Mike ScruggsOpinion

False Witness: The Trial of Henry Wirz

Henry Wirz

Henry Wirz was a Swiss immigrant, who settled in Louisiana before the Civil War. He enlisted in the Confederate Army and by 1864 held the rank of Captain. Captain (later Major) Henry Wirz was appointed Commandant of the Confederate Prisoner of War (POW) camp at Andersonville, Georgia, a few months after it was established early in 1864. During its existence in 1864 and 1865, it was the largest Confederate prison, holding at one time nearly 33,000 Union POWs. Of the 45,000 Union soldiers there during its existence nearly 13,000 died. Most of these died of diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, small pox, scurvy, and hospital gangrene. Dysentery and diarrhea alone accounted for 4,500 deaths from March to August 1864.

Wirz’s conviction and execution as a war criminal ranks as one of the most shameful miscarriages of legal justice in American history. After failing to link Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the Lincoln assassination, the Judge Advocate General of the Army sought to link Davis with the alleged war crimes at Andersonville along with Robert E. Lee, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, and Wirz. Lee’s name was dropped form the final indictment. Wirz was pressured to save his own life by implicating Davis, but he adamantly denied the accusation against Davis, and refused to save his own life with a lie.

At the insistence of Radical Republicans in Congress, eager to punish the South and considerably more influential after the assassination of the more moderate Lincoln, Wirz was refused a jury trial. He would be tried by a military commission.

Wirz’s civilian defense lawyers argued that the charges against Wirz were unconstitutionally vague and indefinite. From thirteen specific allegations of murder, not a single murder victim was named in the charges. These murders were supposed to have taken place in the presence of many witnesses. Yet although there were carefully recorded lists of those who died at Andersonville, no names of alleged murder victims were given. The defense motion was denied without comment. After all defense motions were denied, three of the five defense counsels withdrew from the case.

The prosecution strategy was to create a parade of horrors on the terrible conditions at Andersonville. The disease, malnutrition, overcrowding, misery, and death were described in moving detail. The Prosecuting Attorney, Col. Chipman, introduced as evidence Wirz’s letters to the Confederate Department of Prisons to show Wirz’s knowledge of conditions. But instead of showing a conspiracy to mistreat Union soldiers, these letters showed that the Confederate Government, despite all its problems late in the war, continued to regulate and inspect its prisons with the purpose of improving their conditions. Wirz’s own letters to Richmond were filled with pleas for more food, tents, clothing, medicine, and supplies.

Over 160 witnesses were called for the prosecution. Of these, 145 testified that they had no knowledge of Wirz ever killing or mistreating a prisoner. One prisoner gave the name of a prisoner Wirz had allegedly killed, but the date of the alleged murder did not correspond to any of the dates alleged in the indictment, so the indictment was changed to match to testimony.

The star prosecution witness was a man called Felix de la Baume. He testified that he personally saw Wirz shoot men. After the testimony, but before the trial was completed, he was given a commendation for a “zealous testimony” signed by all the Commission members and was given a job in the Department of the Interior. After the trial ended, he was identified by veterans of the 7th New York as a deserter. They got de la Baume fired, at which time he admitted that he had committed perjury in the Wirz trial.

Prosecutor Chipman exercised extraordinary control over the entire proceedings. He required that all defense witnesses be interviewed by him before testifying, and determined whether they would testify. Several key defense witnesses were not allowed to testify, and one was arrested and jailed on presenting himself. When the defense attorneys objected to this, the Commission upheld Chipman without comment.

The defense attorneys showed that the Confederate Government did everything possible to exchange prisoners, but Secretary of War Stanton refused because prisoner exchange might be a military advantage to the numerically smaller Confederate Army. Despite Confederate pleas that they were unable to sustain the prisoners, Stanton refused the exchanges. He also refused requested humanitarian shipments of medical supplies to the prisoners on the ground that these supplies might fall into the hands of the Confederate Army and help sustain their war efforts. Wirz paroled a party of four prisoners to go to Washington, but Stanton would not listen to their pleas.

The Commission refused to hear any evidence by the defense on Southern offers to exchange prisoners and ruled such evidence irrelevant. The U. S. War Department’s statistics showed more Southern prisoners died in prison camps than Northern prisoners, and that the death rate of Confederate soldiers in Northern camps was 12% versus 9% for Union solders in Confederate camps. This evidence was also kept out as irrelevant.

The defense was allowed to show, however, that Confederate guards at Andersonville had the same quantity and quality of rations as the prisoners, and the death rate of the guards was approximately the same as the prisoners. The 68 defense witnesses were former prisoners and their relatives. The consensus was that Wirz was a kind hearted man, anguished by the terrible conditions in the prison, who did all he could to alleviate the prisoners’ suffering. A Catholic priest also gave testimony favorable to Wirz.

In November 1864, the South unilaterally released 13,000 prisoners who were seriously ill to the United States. The majority of these were from Andersonville. In February 1865, Wirz released 3,000 prisoners who were well enough to travel on their own to the Federal Commander at Jacksonville, Florida. They were refused and returned to Andersonville.

At the conclusion of the trial, the defense was denied a request for time to prepare their closing argument. Upon this denial, the remaining two defense attorneys quit the case in frustration and protest. The prosecution presented both their case and that of the defense.

On October, 24, 1865, the Commission gave a verdict of guilty of murder and conspiracy to harm Union prisoners, and Wirz was sentenced to be hanged. Union Judge Advocate General Holt, who had gathered evidence against Wirz, in his review, described Wirz as a “demon” whose work of death caused him “savage orgies” of enjoyment. After this show trial and hanging the rest of the indictments were dropped.

The highly acclaimed Ken Burns 1990 PBS documentary on the Civil War took the position of the Commission. But here is what Henry Wirz said on November 10, 1865, as he stood on the gallows:

“I go before my God, the Almighty God. He will judge between us. I am innocent, and I will die like a man.”

Unfortunately, false witness is still rampant in the American media and politics today.

Principal trial details for this article were extracted from papers at the University of Missouri Law School.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs

 Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

Click the website below to order books.


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