Heinrich Hartmann “Henry” Wirz was born in Switzerland in 1823, where he received his primary and secondary education. He wanted to be a physician, but a lack of funds led to a career as a merchant instead. He borrowed money to support his business, and when he failed to repay it, was sentenced to four years in debtor’s prison in 1847. Upon appeal, the court commuted his sentence to 12 years of exile, essentially allowing the Swiss government to make him someone else’s problem, at least for a while. His wife, Emilie Oschwald, refused to emigrate with him, and instead initiated a divorce, retaining custody of their two children. After a brief stop in Russia, Wirz emigrated to the United States in 1849. After a few years as a factory worker, he moved to Kentucky and served as a doctor’s assistant. The United States had a much more liberal approach to becoming a physician, such that after serving a brief apprenticeship, Wirz was able to secure a position as an overseer and physician on the Louisiana plantation of Levin Marshall, who owned more than 24,000 acres in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, as well as over 800 slaves to work the land. Wirz married a widow, Elizabeth Wolfe, and remained on one of Marshall’s plantations in Louisiana until the outbreak of the American Civil War.
A relatively diminutive man with a strong accent, Wirz probably could have lived out the remainder of his life in relative obscurity. As an overseer of a large plantation, he would have been exempt from Confederate conscription laws. Yet, Wirz enlisted in the Fourth Louisiana Regiment in 1861, in one of the first calls for troops for Confederate service. His unit was soon ordered east, and attached to the Army of Northern Virginia. On May 31, 1862, they were added to an attack led by General Joseph E. Johnston, at the Battle of Seven Pines. At that battle, both Johnston and Wirz were severely wounded, with the latter losing the use of his right arm after being shot in the shoulder. In the aftermath of the battle, Wirz was given a battlefield commission as a captain, and assigned to the staff of Confederate Provost Marshal John H. Winder. Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent him as a courier to meet with emissaries James Mason in England and John Slidell in France. Wirz hoped to find a treatment that might regain the use of his arm at a spa in Europe. When that failed, he returned to the Confederacy in early 1864, and resumed working for Winder, who placed him in command of a prisoner of war camp near Richmond.
In February, Winder ordered his protégé to assume command of Camp Sumter, a massive prison facility newly-constructed near Andersonville, Georgia. The camp’s 17 acre stockade was designed to house up to 10,000 Union prisoners, and was far from the front lines of the war. In theory, this should have made it relatively easy to guard and feed a large population of prisoners, while also ensuring against escapes. However, when news of the prison’s establishment reached Confederate field commanders, they immediately began sending massive numbers of prisoners to the camp, regardless of its capacity. Within a few months, more than 30,000 Union prisoners were confined at Camp Sumter, in appalling conditions. Wirz ordered the prisoners to expand the stockade, enlarging the prison to more than 26 acres—but he could do nothing to compel the already-overstretched Confederate supply system to provide the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine his charges desperately needed. Further complicating the problems of the camp, the only water supply was a sluggish creek running through the center of camp. Within a few weeks, it was befouled by human waste, and became an unstoppable source of dysentery, diarrhea, and other water-borne ailments.
Prisoners had no means of constructing shelter to protect themselves from the Georgia sun, and at no time did the prison authorities manage to issue more than 10,000 rations in a day. A typical ration consisted of a handful of unbolted corn meal (corn ground with the cobs mixed in with the kernels.) Fuel was scarce in the camp, despite being a heavily forested region, making it nearly impossible for prisoners to sufficiently cook their rations. Desperate captives bartered anything of value that they possessed with the camp guards, hoping to supplement their meager rations with local produce. Soon, however, most prisoners had exhausted their supply of money, clothing, and anything else the guards would take in trade. As a result, new arrivals at the camp were often mobbed by their fellow prisoners and robbed of anything they were carrying. In addition to the digestive diseases rampaging through the camp, virtually every prisoner suffered from scurvy and malaria. Unsurprisingly, the death rates in the camp skyrocketed, with more than 100 prisoners dying per day throughout the summer of 1864.
Camp Sumter only operated for nine months—but in that time, 45,000 prisoners were crammed inside. Nearly one-third of them did not survive their captivity at Camp Sumter, and thousands more died shortly after being transferred to other locations. Over the entire time Camp Sumter was open, Wirz presided as its commandant. He repeatedly begged Confederate authorities for more resources, or at least permission to utilize the prisoners as laborers to improve their own situation. However, he was continually denied, and warned that the sheer volume of prisoners in the camp (a larger population than all but four cities in the Confederacy) made any work details too dangerous to be allowed outside of the prison. The only exception was made for burial details, which every day had to inter dozens of their comrades in the prison cemetery outside the stockade walls.
On May 7, 1865, Wirz was arrested by a squad of the 4th U.S. Cavalry. Although virtually every prisoner had been transferred out of Camp Sumter in the preceding six months, Wirz had remained at the prison, having nowhere else to go. He was soon shipped to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., where he awaited trial on charges that he had deliberately starved his prisoners. In addition, several survivors of the prison claimed that Wirz had murdered several escaped prisoners after their recapture. One particularly lurid tale claimed Wirz had beaten a man to death with his revolver (despite the fact that Wirz could not raise his arm above shoulder height). The Wirz Trial was held by a military tribunal from August 23 to October 18, 1865. Major General Lew Wallace (who later rose to fame as the governor of New Mexico tasked with catching Billy the Kid, and the author of Ben Hur.) Colonel Norton P. Chipman served as the prosecutor for the trial—but because it was a military court, he also provided the only legal advice Wirz was afforded by the military. In his dual capacity as both prosecutor and defender, Chipman decided which witnesses would be called for each side of the trial—and not surprisingly, he personally prevented each of the key defense witnesses.
At least 150 witnesses testified at the trial—and virtually all of them said that Wirz had not directly killed any prisoners. A few offered vague allegations, but could not name specific victims. One in particular, Felix de la Baume, offered specific details to support the charges against Wirz—and his testimony proved devastating to Wirz. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton attended most of the trial sessions, and made no secret that he expected Wirz to be convicted of all charges and executed as punishment. News of the trial was reported throughout the United States—and as the tribunal clearly and continually favored the prosecution, many readers began to realize the trial was a farce. However, in early November, the tribunal duly convicted Wirz of 11 of the 13 charges, and sentenced him to death.
On the night before his execution, Wirz was allegedly approached by a messenger from Stanton, who offered to commute his sentence if he implicated Confederate President Jefferson Davis in a deliberate scheme to kill Union prisoners through starvation and disease. Wirz refused the offer, claiming both that he had no relationship with Davis, and that no such scheme had ever been created. The unfortunate events at Andersonville were caused by a terrible lack of resources and a breakdown of communications, not an evil plan to murder helpless prisoners of war. On November 10, Wirz was marched to the gallows at Old Capitol Prison. The officer of the execution detail asked for Wirz’s forgiveness, explaining that he had no choice but to follow orders. Wirz reportedly replied “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.” The noose was placed around his neck, the lever was thrown, and Wirz dropped—but the fall did not break his neck, leaving the hundreds of spectators to watch him slowly strangle. He was then buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Shortly after the execution, it emerged that Felix de la Baume, who had definitely been a prisoner at Camp Sumter, was also the alias of a deserter from the 7th New York Regiment, Felix Oesser. After deserting his original unit, he had reenlisted and collected another bounty for joining the Army (a practice known as “bounty-jumping”). Before he could perform the same trick again, he was taken prisoner and shipped off to Andersonville. There is some evidence to suggest he might have been promised a position with the Department of the Interior in exchange for his very specific testimony, although if so, he did not retain the position for long. Instead, he became a founding member of the Andersonville Survivors Association, and worked a variety of jobs in Chicago in the decades after the war.
There is no doubt that Secretary of War Stanton loathed Jefferson Davis, and would likely have pursued almost any potential means of placing him on trial for treason against the United States. Some historians have speculated that Stanton wished to use the Wirz trial as a “test-run” before undertaking more high-profile prosecutions of Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate leaders. But, after the debacle of the Wirz trial and its aftermath, this plan had to be abandoned, leaving the more prominent figures of the Confederate States of America free from military tribunals. Thus, Wirz joined Champ Ferguson as the only two Confederates placed on trial for war crimes, leading many to consider Wirz the “scapegoat of the Confederacy.” Interestingly, in 1909 the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to Wirz in Andersonville, adjacent to the former prison site, with messages on the base of it suggesting that he was a victim and a hero, rather than the man held responsible for the deaths of nearly 13,000 prisoners of war. Given the speed with which Confederate monuments are being removed throughout the former Confederacy, it is likely only a matter of time before the only monument in the United States dedicated to a convicted war criminal is also removed.