Was Wirz Really the Worst?

Henry_WirzThe notorious commandant of Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Captain Henry Wirz, was hanged for murder on November 10, 1865. Wirz was the only man executed for war crimes committed during the Civil War, but did he really deserve the ultimate penalty? Or was he a scapegoat, convicted and sentenced to appease Northerners clamoring for retribution?

It is true that Wirz was given a nearly impossible task at Andersonville. Many factors compounded to make his assignment most frustrating, and this frustration was fueled by deep animosity. Whether this was due to his personal life, medical problems that caused him constant pain, his loathing for the position he was given at Andersonville, or a combination of these and other factors, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he allowed his frustrations and hatred to fall upon the men under his watch in a most cruel and personal manner.

John McElroy survived Confederate prison camps at Andersonville, Savannah, Millen, Blackshear, and Charleston. In his lengthy memoir, McElroy compared Captain Wirz to Lieutenant Davis, commandant of prison at Savannah:

Lieutenant Davis had many faults, but there was no comparison between him and the Andersonville commandant. He was a typical young Southern man; ignorant and bumptious as to the most common matters of school-boy knowledge, inordinately vain of himself and his family, coarse in tastes and thoughts, violent in his prejudices, but after all with some streaks of honor and generosity that made the widest possible difference between him and Wirz, who never had any. As one of my chums said to me: “Wirz is the most even-tempered man I ever knew; he’s always foaming mad.” This was nearly the truth. I never saw Wirz when he was not angry; if not violently abusive, he was cynical and sardonic. Never, in my little experience with him did I detect a glint of kindly, generous humanity; if he ever was moved by any sight of suffering its exhibition in his face escaped my eye. If he ever had even a wish to mitigate the pain or hardship of any man the expression of such wish never fell on my ear. How a man could move daily through such misery as he encountered, and never be moved by it except to scorn and mocking is beyond my limited understanding.

I’ve read at least ten diaries and memoirs of Andersonville prisoners, and all are consistent in their condemnation of Captain Wirz. Prisoner John W. Northrup’s first encounter with Captain Wirz occurred immediately after his arrival, as his detachment was being marched from the train station to the stockade:

Presently, the commandant of the prison with a lieutenant and sergeant came down the line. I asked to go to the creek and fill some canteens, pleading our suffering condition. In a passion, pistol in hand, the officer turned with a ferocious oath, putting the pistol to my nose saying, “I’ll shoot you if you say dot again.” Stepping back he yelled, “If another man ask for water I shoot him.” To the left a poor fellow had squatted in the ranks. This officer, whom I found to be Captain Wirz, rushed upon him with an oath, kicking him severely and yelled savagely, “Stand up in ter ranks!”

Food was used as a weapon at Andersonville to starve the prison population to the point of death. On July 4th, 1864, Michael Dougherty wrote:

No rations of any kind today; this is the way the rebels intend us to celebrate the Fourth. A thousand deaths would be preferable to this intense suffering; I have been in twenty engagements and skirmishes, and would rather be in twice as many again than endure the tortures of this hell.

On the 15th he added: Rations, one pint of corn meal and about twenty beans and three or four ounces of bacon, all raw and no way to cook them.

The quality of the food was terrible. Rations were supplied cooked half the time, uncooked the other half. Often, there was no firewood, so the rations were eaten uncooked. This ritual starvation was not from ignorance. The prison keepers knew men could not live on corn cob meal and rotten bacon—their own medical inspectors had told them. They knew fresh fruits and vegetables would improve the men’s health, and this life-saving produce was widely available from farms near the camp. But this nutritious food was made available for sale only at a camp store run by a pair of corrupt prisoners, and only new prisoners with money could ever think of affording the high prices.

Captain Wirz also employed various torture devices to punish prisoners for various infractions including attempted escape. McElroy wrote of the “diabolical Wirz:”

Nothing, I am sure, since the days of the Inquisition—or still later, since the terrible punishments visited upon the insurgents of 1848 by the Austrian aristocrats—has been so diabolical as the stocks and chain-gangs, as used by Wirz. At one time seven men, sitting in the stocks near the Star Fort—in plain view of the camp—became objects of interest to everybody inside. They were never relieved from their painful position, but were kept there until all of them died. I think it was nearly two weeks before the last one succumbed.

The camp was surrounded by pine forest, but the men were never allowed to cut timber to build huts. No shelter was allowed beyond what the men could furnish themselves. If you were fortunate, you could share a blanket with two or three other men. Others dug holes in the ground to shelter themselves from the burning sun. Many lay on the open ground day and night, and died of exposure.

Prisoner W. F. Lyon painted this damning portrait of Captain Wirz:

If the Southern Confederacy had searched the whole world they could not have found a man more fiendishly qualified to fill this place than this same Henry Wirtz. I doubt whether the infernal regions could furnish a person of more diabolical tendencies than he, unless they sent out old Beelzebub himself, and Henry Wirtz would hold him a close second. I believe he could sit and see his own father roasted over a slow fire, or his mother eaten alive by ants and never show the tremor of a muscle. This brute said he would kill more men in prison than the army did at the front, and I am inclined to think that he did it proportionately at least. He used to ride an old white mare—what a contrast —a black soul on a white horse. He kept a pack of the largest, fiercest, Cuban blood-hounds to be found. If a man dared to cross him, he would kill him. He kicked one poor fellow to death. But enough of him for the present. I will merely say that he was hanged at Washington at the close of the war, not because he was keeper of the prison, but for his personal, brutal deeds perpetrated upon helpless prisoners.

Please ubderstand that I have just scratched the surface with these 1,200 words. To answer the question I posed at the start, I do believe Henry Wirz got what he deserved, a public hanging in Washington within sight of the capitol dome.

I realize this is not my usual video blog, so I include this link to an excellent video about the man who, in my opinion, was the greatest villain of the Civil War.

Bio Video about Henry Wirz

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