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."
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 Oeser. Oeser,
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 Schade. Wirz 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."
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.
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."
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.
WAS WIRZ FRAMED?
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:
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....
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.
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.
today, over the spot where he died, symbolic of the justice which he was
the United States
"The Fighting Men of the Civil War," Galley Books, New
Page says it more concisely:
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
is now 136 years and counting, and there are still many who refuse to do
Grave of Henry Wirz in Mount
Olivet Cemetery, Washington,
of Ron Williams
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
On March 2, 1869, Wirz was given a proper Christian burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery in
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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