Captain Henry Wirz
An Austrian by birth, Captain Wirz
joined the Confederate army with a
Louisiana unit. His execution has
been described by one critic as a
case of "judicial murder."
Captain Henry Wirz Monument - Andersonville, Georgia
|Henry Wirz Monument
The Wirz Monument in downtown Andersonville
memorializes the Camp Sumter commander who
became the only Confederate officer executed by the
U.S. Govenment at the end of the Civil War.
Monument to "Judicial Murder"
Henry Wirz was neither a politician nor a high
ranking officer. An immigrant and a captain in
the Confederate army, he was the only man
ever executed for war crimes during the War
Between the States (or Civil War).
A monument to his memory stands in the
center of the little town of Andersonville,
Depending on how much they know about
his story or their perspective on the war itself,
people vehemently disagree to this day over
whether Captain Wirz was a mass murderer
or a scapegoat. The monument proclaims
him to have been a victim of "judicial murder."
Henry Wirz was born in Switzerland in 1823.
A native of Zurich, he attended some of the
finest medical schools in Europe. Freedom
was the watchword of the day, however, and
the young doctor took up arms in the great
European revolts of 1848.
The rebel freedom fighters were crushed,
however, and thousands immigrated to the
United States rather than face imprisonment
or death in their homelands. Henry Wirz was
among them. He arrived in the United States
in 1849 and soon settled in Kentucky where
he built a successful medical practice.
Kentucky tried to maintain its neutrality when
the War Between the States erupted in 1861.
It was a lost cause. Armies from both sides
soon occupied parts of the commonwealth
and thousands of its men signed up to fight
for either North or South.
Some modern writers have claimed that no
record exists of Henry Wirz joining the
Confederate army, but documents in the
National Archives tell a different story.
Wirz left his home and family in Kentucky to
travel down the Mississippi River and join the
Confederate cause. He enlisted in Company
A, Fourth Louisiana Infantry Battalion, as a
private. Enlistment records show that the unit
was mustered into the Confederate service
at Richmond, Louisiana, on May 25,1861.
Although he joined the service as a private,
his service record shows that Wirz had been
moved up to the rank of sergeant by January
1862. Records further indicate that he was
serving detached duty in Richmond, Virginia,
by May of that year.
Sergeant Wirz was among the soldiers that
turned out to oppose McClellan's advance on
Richmond. He was wounded in the arm at
the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31-June 1,
Prior to joining the defense of the Southern
capital, Wirz had impressed superiors with
his organizational abilities. They rewarded
him with promotion on June 12, 1862,
elevating him to the rank of Captain and
Assistant Adjutant General. He was ordered
to report to Brigadier General J.H. Winder for
Little is known of his activities from June
1862 until the spring of 1864. He probably
assisted Winder in the management of Libby
Prison in Virginia and meager information
also indicates that he commanded a prison
facility in Alabama as well.
When construction began on a major new
prison at Andersonville in February 1864,
Captain Wirz was assigned to command it. It
was through his administration of this facility
over the next year that his fate was decided.
Although many even today accuse him of
intentionally starving and torturing prisoners
at Camp Sumter - the official name of the
prison at Andersonville - the real truth is that
the number of prisoners sent to the facility
completely overwhelmed Confederate supply
Camp Sumter had been designed to house
10,000 prisoners of war, but Confederate
officials soon sent three times that many to
the stockade. Their care and feeding became
the responsibility of Henry Wirz.
There is evidence that Wirz tried to do his
duty. The size of the stockade was expanded
as the number of prisoners swelled. He
established hospital facilities outside of the
stockade walls. And he allowed prisoners to
arrest, try and execute the ringleaders of the
"Raiders," a prison gang that preyed on the
In the end, though, the captain was left to
feed 30,000 prisoners with only one rickety
railroad as a supply network. The corn crop
was good in South Georgia in 1864, but Wirz
had neither wagons to move it nor money to
pay for it. The Union blockade had shut down
all medicine coming into the South and there
was not enough for the Confederate soldiers
in the field, let alone the army of 30,000
prisoners turned over to Captain Wirz.
The death rate skyrocketed at Camp Sumter.
Modern sanitation methods were all but
unknown at the time and the understanding
of infectious deceases was rudimentary at
Much of the responsibility for what happened
at Andersonville really fell on the shoulders of
the leaders of the Union war effort, President
Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S.
Determined to prevent the Southern
prisoners of war being held in the North from
going home and rejoining the fight, they put a
stop to all exchanges of prisoners. Despite
the pleas of Confederate officials for the
resumption of the exchange program, Grant
and Lincoln remained steadfast. Thousands
of men died in unsanitary prison camps as a
Things became so bad that Wirz, through the
intervention of Major General Samuel Jones,
even moved thousands of prisoners by boat
and rail from Andersonville to Jacksonville,
Florida. The Union army then occupied that
coastal city and the Confederates tried to
simply release the prisoners to authorities
there. Union officers, however, rebuffed the
effort by saying that they had no authority to
relieve the sufferings of men from their own
Left with no other option, Jones and Wirz sent
the prisoners of war back to Andersonville
where many soon lost their lives.
Nearly 13,000 men died at Andersonville
during the last year of the War Between the
States. They were among the more than
400,000 from both sides that lost their lives
in the horrible war.
The North demanded revenge and the blood
lust of a nation was soon directed at Captain
Henry Wirz. Taken into custody at war's end,
he was tried before a military court. Despite
evidence and testimony that the captain did
everything in his power, he was convicted
and sentenced to death.
On the night before his execution, the U.S.
government offered to spare Wirz if he would
testify that Jefferson Davis had ordered the
deaths of the prisoners at Andersonville. The
captain chose to go to the gallows rather
than to give false testimony against Davis.
Captain Henry Wirz was hanged at Old
Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., at 10:32
a.m. on November 10, 1865. He was the only
official of either side executed after the close
of the War Between the States. Today's U.S.
Supreme Court building stands on the site of
the gallows where Henry Wirz was killed.
Many Southerners feel to this day that
Captain Wirz was murdered by the Federal
government. The United Daughters of the
Confederacy took up his case and in 1908
issued a proclamation asserting that the
captain had been the victim of "judicial
The monument to Wirz was unveiled in
Andersonville that same years. It has stood
there for more than 100 years, a memorial to
the man who took the entire moral outrage of
the North onto his own shoulders.
The monument can be seen today in the
center of Andersonville, Georgia. There is no
charge to visit and read its inscription.
Hanging of Captain Henry Wirz
The dome of the U.S. Capitol rises
over the gallows in this photograph
of Captain Wirz being hanged in
1865. The U.S. Supreme Court
Building now stands on the site
where he was executed.
"Discharging his duty with such
humanity as the harsh
circumstances of the times, and
the policy of the foe permitted,
Captain Wirz became at last the
victim of a misdirected popular
CAPTAIN HENRY WIRZ MONUMENT
Captain Henry Wirz Monument
The monument to Captain Henry
Wirz, the only Confederate executed
after the War Between the States (or
Civil War), stands in the heart of
Indictment in Stone
The monument stands to this day
as an indictment of the blood lust
that gripped the North in the years
after the War Between the States.
Wirz was one of many Southerners
tried before military tribunals in
Civil War Sites in Georgia
|Copyright 2011 & 2015 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
Last Updated: March 26, 2015