Legal Affairs

Current Issue


printer friendly
email this article
letter to the editor

space space space

September|October 2002
An Odd Bird By Stéphanie Giry
Busting Chops By Katherine Marsh
The Demon of Andersonville By Carolyn Kleiner

The Demon of Andersonville

Carolyn Kleiner on the Confederate soldier who ran the Civil War's deadliest prison.

By Carolyn Kleiner

The crowd gathered outside the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., on the site where the Supreme Court of the United States now stands. It was a clear November morning, seven months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Some 250 ticketholders entered a fenced-in yard, while soldiers, newspapermen, and curiosity-seekers found perches on nearby rooftops or in well-placed trees. They were all angling for a better view of a simple wooden scaffold bearing a lone noose, which dangled in the breeze. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., a haggard, limping prisoner in a dark cloak was led out to the gallows. Spectators chanted, "Remember Andersonville."

During the last 14 months of the Civil War, nearly 13,000 Union prisoners of war died at the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia—more than at Antietam, one of the war's bloodiest battles, and more than at any of the other hundred or so Civil War prisons. Reports of atrocities at Andersonville and other Southern jails had been widely circulated in the North during the war, along with photos of severely emaciated inmates who to 21st-century eyes bear an unnerving resemblance to prisoners at Nazi concentration camps. Captain Henry Wirz was the commandant of the prison and, by the end of the war, he was one of the most infamous men in America. By a special military commission, he was convicted of conspiracy to intentionally harm Union prisoners and of personally murdering at least ten soldiers. The noose was for him.

That thousands of men died in the prison camp he ran is well documented, but what's less clear is whether Henry Wirz was a vicious war criminal or a convenient scapegoat. Scholars and Civil War buffs have debated his guilt for more than a century, their conclusions usually dictated by whether they live north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. But a majority of historians and legal experts agree on a critical point: Wirz was denied due process. "The Wirz trial wasn't even in the spirit of the law," says William Marvel, author of Andersonville: The Last Depot, a definitive book about the prison camp. "This was a highly charged, emotional witch hunt," he observed recently. "Reason went out the window, right along with the rule of law and all of the principles we supposedly live under."

When the Civil War began, most soldiers captured by the North and the South were immediately paroled, following the standard combat practice in Europe at the time. This system was formalized in the summer of 1862 with the Dix-Hill Cartel, a treaty that allowed for exchanges on a soldier-for-soldier basis, according to rank. But the agreement collapsed before year's end, due partly to bickering over the parole of black soldiers, whom the Confederate government refused to release, and partly to military strategy. "At this particular time, to release all rebel prisoners ... would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here," said Ulysses S. Grant. "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles."

The result was more POWs than either side could handle. Many captured Union soldiers were kept in and around Richmond, but as the front lines edged south and Dixie jails started to overflow, the Confederate government planned a new facility in the small, out-of-the-way town of Andersonville. The site was chosen for its easy railroad access, an abundance of pine forests, and a clear creek that ran across the property—and because the town's 20 or so residents didn't object. The first load of prisoners arrived in February 1864, before construction was complete. From that point on, the trains never stopped.

Built with the official name of Camp Sumter, the Andersonville prison consisted of a sixteen-and-a-half-acre dirt pen (later enlarged to twenty-six and a half acres), surrounded by a stockade made of rough-hewn, 15-foot-tall pine logs placed so close together it was impossible to see outside.

Though conditions were initially a vast improvement over Richmond detention centers, problems grew in proportion to the number of inmates. By late summer 1864, the prison population made Andersonville one of the largest cities in the Confederacy. At its peak in August, the "bullpen," built to lodge up to 10,000 enlisted men, held 33,000 grimy, gaunt prisoners, each one crammed into a living area the size of a coffin. Their only protections from the sun were "shebangs," improvised shelters constructed from blankets, rags, and pine boughs, or dug into the hard, red Georgia clay.

As the war dragged on and the Rebel government fell further into disarray, its resources and supplies depleted more each day, Andersonville became increasingly ill-equipped to provide for its wards. Daily prison rations usually consisted of coarse cornmeal with small bits of cob still in it (very rough on Northern stomachs accustomed to wheat bread), around two ounces of beef or pork, often served raw and moldy, and occasionally beans or molasses. (Guards got the same gruel.) Too many inmates meant not enough water to go around, as well as too much human waste, and the once-clear stream that ran through the camp became polluted, covered with a thin layer of green slime. The stench of the place carried as far as the town of Americus, ten miles away. Prisoners suffered from afflictions ranging from diarrhea and dysentery to scurvy and a condition described in death records as "nostalgia," when men seemed to stop wanting to live.

Between March and June of 1864, the number of casualties per month more than tripled, reaching 2,994 at the end of the summer—or around 100 men a day. "Fear of death was almost unknown," wrote Josiah C. Brownell, a member of the Second New York Cavalry imprisoned in Andersonville for five months. "We felt the torments of hell could not be much worse than the horrors of Andersonville."

Hartmann Heinrich Wirz was born in Zurich in 1823 and emigrated to the United States at the age of 26, deserting a wife and two children in Switzerland. The record of his life in the States before he arrived at Andersonville is thin: He was a textile worker in Massachusetts and later, in the mid-1850s, a homeopathic slave doctor in Louisiana. He eventually remarried and had another child. When the war started, Wirz enlisted as a private with Company D of the Fourth Louisiana Battalion; his early duties included working at prisons in Tuscaloosa and Richmond.

Wirz arrived at Andersonville in March 1864 on assignment from General John Winder, head of all Southern prisons, with whom he had worked in Richmond. As commander of the stockade, Wirz was granted full control over the prisoners, but had to defer to the adjutant to Camp Sumter and to the quartermaster in order to obtain food and supplies—jobs held, respectively, by the nephew and son of General Winder.

Though inmates would later describe him as a "short, thick-set Dutchman repulsive in appearance," Wirz was likely about 5'8", with fine dark features, grey eyes, and a full beard. He was also stooped and crippled, due to an injury that may have occurred at the Battle of Seven Pines or, somewhat less valiantly, in a stagecoach accident. Regardless, the incident left him with a shattered right arm that he often wore in a sling, a withered left shoulder, and a lifetime of debilitating pain. Perhaps as a result, Wirz was gruff and prone to fits of angry cursing. ("Gott dam Yanks" was a favorite expletive.) He had a "sneering" countenance to match his foul mouth, an Andersonville inmate named John Ransom wrote in his diary. "Makes a fellow feel as if he would like to go up and boot him."

After arriving in Andersonville, Wirz initiated a record system and reorganized the prisoners into small details of 90 men each. A believer in strict discipline, he preferred forms of punishment like putting a prisoner in stocks or shackling him to a ball and chain. He was concerned about escapes, so he built a "deadline" of posts approximately 15 feet inside the prison walls; if inmates crossed the line, they were to be shot, no questions asked. Hungry dogs were sent after any who managed to break out.

His brutal measures notwithstanding, Wirz also attempted to improve the living conditions at his camp. For their protection, he removed several dozen young drummer boys from the bullpen. At the prisoners' behest, he organized a fair trial for a group known as the Raiders—a vicious gang of inmates who would attack their peers and steal what little food or possessions they had—and he supervised the hanging of six of their members. Wirz frequently corresponded with his superiors, complaining about meager food rations and overcrowding, and requesting additional supplies for the camp, like wheelbarrows, lumber, and, above all, soap. "With the means at my disposal it is utterly impossible to take proper care of the prisoners," the commandant wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Chandler, a Southern prison inspector. "As long as 30,000 men are confined in one inclosure the proper policing and cleansing are impossible. A long confinement has depressed the spirits of thousands, and they are entirely indifferent." His queries were rarely answered.

Andersonville closed for good the day after Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Twelve thousand, nine hundred and twelve of the 45,000 men who did time there as inmates remained behind forever, buried shoulder to shoulder in the prison cemetery. Captain Wirz stayed on in Andersonville with his family—the last man on the job—never imagining that he had done anything wrong. "The duties I had to perform were arduous and unpleasant, and I am satisfied that no man can or will justly blame me for things that happened here, and which were beyond my power to control," he wrote in May, to the Union general who had ordered his arrest.

Wirz asked the general for safe passage back to Europe. Instead, he was transferred to Washington to face a military hearing on the victor's turf, at a time when his judges and the public were enraged by the recent assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and by stories in many Northern publications of the inhuman conditions at Andersonville, including tales of Wirz's cruelty. (He was called a "bloodthirsty monster" and "the demon of Andersonville," among other monikers.) After a series of assassination attempts, Wirz was forced to make most of his journey to Washington in disguise: clean-shaven, and in a black suit and beaver hat.

The Union government had been loath to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation during the war, but now that it was over the government made an exception, in order to prosecute Captain Wirz squarely. He was charged as a foreign enemy who had violated the international laws of war. The fact that he was born abroad may have made it easier for Americans to swallow the notion of a fellow citizen being tried for criminal behavior in a military commission. The rules of the commission provided more room to maneuver and allowed for a broader range of admissible evidence.

Military trials had been in use since the birth of the nation (Benedict Arnold had a military trial in 1779), but the kind of tribunal convened to try Wirz was a relatively new development. "The distinction between a court-martial, provided for in the Articles of War and designed to implement the rules for members of the armed forces, and a military commission, arising to meet the needs of an army engaged in the field against a foreign enemy, was just beginning to emerge at the time of the Civil War," explain Lewis Laska and James Smith in an essay in the Military Law Review. The first such commission, they report, appeared during the 1847 occupation of Mexican territory, less than 20 years before the trial of Captain Wirz.

The hearing was convened in the U.S. Capitol building on August 21, 1865, before a panel of nine prominent Union officers, most of whom were lawyers. Over the course of more than 60 days, 160 witnesses testified, the majority of them former prisoners at Andersonville. The trial's written record is 2,301 pages long. From the start, the event was a circus.

On the first morning, Wirz was arraigned on charges of conspiracy to destroy the health and lives of Union prisoners of war and on 13 specifications of murder "in violation of the laws and customs of war." Though he was tried on his own, ten Confederate higher-ups were also accused in the conspiracy, including General Lee and President Jefferson Davis. The charges were read aloud by the Union Secretary of War Edward Stanton, who apparently hadn't looked at the indictment before he began. He became enraged when he saw that the still-respected Lee and Davis had been named as co-conspirators. The court adjourned immediately, only to be reconvened two days later, with the names of Davis, Lee, and other Confederate cabinet members struck from the charges, replaced by "others unknown."

Wirz pled not guilty to all charges. His five defense attorneys—the number quickly dwindled to two and eventually to none—tried to have the case dismissed, arguing that the accusations were too vague. Though there were 13 counts of murder, for example, not one actual victim was identified, despite the precise death records kept by Confederates at Andersonville and scores of eyewitnesses to the captain's moves within the stockade. Instead, Wirz was charged with killing soldiers of "unknown name" by shooting, kicking, or otherwise causing their deaths, "on or about" specific months or days. The defense motion to dismiss was denied without comment.

Over the course of several weeks, scores of ex-prisoners recounted terrible tales: of ravenous dogs turned on innocent prisoners, of maggots thriving in gangrenous wounds, of decent men forced to turn on each other for a scrap of spoiled meat, of men packed into the stockade like corpses, of guards shooting helpless prisoners from point-blank range. Still, for all the drama of the substance, the testimony was remarkably boring. Colonel Norton Chipman—who as judge advocate was lead prosecutor, court adviser, and carnival barker—took each witness on the same merry-go-round of topics: rations, water, the hospital, the treatment of the sick, the stocks, the chain gang, the shooting of prisoners by the guards, acts of cruelty by Captain Wirz, over and over again. He was trying to convict the defendant by condemning the camp. Through it all, a feeble Wirz listened quietly, reclining on a couch in the courtroom, occasionally raising a damp handkerchief to his forehead.

One of the prosecution's star witnesses was Felix DeLabaume, who claimed to be the grandnephew of the French statesman the Marquis de Lafayette. The court was gripped by his account of his time at Andersonville and of Wirz's barbarity. A sample recollection, of a moment when DeLabaume sought out Wirz to complain about a leg injury: "When I had told him my name he said: 'You god damned Frenchman, what the hell business had you to fight against us?' He refused to give me anything for my wound. . . . The man next to me was a German; and when he gave his name Captain Wirz said, 'I'll be damned if I don't send every one of you to hell.' " DeLabaume swore that he saw Wirz shoot two unnamed prisoners and threaten countless others, and he provided hand-drawn pictures to illustrate his points. In return, the witness was granted a written commendation for his "zealous testimony" and, before the trial was over, a job in the Department of the Interior. A few weeks after the trial, however, DeLabaume was identified as a deserter by the name of Felix Oeser. Once unmasked, he admitted he had perjured himself.

When its turn came around, the defense attempted to introduce testimony that Wirz had allowed several prisoners to travel to Washington, where they were denied the chance to plead with President Lincoln to resume the exchange of prisoners and forced to return to Andersonville. Judge Advocate Chipman objected on the ground that such testimony slandered the dead president. The motion was sustained.

Weeks of similar rulings followed, and Wirz's defense team fell off to two men: a fellow Swiss native, Louis Schade, and his associate O.H. Baker, both prominent Washington lawyers. They fought vigorously (and for free), attempting to discredit the mass of unreliable testimony the prosecution had presented. They tried to introduce testimony from Confederate officers and doctors who claimed the conditions at Andersonville were not their client's fault. They argued that Wirz was just doing his job, following orders from leaders like General Winder—who died before the end of the war. The defense stressed that the whole South lacked food, medicine, and other supplies at the time, and that Wirz was often too ill to have carried out the violent crimes he was accused of committing.

But Wirz's attorneys were thwarted at almost every turn. Many important defense witnesses were turned away by Colonel Chipman, who interviewed all potential witnesses before they appeared, and was allowed to decide whether or not they could testify. As a result, several key witnesses, including Robert Ould, the Confederate commissioner in charge of prisoner exchange, and the Union POW James Page (who later wrote The True Story of Andersonville Prison: A Defense of Major Henry Wirz), had their subpoenas revoked or were sent home. No evidence was allowed about the equally grim conditions at Northern prison camps like Elmira Prison in New York, known as "Hellmira," where 24 percent of the prisoners died. (The figure was 29 percent at Andersonville.)

Testimony ended in mid-October, and Wirz, whose remaining lawyers had quit by this point, issued a closing statement on his own behalf. "Every respectable and reliable witness, either for the government or for myself, who was in a position to know anything about the every-day history of Andersonville, has stated before this court in the most positive and unequivocal terms that all the stories about my cruelty were entirely new to them when they came to Washington, and had never reached their ears before," he wrote.

On October 24, he was found guilty of conspiracy and of 10 of the 13 murder specifications. Four of the counts were said to have occurred during August 1864, while Wirz was on a well-documented sick leave.

So on November 10, 1865, Henry Wirz found himself standing atop a scaffold in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, with four companies of Union soldiers standing guard, rifles raised. He faced the noose with a calm demeanor. At 10:32 a.m. the trap was sprung, and Wirz twisted and choked to death, to buoyant hoots and hollers from beyond the walls of the Old Capitol Prison. He had maintained his innocence until the end. "I know what orders are, Major," he reportedly told his executioner. "And I am being hanged for obeying them."

Carolyn Kleiner is an associate editor at U.S. News & World Report.

printer friendly email this article letter to the editor reprint premissions
space space space

<& /legalaffairscomp/ads_articles.comp &>

Contact Us