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Henry Wirz

Henry Wirz
November 1823 Zurich, Switzerland
November 10, 1865 Washington, D.C.

Henry Wirz (November 1822 – November 10, 1865) was the only Confederate soldier executed in the aftermath of the American Civil War for war crimes[1]. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland and immigrated to the United States in the late 1840s. Wirz worked throughout New England as a self-taught water-cure specialist. He moved to Kentucky for a short while before settling in Louisiana.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Wirz enlisted in the Confederate States Army as a private in the 4th Louisiana Infantry. He served on detached duty as a prison guard in Alabama before being transferred to help guard Federal prisoners incarcerated at Richmond, Virginia.

In February 1864, the Confederate government established a large military prison, Camp Sumter, near the small railroad depot of Andersonville, Georgia, to house Union prisoners of war. 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. Wirz commanded the stockade's interior. The prison was characterized by a lack of trained and adequately equipped prison guards; a gross lack of food, tools and medical supplies; severe overcrowding; poor sanitary conditions; and a lack of potable water. At its most overcrowded, in August 1864, the camp held approximately thirty-two thousand Union prisoners, making it the fifth largest city in the confederacy and the monthly mortality rate from disease and malnutrition reached three thousand. Wirz did not try to alleviate the situation, unlike many men in similar situations both North and South; on the contrary, abuses by guards ordered by Wirz, purposeful denying of parts of the already slim food supply abounded. Around forty-five thousand prisoners were incarcerated during the camp's fourteen-month existence, of whom thirteen thousand — twenty-eight percent — died.

After the end of hostilities, Wirz was arrested 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.

In July 1865, the trial convened in the Capitol building and lasted two months, dominating the front pages of newspapers across the United States. The court heard the testimony of former inmates, ex-Confederate officers and even nearby residents of Andersonville. Finally, in early November, the commission announced that it had found Wirz guilty of conspiracy as charged and of eleven of thirteen counts of murder. He was sentenced to death.

In a letter to President Andrew Johnson, Wirz asked for mercy, but the letter went unanswered. Mounting the scaffold on the morning of November 10, 1865, Wirz asserted that he was being hanged for following orders. He was executed on the same site where the Lincoln conspirators met their own fate just several months before, within clear sight of the newly-built dome of the U.S. Capitol. Wirz was eventually buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife and one daughter


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