Henry Wirz

Henry Wirz
Virginia Union University
Image by elycefeliz
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz, better known as Henry Wirz (November 25, 1823 – November 10, 1865) was a Confederate officer in the American Civil War. He is best known for his command of Camp Sumter, the Confederate prisoner of war camp near Andersonville, Georgia; he was tried and executed after the war for conspiracy and murder relating to his command of the camp.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Wirz attended the University of Zurich but there is no evidence he obtained a degree. Wirz practiced medicine for a time before he emigrated to the U.S. in 1849, when many Forty-Eighters were fleeing the failed Revolutions of 1848 in the German states and elsewhere, or the Swiss Sonderbund war. Wirz, who had married in 1845 and had two children, was imprisoned briefly in the late 1840s for unknown reasons.

He established a medical practice in Kentucky where he married a Methodist widow named Wolfe. Along with her two daughters they moved to Louisiana. In 1855 his wife gave birth to their daughter Cora. By 1861, Wirz had a successful medical practice.

Wirz enlisted as a private in Company A, Fourth Battalion of Louisiana Volunteers of the Confederate States Army in May 1861. It is reported that he took part in the Battle of Seven Pines in May 1862, during which he was supposedly severely wounded by a minie ball and lost the use of his right arm. On June 12, 1862 after returning to his unit, Wirz was promoted to Captain "for bravery on the field of battle." Because of his injury, Wirz was assigned to the staff of General John H. Winder, who was in charge of Confederate prisoner of war camps.

Because of his nationality and education, Captain Wirz was summoned to Richmond in the summer of 1863 and sent on a secret mission. President Jefferson Davis made Captain Wirz a Special Minister and sent him to Europe carrying secret dispatches to the Confederate Commissioners, Mister Mason in England and Mister Slidell in France.

Captain Wirz returned from Europe in January 1864 and reported back to Richmond, where he began working for General Winder in the prison department. Wirz allegedly then served on detached duty as a prison guard in Alabama, then transferred to help guard Federal prisoners incarcerated at Richmond, Virginia.

In February 1864, the Confederate government established Camp Sumter, a large military prison in Georgia near the small railroad depot of Anderson (as it was called then), to house Union prisoners of war. In April 1864, Wirz took command of Camp Sumter where he remained for over a year. Though wooden barracks were originally planned, the Confederates incarcerated the prisoners in a vast, rectangular, open-air stockade originally encompassing sixteen and a half acres, which had been intended as only a temporary prison pending exchanges of prisoners with the North. The prisoners themselves gave this place the name Andersonville. The prison suffered an extreme lack of food, tools and medical supplies, severe overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of potable water.

At its peak in August 1864, the camp held approximately 32,000 Union prisoners, making it the fifth largest city in the Confederacy. The monthly mortality rate from disease, dysentery, and malnutrition reached 3,000. Around 45,000 prisoners were incarcerated during the camp’s 14-month existence, of whom close to 13,000 (28%) died.

Wirz was arrested in May 1865, by a contingent of federal cavalry and taken by rail to Washington, D.C., where the federal government intended to place him on trial for conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war. A military tribunal was convened with Major General Lew Wallace presiding. In early November, the commission announced that it had found Wirz guilty of conspiracy as charged, along with 11 of 13 counts of murder. He was sentenced to death.

Henry Wirz was one of two men tried, convicted and executed for war crimes during the Civil War (the other being Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson). His conviction remains controversial today. Residents of the town of Andersonville annually march to a Wirz memorial, along with supporters of a congressional pardon for Wirz..

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