November 10 This day during the American Civil War

November 10, 1865 – Major Henry Wirz, the superintendent of a prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, is hanged, becoming the only American Civil War soldier executed for war crimes. Heinrich Hartmann Wirz better known as Henry Wirz (November 25, 1823 – November 10, 1865) was a Swiss-born 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. Wirz enlisted as a private in Company A, Fourth Battalion of Louisiana Volunteers of the Confederate States Army in May 1861. He took part in the Battle of Seven Pines in May 1862, during which he was wounded by a minie ball and lost the use of his right arm. After returning to his unit on June 12, 1862, 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. 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. Wirz returned from Europe in January 1864 and reported back to Richmond, Virginia, where he began working for General Winder in the prison department. Wirz then served on detached duty as a prison guard in Alabama, then transferred to help guard Federal prisoners incarcerated at Richmond. 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. Shortly before the end of the war, Wirz was promoted to the rank of Major. 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 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. Wirz would greet new arrivals to the camp brandishing a pistol, cursing at them  in his heavily accented English, and threatening to shoot them personally if they attempted to escape or broke the camp rules. That, coupled with the harsh discipline he imposed on the prisoners, which included ball-and-chaining them for even minor infractions, made him hated by those confined there.Wirz recognized that the conditions were inadequate and petitioned his superiors to provide more support; this was denied. In July 1864 he sent five prisoners to the Union with a petition signed by the inmates to reinstate prisoners’ exchanges that had been discontinued unilaterally by the North. The petition was denied, and the prisoners, true to their oath, returned. 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 by a contingent of federal cavalry in May 1865 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. The other members of the commission were Gershom Mott, John W. Geary, Lorenzo Thomas, Francis Fessenden, Edward S. Bragg, John F. Ballier, T. Allcock, and John H. Stibbs. Norton P. Chipman served as prosecutor. The military tribunal took place between August 23 and October 18, 1865, convened in the Capitol building, 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. Among those giving testimony was Father Peter Whelan, a Catholic priest who worked with the inmates, who testified on Wirz’s behalf. The charges against him were for ‘combining, confederating, and conspiring, together with John H. Winder, Richard B. Winder, Joseph [Isaiah H.] White, W. S. Winder, R. R. Stevenson, and others unknown, to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States’, and for ‘Murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war’. The 13 murders committed by Wirz personally were by revolver (specifications 1, 3, 4), by physically stamping and kicking the victim (specification 2), and by confining prisoners in stocks (specifications 5, 6), by beating a prisoner with a revolver (specification 13) and by chaining prisoners together (specification 7). All murders occurred in 1864. Wirz was also charged with ordering guards to fire on prisoners with muskets (specification 8, 9, 10, 12), and to have dogs attack escaped prisoners (specification 11). Wirz was found guilty of all charges except the murder in specification 4. Some of the evidence was hearsay, but there was one witness whose testimony was particularly damning. His name was Felix de la Baume, and he claimed to be a descendant of the heroic Marquis de Lafayette. He was able to name a victim killed directly by Wirz. This eyewitness was a skilled orator and his story was so compelling that he was given a written commendation signed by all the members of the commission for his part in the trial. He was also rewarded with a position in the department of the Interior while the trial was still in progress. Another witness was in Andersonville with his father. He described his father as having scurvy, and not being able to stand. Because he could not stand, Wirz repeatedly stomped and kicked him, and his father died a few days later. In early November of 1865, 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. In a letter to President Andrew Johnson, Wirz asked for clemency, but the letter went unanswered. The night before his execution, Louis Schade (an attorney working on behalf of Wirz) was told that a high Cabinet official wished to assure Wirz that if he would implicate Jefferson Davis with the atrocities committed at Andersonville, his sentence would be commuted. Schade repeated the offer to Wirz and was told, “Mr. Schade, you know that I have always told you that I do not know anything about Jefferson Davis. He had no connection with me as to what was done at Andersonville. If I knew anything about him, I would not become a traitor against him or anybody else even to save my life.” Wirz was hanged at 10:32 a.m. on November 10, 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison, by the US Capitol, the present-day site of the Supreme Court of the United States. His neck did not break from the fall, and the crowd of 250 spectators watched as he writhed and slowly suffocated. He was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife and one daughter. Eleven days after the execution, it was revealed that the star witness from the trial had perjured himself. He was not Felix de la Baume from France, but Felix Oeser, born in Saxony, Prussia. He was actually a deserter from the 7th New York Volunteers. With his real identity revealed, he quickly disappeared. 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. Some writers have suggested Wirz’s trial was unfair. because the South had low food rations and there was a Northern blockade of all medicines, both of which were out of Wirz’s control. Even some of his former prisoners conceded that the low support he received from Confederate government in terms of food, water, and medical supplies made the conditions at Andersonville beyond his scope of responsibility. The trial, one of the nation’s first war crimes tribunals, created enduring moral and legal notions and established the precedent that certain wartime behavior is unacceptable, regardless if committed under the orders of superiors or on one’s own. In a 1980 study, the historian Morgan D. Peoples refers to Wirz as a “scapegoat”. 

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