- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003


At the close of the War Between the States in April 1865, the prospects for national reconciliation looked

dim. The South was devastated, and the victorious North was thirsting for vengeance, especially after the assassination of President Lincoln. Thus, it is surprising that only one Confederate military or civilian official was tried, convicted and executed for supposed “war crimes” by the United States government.

That melancholy distinction belongs to Capt. Henry Wirz, commander of the prisoner-of-war camp known as Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Ga.

The very name of Andersonville today is synonymous with the horror of prisoner-of-war camps, but the passage of time and the emergence of more objective scholarship has painted a fuller picture of Civil War prisons. The death rates for Union prisoners held in the South and Confederate prisoners held in the North were comparable. Given the vastly superior material resources of the North, the consensus of historians is that the Confederacy is to be commended for doing as well as it did in caring for nearly 200,000 prisoners.

This broadening and deepening of historical understanding at last has had some effect on Wirz’s reputation.

Wirz was born in Zurich in 1823. He emigrated to the United States in 1849 and settled in Louisiana. He enlisted in a state regiment at the outbreak of war in 1861 and suffered a debilitating wound near Richmond in May 1862. Unfit for further combat duty, Wirz was transferred to the adjutant general’s department. After conducting a diplomatic mission in Europe, he was appointed commander of the newly designated Camp Sumter in February 1864.

In May 1865, as he was releasing the last prisoners from Andersonville under Union Army supervision, Wirz was arrested (in violation of his parole) and taken to Washington to stand trial. Contemporary historians agree on the irregularity and injustice of Wirz’s treatment. The judicial proceedings against him were “a travesty of justice,” in the view of historian James I. Robertson Jr. The vague charges against him were false and supported by “perjured testimony,” in the view of historian Shelby Foote. Wirz was a “scapegoat,” contends Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson, “offered up to the howling fury of suffering prisoners and their families.”

When the inevitable conviction came and the sentence of death was passed, Wirz spent his last weeks in contemplation, supported by his Roman Catholic faith, although the government denied him the last rites of his church. He wrote an eloquent letter to President Johnson to proclaim his innocence, but without expectation of mercy.

The hanging was carried out on Nov. 10, 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison, where the Supreme Court building now stands. Wirz was buried at the Washington Arsenal, now Fort McNair. By 1869, passions had cooled enough for permission to be granted for the transference of Wirz’s remains to consecrated ground. He was reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

In the early 1990s, local members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans learned that although permission had been given for Wirz to be buried in consecrated ground, no funeral Mass had been allowed. That service finally was performed for Henry Wirz a century and a quarter after his death, and every year since then, a memorial service has been held at Mount Olivet Cemetery around Nov. 10, the date of Wirz’s death. Members of the Wirz family frequently attend from Switzerland.

Earlier this month, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Jefferson Davis Camp No. 305, sponsored the annual graveside ceremony. The guest speaker was Charles Goolsby, past commander of the Maryland Division of the SCV, who established the annual ceremony on the nearest Saturday to the date of Witz’s execution.

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