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This Day in Georgia History

November 10, 1865

Henry Wirz Hanged

To read a publication about the prison at Andersonville, see the Digital Library of Georgia.

Confederate prison commander Henry Wirz died by hanging in Washington, D.C., becoming the only Confederate military leader executed for his part in the Civil War. Born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1822, Wirz graduated from the University of Zurich, later obtaining medical degrees from the medical colleges of Paris and Berlin. In 1849, he immigrated to Kentucky, moving six years later to Louisiana. With the outbreak of the Civil war, Dr. Wirz joined a regiment Louisiana volunteers as a sergeant. He was severely wounded in battle and promoted to captain for his bravery. Wounds to his arm made it almost useless, so he was sent to work with the provost marshal in charge of Confederate prisoner of war camps. He subsequently commanded prison camps in Richmond, Va. and Tuscaloosa, Ala. In Nov. 1863, the Confederacy was faced with growing numbers of Union prisoners and no place to put them. The War Department decided to build a large prison in the small southwest Georgia town of Andersonville. Though officially designated Camp Sumter, the facility commonly was known as Andersonville Prison. In Feb. 1864, the first 600 Union prisoners were sent to Andersonville, and the next month, Capt. Wirz was placed in command. By April, 10,000 Union prisoners had been sent to Andersonville, 19,000 by May, and more than 33,000 by August, when the population reached its peak. In its fourteen months of existence Andersonville housed more than 45,000 federal prisoners, of which almost 13,000 died. Conditions at the prison were horrible. However, while Wirz was “harsh and rancorous in his demeanor and unusually coarse in his speech,” he was operating under extremely difficult circumstances. His appeals for help went unanswered. With the Confederacy crumbling there was often not enough food, clothing, and shelter for their southern troops in the field - and the situation for the prison camp was even more desperate. Moreover, Gen. Grant had stopped the practice of prisoner exchanges. Wirz remained at Andersonville throughout the remainder of the war with his family. After the war, Wirz was taken to Macon, Georgia, where Union officers questioned him at length about the prison, but then released him to return to his family at Andersonville. Apparently, they had second thoughts, for while Wirz was waiting for the train, he was arrested and transported to Washington, D.C. On May 10, 1865, Wirz was placed in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial on charges of “murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war.” The trial lasted from Aug. 23 to Oct. 24. With his abrasive personality, Wirz was undoubtedly a poor choice for prison commander but no evidence exists to show that he ever intentionally murdered a prisoner. In fact, at his trial, he produced copies of numerous letters he had written to the Confederate government pleading for food, clothing, and medicine. However, Lincoln had recently been assassinated and the mood in the nation’s capitol was not one of sympathy for the South. Wirz was convicted, and on Nov. 10 he was hanged in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison. Wirz was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His simple gravestone says, “Captain Henry Wirz, C.S.A., Confederate Hero Martyr, Died Nov. 10, 1865.”

Image of Henry Wirz Hanged View large image
Source: Library of Congress