Today in History

Today in History: November 10

Henry Wirz — Andersonville Prison

Wirz on scaffold
Reading the Death Warrant to Wirz on the Scaffold,
Washington, D.C.,
November 10, 1865.
Selected Civil War Photographs

Henry Wirz, commander of the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, was hanged on November 10, 1865, in Washington, D.C., the only Confederate officer executed as a war criminal.

In November 1863, Confederate officials selected Andersonville as the site of a new prison which was needed to contain the growing number of prisoners. Prisoners began arriving at the hastily constructed Andersonville in late February 1864. On March 27, 1864, the Swiss-born Hartmann Heinrich Wirz was assigned to command the prison at Andersonville, which was given the name Camp Sumter. Planned for 10,000 prisoners, by August 1864, Andersonville, an open stockade, held more than 33,000 Union prisoners. Adequate shelter, edible food, potable water, and medical supplies were lacking, and the population was decimated by starvation and infectious disease. Nearly 13,000 of the more than 45,000 prisoners sent to Andersonville from its opening in 1864 until its capture in April 1865, died there.

aerial view of Andersonville prison
The Great Rebel Prison-pen at Andersonville, Georgia,
Wood engraving from drawing by R. Sneden,
1865.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Arrested in May 1865 shortly after the war's end, Wirz was tried by a military tribunal in August on charges of conspiring with Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and others, to "injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States…" He also was charged with "murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war." Wirz was caught in the unfortunate position of answering for all of the misery that was Andersonville, though he tried to impose order and security as well as to provide adequate shelter, food, and medical supplies. His defense attorneys despaired of his chances of receiving a fair trial as Northern propaganda and fallout from Lincoln's assassination worked against him. After two months of testimony rife with inconsistencies, Wirz was found guilty on all counts, court-martialed, and sentenced to death by hanging.

On the morning of November 10, 1865, Henry Wirz

…rose in his cell at the Old Capitol and wrote a last letter to his wife…Later that forenoon, after giving a few final strokes to a stray cat that had wandered in to share his confinement, he emerged from his cell with a black cambric robe draped over his shoulders…followed the guards into an enclosed courtyard, where chanting soldiers and other spectators hung like vultures in the treetops. There was his life offered up to appease the public hysteria…

William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot

two soldiers sitting side by side
Lt. James B. Washington, a Confederate Prisoner, with Capt. George A. Custer of the 5th Cavalry, U.S.A.,
Fair Oaks, Virginia,
James F. Gibson, photographer,
May 31, 1862.
Selected Civil War Photographs

Approximately 150 places were used as military prisons by Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. These structures were fortifications, former jails, altered buildings, open stockades, enclosures around barracks, and so on. On August 31, 1864, Confederate prisoner of war James W. Duke wrote a letter from a Rock Island, Illinois, Union prison (an enclosure around barracks), to a cousin in Kentucky. The letter includes an account, probably censored, of conditions at the prison and a drawing of the facility.

During the late winter of 1862, some 800 Confederate prisoners were temporarily incarcerated in Lafayette, Indiana. Writing about this "Forgotten Chapter in Lafayette's Civil War," Works Progress Administration writer Cecil Miller noted, "Most of the prisoners were young men, pale, beardless boys, some under seventeen, members of the 32nd and 41st Tennessee regiments. They had served but four and one-half months." Although prison life was grim on both sides, the misery of war occasionally was lightened by a game of baseball as shown in Otto Boetticher's 1863 lithograph Union Prisoners at Salisbury, N.C.

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