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Andersonville 

The Trial and Execution of Henry Wirz

By Gary Waltrip  






Photo:  The Death Warrant is read to Henry Wirz (right, with head bowed) on the execution scaffold in the Old Capitol Prison,
Washington, D.C., November 10, 1865. (Library of Congress)


Execution of Wirz

THE TRIAL OF HENRY WIRZ

On August 23, 1865, a Military Commission of the War Department, on the orders of the President, filed two charges against Wirz, the first alleging that Wirz had conspired with Jefferson Davis, John H. Winder, and various other high ranking Confederate officials to "impair the health and destroy the lives" of Union prisoners of war. The second charge had thirteen specifications, alleging that Wirz had murdered thirteen Union prisoners of war at Andersonville by shooting, stomping, subjecting such prisoners to the mauling of bloodhounds, and various other mistreatment. 

Not a single one of the specifications could name even one of the alleged victims, nor describe their unit, rank or any other details about them, in spite of the thousands of Union prisoners who would have witnessed the alleged atrocities.

Henry Wirz was defended by a competent Washington, D.C. attorney,  Louis Schade,  who promptly filed for dismissal of the charges on the grounds that a military tribunal had no jurisdiction to try a civilian, that the charges were vague as to time, place and manner of offense, and that as a Confederate officer Wirz was entitled to the terms agreed to between Generals Sherman and Johnston upon the latter's surrender. All of these pleas, though valid, were overruled, and Wirz then pleaded not guilty to all charges. Wirz's trial began on August 25, 1865. Col. N.P. Chipman, USA  Judge Advocate, headed the prosecution.  Louis Schade, a Washington attorney and Swiss countryman of Wirz was counsel for the defense.  Schade acted in this capacity without pay and as a volunteer since the penniless Wirz had no funds with which to pay him.

The government presented 160 witnesses, nearly all of whom had been prisoners at Andersonville; but their key witness was one Felix de la Baume. This witness was good-looking, had a pleasant voice, was a good speaker, and captured the court. "De la Baume" (for that was not in fact his real name) testified to the manifest cruelty of Major Wirz, as de La Baume witnessed most of the killing attributed to the defendant, or so he claimed. Page wrote of this witness: "His omnipresence while at Andersonville seemed something bordering on the supernatural. Nothing escaped him. Witness de la Baume held the surging crowd like an inspiration."

Before the trial was even ended, "de la Baume" was rewarded for his testimony on the  government's behalf and given a position in the Department of the Interior, a blatant payoff for services rendered. Soon after Wirz's execution, some Union soldiers of German ancestry identified Monsieur "de la Baume" as a deserter from the 7th New York Infantry whose real name was Felix OeserOeser, who had never set foot in Andersonville Prison, was then fired from his job in the Department of the Interior and quickly disappeared from the public's eye.   

Of the 160 witnesses called by the prosecution, only ten or twelve testified to any alleged cruelty on the part of the defendant. Approximately 145 of the government's own witnesses, almost all of whom were former inmates of Andersonville, testified that they had no knowledge of Wirz ever murdering or killing a prisoner with his own hands or otherwise.

James Madison Page (a former lieutenant with the Sixth Michigan Cavalry, former Andersonville inmate and the author of "The True Story of Andersonville Prison" (1908)) was subpoenaed, but after being interviewed, was not called as a witness.  Page stated that any act of cruelty that was described in the specifications could not possibly have taken place without his knowledge, and he heard nothing of the alleged murders until Wirz's trial. The Andersonville prisoners had little to do all day but talk, and any events within the prison that affected prisoners would be the subject of intense, widespread discussion.  Acts such as those alleged against Wirz could not have  happened  without  the widespread knowledge within the inmate population.  But Page never heard of the alleged incidents, for one clear reason: they never happened.  It should be further noted that of the eleven Union prisoners whom Wirz was convicted of murdering, none were ever identified as to name or any other particulars.  Fictitious men do not need names.

The defense was forced to operate under a different set of rules than the prosecution.  Where the prosecution could call anyone of its choosing as a witness, potential witnesses for the defense had to be approved in advance by the prosecution!  Witnesses who could have helped Wirz's cause, like the former Confederate Commissioner of Exchange Robert Ould who could have testified about prisoner exchange and the offers of unreciprocated  prisoner  releases, were not allowed to testify.  The defense, like the prosecution, was a farce, but not due to any lack of effort on the part of Wirz's selfless and dedicated attorney.  The trial was a show trial, whose decision had already been rendered before one word of testimony was heard in court.

The  trial  ended  on November 4, 1865. Henry Wirz was found guilty on the first charge of conspiring with other Confederate officials to murder the prisoners even though not a shred of evidence or testimony of any kind had been presented in support of this theory during the trial.  On the second charge, Wirz was found guilty of eleven of the thirteen alleged murders of Union prisoners.  The sentence was that he be "hanged by the neck til he be dead."

THE EXECUTION

Henry Wirz was remanded to his cell to await execution.  But he was to suffer one last insult before the gallows.  On the night before his execution, government officials visited Wirz in his cell as he was giving confession to a Catholic priest, Father R.E. Boyle. These officials informed Wirz, in the presence of his priest, that they represented a high cabinet member, and that if Wirz would implicate Jefferson Davis in a plot to kill the prisoners, Wirz's sentence would be commuted and his life spared.  These same officials repeated the offer to Wirz's attorney, Louis SchadeWirz rejected the offer with scorn.  An honorable as well as an innocent man, Wirz told Father Boyle "I will not purchase my liberty by perjury and a crime." 

The next morning,  on November 10, 1865, Henry Wirz received the last rites of his church. He told Father Boyle that he forgave his enemies. The officer in charge of the execution came and told him that his time had come. "I am ready, Sir," Wirz replied.

In a carnival atmosphere, surrounded by soldiers shouting "Andersonville, Andersonville" over and over, Henry Wirz mounted the scaffold in the prison yard, accompanied by Father Boyle. Wirz displayed no fear and faced his death stoically.  He said "I die innocent." The trap was sprung, but Wirz did not die immediately.  To the shouts and taunts of the mob, he slowly choked to death.

Father Boyle later wrote, in a letter to Jefferson Davis:  "I attended the Major to the scaffold, and he died in the peace of God and praying for his enemies.  I know that he was indeed innocent of all the cruel charges on which his life was sworn away, and I was edified by the Christian spirit in which he submitted to his persecutors."

The government refused the request of Wirz's widow to return the body to his family for a  Christian burial. Instead, Wirz's body was to be buried "without ceremony" in the prison yard next to another victim of Yankee "justice," the innocent Mary E. Surratt.  

WHY WAS WIRZ FRAMED? 

The fact that Wirz's trial was a transparent farce is beyond any serious dispute, and this fact is readily admitted by modern authorities.  According to Confederate Veteran magazine, Captain Glen LaForce of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's School wrote an article in 1988 in which he detailed the trial's glaring improprieties, and stated that "The trial of Henry Wirz was a national disgrace."  But why did it happen? One modern source gives this explanation:

All of the anguish of Andersonville required someone to blame, someone to hate. And all of the blame was laid upon its commander, Major Henry Wirz. He was an easy man to hate, a foreigner who spoke poor English....

"Hysteria and exaggeration of prison excesses in the South soon swept the Yankee press and pulpit. Tales of every sort of torture were told, many of them imagined, more greatly exaggerated, but the public listened and believed.  Inevitably, someone had to pay for the horrors. Winder was dead, and that left Wirz.

"In May 1865 he was arrested and taken to Washington where he was subjected to a sham of a trial before a military tribunal. Wirz became the classic victim of circumstance.. he was convicted of 'murder in violation of the laws and customs of war.' There had never been any doubt about the verdict or the sentence.

"Ironically, today, over the spot where he died, symbolic of the justice which he was denied, stands  the  United  States Supreme Court." 

--From "The Fighting Men of the Civil War," Galley Books, New York, N.Y., 1989.

Lt. Page says it more concisely:

"Major Wirz was the object of that popular injustice which personifies causes and demands victims for unpopular movements.  All the accumulated passions of the war were concentrated on this one man. He was a magnet that drew the Northern wrath to satiety."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

We are deeply in the debt of Lt. James Madison Page for his courage in telling the unpopular truth at a time when few wanted to hear it.  In that regard, perhaps things have not changed much since Page published  "The True Story of Andersonville Prison" in 1908.

Though many Northerners conspired to hang an innocent man, many others, men who had been prisoners of Wirz at Andersonville, came forward in a courageous effort to save their soldier-brother.  Many Union veterans testified on Wirz's behalf, and many others were denied the opportunity.  For these Northern men of principle, the sons and daughters of the South should be forever grateful.

James Madison Page was no watered-down Yankee.  He believed steadfastly in the Union cause and, after his release from Andersonville in December of 1864,  rejoined his unit and marched in the Grand Review in Washington at the close of the war.  Page wrote his book and defended Wirz's memory with a passion, for one simple reason: he believed that Wirz was innocent.

Page sincerely admired his former opponents in the South, and was devoted to the cause of healing the wounds of the war.  He felt empathy with Southerners for suffering the degradations of defeat.   He lauded the Southern soldier for his bravery in battle and the Southern woman for her sacrifices at home.  He advocated government pensions for Confederate veterans as well as Union. He pleaded for a new union of the American spirit as well as the American states, saying "Then let us wipe out the so-called 'Mason and Dixon's line' and hang out the latch-string for each other."

Page described the purpose of his book in simple terms: "I love my country - my whole country, and was no more loyal to the perpetuity of the Union in 1861 than I am today, but I have come to the conclusion that after forty years we can at least afford to tell the truth."

 It is now 136 years and counting, and there are still many who refuse to do exactly that.

 Wirz Grave

The Grave of Henry Wirz in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Photo Courtesy of Ron Williams

 
POSTSCRIPT

Henry Wirz's body was buried in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison on November 10, 1865.  On February 26, 1869, attorney Louis Schade obtained Wirz's remains from federal authorities for family burial, only to find various body parts missing.  Schade learned the body parts were put on display for public viewing at Old Capitol Prison.  Schade then demanded that the U.S. Government return the complete body to the Wirz family.

On March 2, 1869, Wirz was given a proper Christian burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  The burial was presided over by Father Boyle with Louis Schade, Wirz family members and friends in attendance. 


This article originally appeared in The Southern Cross newsletter and was reprinted in The Confederate Sentry.  Gary Waltrip is a Confederate descendant and Certified Public Accountant in Northern California.  Our thanks to Jack M. King, who kindly resurrected this article for us from the archives of The Confederate Sentry.

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