Wirz, Henry

Henry Wirz was the only man executed for Civil War war crimes and has been characterized ever since as either monster or martyr. He was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz on November 25, 1823 in Zurich, Switzerland and attended university there. He married in 1845 and had two children. In spring 1849, he sailed from Le Havre in France for the United States. He apprenticed in a doctor’s office in Kentucky and later practiced as a homeopathic physician, treating mostly plantation slaves in Madison Parish, Louisiana. By this time his Swiss wife had divorced him and he had married a Kentucky widow with two children. They had a daughter together, born in 1855 and named Cora. When the war broke out, he volunteered as a private with the 4th Louisiana Infantry. He was promoted to sergeant and became an assistant to General John L. Winder who took charge of all Union prisoners in the hands of the Confederacy. By June 1862, Wirz was a captain on Winder’s staff. In early 1864 he was assigned to command a massive new prisoner of war camp near the small village of Andersonville, Georgia. During his thirteen months in charge, thousands of Union prisoners died of disease and malnutrition and immediately after the surrender, Wirz was arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy. Public opinion was such that only one verdict was possible in the sixty-three day trial that followed before a hand-picked military tribunal. Henry Wirz was executed at the Capitol Prison in Washington on November 12, 1865. (By John Osborne)
Life Span
    Full name
    Heinrich Hartmann Wirz
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Free State
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
     Elizabeth Savells Wolfe (second wife)
    Other Education
    University of Zurich
    Doctor, Dentist or Nurse
    Relation to Slavery
    White non-slaveholder
    Church or Religious Denomination
    Catholic (Roman or Irish)
    Confederate Army

    Henry Wirz (American National Biography)

    The Confederacy he returned to in February 1864 had fallen on hard times as he found out when [Brigadier General] Winder placed him in command of the stockade at the Andersonville, Georgia, prison in March of that year. The exchange of prisoners had ceased, and the overpopulated compound rapidly became a hell on earth for everyone there. The Confederacy was so short of the basic necessities that even Confederate troops in the field were near starvation. Prisoners ranked last in importance, and Wirz was lucky to be able to feed his charges anything at all. Food, medicine, housing, even water were in short supply by that summer. As Union prisoners died by the thousands, the northern press characterized both Winder and Wirz as "inhuman fiends" and "monsters."

    The assassination of Abraham Lincoln further inflamed the North, already sickened and enraged over the prisoner issue, and the public demanded that someone pay for these crimes. Winder died of a heart attack on 6 February 1865, thus depriving vengeful Union authorities of any opportunity of trying him as a war criminal. That left Wirz, who was arrested in May 1865, still tending to the sick at Andersonville. The Wirz "trial" lasted for three months; he was charged with murder and abuse of prisoners and of conspiring with Jefferson Davis, James Seddon, and others to murder the prisoners en masse. Lies and distortions were accepted as fact, and Wirz was sentenced to hang "for impairing the health and destroying the lives of prisoners."
    Arch Fredric Blakey, "Wirz, Henry", American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/04/04-01167.html.
    How to Cite This Page: "Wirz, Henry," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/index.php/node/6898.