Henry Wirz Biography

Military Leader(1823–1865)
During the Civil War, Confederate soldier Henry Wirz commanded the Andersonville military prison, where many Union prisoners of war died as a result of poor conditions.

Synopsis

Henry Wirz was born on November 25, 1823, in Zurich, Switzerland. During the Civil War he was commander of the infamous military prison at Andersonville, where many Union prisoners of war died as a result of poor conditions. After Union forces liberated the prison in 1865, Wirz was put on trial and found guilty of conspiracy and cruelty. On November 10, 1865, he was hanged in Washington, D.C.

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Early Life

Heinrich "Henry" Hartmann Wirz was born on November 25, 1823, in Zurich, Switzerland. Wirz had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but his family could not afford to pay for medical school, so he received occupational training instead, after which he held various jobs. In 1845, Wirz married Emilie Oschwald with whom he had two children. 

Not long after their marriage, Wirz took out a loan that he was ultimately unable to pay and was subsequently sentenced to a prison term. He was eventually freed on the condition that he leave Zurich, but Emilie refused to go and the couple would separate and eventually divorce.

Move to the United States

In 1849, Wirz immigrated to the United States and worked briefly in a factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, before moving further south. Traveling to Kentucky, Wirz worked as a doctor's assistant and remarried in 1854 to Elizabeth Wolf. He then moved again, settling in Miliken's Bend, Louisiana, where he worked on a plantation. In 1861, after the start of the Civil War, joining the 4th Louisiana Infantry.

While serving in the Confederate Army, Wirz received several promotions. He became a captain in 1862 after allegedly fighting and being wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. He took command of his first military prison that same year, running the Confederate facility at Richmond. His tenure there was short-lived, however; later that year, Wirz took charge of another military prison in Alabama.

Andersonville Prison

In 1863, as a special assistant to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Wirz spent a year in Europe acting on his behalf. He returned in 1864 and was selected to oversee the newly established military prison at Camp Sumter, Georgia, which soon came to be known as Andersonville. Wirz was harsh in his handling of the prisoners, but his personal responsibility for the horrors that occurred at Andersonville has remained a subject of debate.

Regardless, of Wirz's role, there can be no question that the situation at Andersonville was a nightmare. Tens of thousands of Union soldiers—estimates range from 32,000 to 45,000 soldiers—were held there in deplorable conditions. They faced torture and starvation, and the sick and wounded among them were often left untreated. In all, approximately 13,000 soldiers died at Andersonville.

On Trial

After Union general William T. Sherman's forces liberated the prison in May 1865, Wirz was put on trial by a military tribunal for his role at Andersonville. Much of the American public was outraged when they learned of the misery inflicted on the Union soldiers there, and needing to hold someone accountable for Andersonville, the military chose Wirz as its primary target.

Wirz's trial lasted two months, during which he faced charges of conspiracy and cruelty. Wirz was found guilty on all counts, including one count for conspiring with Jefferson Davis to "injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States."

For his role in this tragedy, Wirz received a death sentence. He was, at least according to some accounts, offered parole if he implicated Jefferson Davis for war crimes, but he refused. On November 10, 1865, Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C. Over the years, some historians have questioned Wirz's guilt, suggesting that he may have served as a scapegoat for the atrocities committed at Andersonville.

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