One hundred fifty years ago, Union troops executed prison-camp commander Henry Wirz, the only Confederate officer to be hanged after the war—but his conflicted legacy lives on.
At 10:32 AM on November 10, 1865, a federal executioner released a trap door, killing Henry Wirz, the notorious commander of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Some claim that, moments earlier, Captain Wirz said, “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.”
As his body convulsed, then stiffened, hanging for 14 minutes, Union veterans and former prisoners shouted “HANG HIM!” and “REMEMBER ANDERSONVILLE.” The pro-Yankee New York Times noted respectfully that Wirz—after a “liberal” shot of whisky—faced death calmly, bravely. The Times correspondent catalogued Wirz’s remaining “earthly effects,” including some clothing, a Bible, and his cat. Then, the reporter proclaimed: “This is all there is left of him.”
Not quite. Henry Wirz—the only Confederate officer hanged after the war—left a complicated legacy that still polarizes 150 years later. To Northerners who accept the moral cleansing of certain Confederates—allowing General Robert E. Lee to be termed a patriot dutifully defending his beloved Virginia—Wirz is the exception. They consider the Swiss immigrant-turned-prison master to be America’s Eichmann, a brutal bureaucrat who oversaw a camp that oppressed 45,000 men.
Meanwhile, to some white Southerners, ashamed of slavery yet proud of their ancestors, Wirz is a Sacco or Vanzetti, a scapegoat unfairly executed in “a judicial killing.” Most likely, Wirz is a 19th-century Julius Rosenberg, the atomic spy—guilty of serious crimes but unfairly singled out for execution.
Visitors to Andersonville, Georgia, today can experience Wirz’s unresolved history. They wander in hushed silence, imagining the stench of rotting corpses, of human excrement, of malnourished, unwashed men, living on top of each other in a camp built for ten thousand, not three times that many, with a mortality rate of 29 percent. They learn about the creek running through the camp, spreading sickness, and about the makeshift “shebangs,” crude lean-tos made of discarded blankets and wood scraps, barely sheltering against the hot summer sun or cold winter nights. They hear about cruel guards, themselves starving and terrified of disease, egged on by a harsh commander overseeing this human hell, who first learned how to control others by overseeing a plantation. They see endless rows of tombstones, honoring 13,000 Andersonville inmates buried in what has become America’s national monument to all prisoners of war, now including an additional 7,000 graves of veterans from other wars. They can understand the Civil War poet Walt Whitman’s verdict on what the Confederacy called Camp Sumter: “There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven, but this is not among them.”
Yet, just a short walk away, in the town of Andersonville, stands a monument the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected in 1909, “to rescue” Captain Henry Wirz’s “name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice.” Words etched into the obelisk’s base articulate the Wirz defense: “Discharging his duty with such humanity as the harsh circumstances of the times, and the policy of the foe permitted Capt. Wirz became at last the victim of a misdirected popular clamor.”
A tourist website,ExploreSouthernHistory.com, praises this monument’s “indictment in stone” for condemning the “the blood lust that gripped the North in the years after the War Between the States” and charges, outrageously, “That 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. Grant.” The Journal of the Kentucky Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, snarls: “So it was that Wirz, poor and foreign-born, was sacrificed to satisfy the Northern thirst for revenge.”
Confederate apologists blame Lincoln and Grant for insisting that black prisoners be exchanged “the same as white soldiers.” Robert E. Lee said, “negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange.” The impasse caused the surge of prisoners in 1864 that necessitated the building of Camp Sumter.
Meanwhile, Wirz remains an ambiguous figure. He sought more supplies to improve conditions, informing his superiors: “With the means at my disposal it is utterly impossible to take proper care of the prisoners.” But as a brutal disciplinarian, he shackled defiant prisoners to a ball and chain, and sicced hungry dogs on escapees. Witnesses at his trial accused him of at least 13 acts of murder. Yet much of the testimony was exaggerated, set up to confirm Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s hysterical wartime charge that “there appears to have been a deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment.”
In his majestic history, Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson writes: “Few if any historians would now contend that the Confederacy deliberately mistreated prisoners.” Comparing Northern and Southern prison mortality rates overall, McPherson sadly concludes that “the treatment of prisoners during the Civil War was something that neither side could be proud of.”
Wirz probably abused some prisoners but was also demonized by prisoners during the war and a lynch mob atmosphere afterwards. In her powerful reassessment of Eichmann, the German philosopher Bettina Stangneth argues that even though the monstrous Nazi was no “faceless bureaucrat,” many victims nevertheless exaggerated his power—swearing they saw him in places he never appeared. She explains: “People who have experienced suffering, humiliation, and loss do not want to have been the victims of someone mediocre: that a mere nobody has power over us is even more unbearable than the idea that someone has power over us.”
Despite its flaws, the Wirz case helped set the precedent of holding officers responsible for treating prisoners of war humanely, an issue intensified during World War II but one still unresolved during the Iraq War. The fact that Wirz was the only Confederate officer executed postwar demonstrates Northern exhaustion with the fight, rather than the “bloodlust” Confederate boosters perceive.