.congress.gov/search/bio/D000261.

[ii] University of Notre Dame, Andersonville/Wirz Collection, accessed January 17, 2024,


3 Responses to A Letter from Denver

  1. Well he was a prison commandant with a German accent. You do the math.

    Who were the long hairs and the short hairs

  2. Very interesting. And nice to know his law practice was going well. Same question about the “hair” parties.

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