Wirz on trial

In May 1865, Wirz wrote to Union officials asking for permission to return to Switzerland. "The duties I had to perform were arduous [difficult] and unpleasant and I am satisfied that no one can or will justly blame me for things that happened here and which were beyond my power to control," Wirz stated. But he was instead arrested and sent to Washington to be tried for war crimes.

Wirz's trial took place before a special military court that was charged with determining whether Wirz had committed war crimes during his command at Andersonville. Many historians believe that the Confederate officer did not receive a fair trial. For example, some witnesses who were friendly to Wirz were prevented from testifying. Other wit

The hooded body of Henry Wirz hangs from the scaffold on November 10, 1865. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

nesses claimed that Wirz personally shot or assaulted prisoners on dates when he was actually absent from the prison on medical leave. Prosecutors, though, also presented many other witnesses who testified about Wirz's cruelty and the camp's awful living conditions. After listening to the testimony, the court found Wirz "guilty of murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war," and ordered his execution. Just before he was to be executed, Union officials offered to spare his life if he would testify that Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808-1889; see entry) engaged in a conspiracy to kill Union prisoners. But Wirz refused the offer, saying that "Jefferson Davis had no connection with me as to what was done at Andersonville." Wirz was hanged on November 10, 1865, in Washington's Old Capitol Prison. Wirz thus became the only Confederate official or soldier to be executed for his wartime activities.

Today, historians continue to debate Wirz's responsibility for conditions at Andersonville. Some people believe that the commandant was a cruel and evil man who did not care whether the prison's Union inmates died. Others, though, say that Wirz was only an inefficient administrator who found it impossible to provide for prisoners at a time when the entire Confederacy was crumbling.

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