- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

Vilified by the North and declared a martyr by the South, Henry Wirz, former commandant of Andersonville prison in Georgia, was the only Confederate soldier to be executed by the United States for war crimes.

Dozens of books have been written about the Swiss-born Wirz, who married a Kentucky woman and lived in western Kentucky, where he practiced medicine for several years before the war began.

All stories revolve around the horrors of Andersonville prison, although its death rate (27 percent) was very close to that of Elmira prison in New York (24.4 percent). Both facilities were overcrowded and understaffed, and the local people of both areas were prevented by red tape from assisting the prisoners.

Though the Yankee prisoners suffered from the same lack of food as the Southern soldiers, plenty of food was available to Elmira but not provided. Confederate prisoners suffered from the freezing cold in Elmira, while Yankee prisoners baked in the stifling heat of Georgia.

A trial was held for Wirz in September 1865. He had succeeded Brig. Gen. John Henry Winder, provost marshal general of the Confederate army. Wirz was condemned to death, but numerous writers have attested to a lack of evidence as well as the questionable veracity of some of the witnesses.

The trial lasted three months and was postponed periodically on the slimmest technicalities. It was said that reports favorable to Wirz were prohibited from being entered as evidence, while all of those against him were admitted.

Wirz was tried on 13 charges, but in each one, the prisoner involved is listed as “name unknown.” At least two incidents occurred while Wirz was on sick leave and away from the facility. Regardless, the formalities had been carried out, and Wirz was executed by hanging.

Shortly before his execution, Wirz wrote a letter from Old Capitol Prison in Washington to his attorney, Louis Schade.

“It is no doubt the last time that I address myself to you,” Wirz said. “What I have said to you often … I repeat. Accept my thanks, my sincere heartfelt thanks, for all you have done for me. May God reward you, I cannot. I still have something more to ask of you, and I am confident you will not refuse to receive my dying request. Please help my poor family — my dear wife and children.

“War, cruelest, has swept everything from me, and today my wife and children are beggars. My life is demanded as an atonement. I am willing to give it, and hope that after a while, I will be judged differently from what I am now. If any one ought to come to the relief of my family, it is the people of the South, for whose sake I have sacrificed all. I know you will excuse me for troubling you again. Farewell, dear sir. May God bless you.”

Cemetery search

Though Wirz has been dead for more than 140 years, many continue to proclaim his innocence. A collateral descendant of the original Wirz family in Switzerland, Col. Heinrich Wirz, makes frequent trips here to continue to fight for what he sees as ultimate justice for his ancestor. Though Capt. (he once held the rank of major) Wirz’s life and death have long intrigued historians, it is the story of his wife, Elizabeth Savells Wirz, that finally will be concluded next Saturday, with a marker dedicated to the long-forgotten widow.

Heinrich Wirz came to the aid of Mrs. Nancy Hitt of Louisville, who had been searching for Mrs. Wirz’s burial site, working with other local genealogists. The search ultimately was narrowed to Trigg County, Ky., and then to the Fuller family cemetery at the Boyd Hill Church in the small town of Linton. Although the church burned in 1983, the well-tended little cemetery is still there, just off Highway 164.

Research indicated that Elizabeth Wirz probably was the daughter of Daniel and Elizabeth Rhodes Savells and that she likely was born in 1824. When her father died two years later, her mother was left with four youngsters in her care.

When Elizabeth was 22, she married Alfred C. Wolfe, who died a few years later, leaving her with two small children, Susan Jane Wolfe and Cornelia A. Wolfe. While living in Trigg County, Elizabeth met and fell in love with young Dr. Henry Wirz, who was practicing medicine in the area, and they were married on May 27, 1854.

Shattered arm

Wirz moved the family to Millikens Bend, La., where he was hired to care for sick and injured slaves on the Marshall plantation. His family had grown with the addition of Cora Lee Wirz, born before they left Kentucky. Another child apparently died young. Wirz practiced successfully in Louisiana, but when the call went out for Confederate soldiers, he joined Company A, 4th Battalion of Louisiana Volunteers.

His right arm was shattered at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. Undaunted, he learned to write with his left hand. He was promoted for bravery on the battlefield and breveted to captain. Because his military service was limited by his injuries, he was detailed to take charge of the military prison in Richmond and later was sent to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to head a prison there.

He went to Paris and Berlin in 1862 as special minister plenipotentiary by appointment of President Jefferson Davis, and upon his return, he was assigned to run Camp Sumter prison at Andersonville, Ga.

His service there began on April 12, 1864. The date is interesting because one of his supposed crimes was said to have occurred on Feb. 6, 1864, two months before he arrived. His tenure at Andersonville was a little less than a year. It was enough to get him hanged.

Trying days

Elizabeth Wirz stood by her husband during the trying days of his incarceration, trial and sentencing. She had lived with him during his tenure as Andersonville’s warden and was well aware of the lack of food suffered by the prisoners because her family also had had little food. Her daughter Cora was 10 years old at the time of the execution, and she retained vivid memories of the events.

Elizabeth was allowed little visiting time with her husband during those months of imprisonment, and her request that his body be returned to the family after his death also was refused. There was no formal burial; the remains simply were dumped into a hole in the ground, supposedly near the Army War College near Hains Point in the District.

It is widely believed that the night before his execution, Wirz was approached by a secret War Department representative who offered a full reprieve if he would swear that Confederate President Davis had headed a conspiracy to murder Union prisoners. Even facing death, Wirz adamantly refused.

This incident was mentioned in a letter from Davis at Beauvoir, Miss., written Oct. 15, 1888, to attorney Schade:

“My dear Sir: I have often felt with poignant regret that the southern public have never done justice to the martyr, Major Wirz. With a wish to do something to awake due consideration for his memory, I write to ask you to give the circumstances, as fully as may be agreeable to you, of the visit made to him the night before his execution, when he was tempted by the offer of a pardon if he would criminate me, and thus exonerate himself of charges of which he was innocent, and with which I had no connection.”


Perhaps the strongest defense of the former warden and the greatest testimony to his persecution at trial was given by James Madison Page, who wrote and published “The True Story of Andersonville Prison — A Defense of Major Henry Wirz” in 1908.

What bolsters Page’s recitation of the facts and errors of the trial is the identification below his name — “Late 2nd Lieutenant, Company A, Sixth Michigan Cavalry.” A former Union officer defends the actions of “the monster” as he was portrayed, and the questionable military tribunal that sealed his fate.

In Chapter Four, titled “Wirz’s Attorney’s Final Word,” Page quotes at length from a letter addressed “To the American Public,” dated April 4, 1867, as Schade prepared to leave the United States:

“Seldom has a mortal man suffered more than that friendless and forsaken man. But who is responsible for the many lives that were lost at Andersonville and in the Southern prisons? That question has not fully been settled, but history will yet tell on whose heads the guilt for those sacrificed hecatombs of human beings is to be placed. It was certainly not the fault of poor Wirz, when in consequence of medicines being declared contraband of war by the North, the Union prisoners died for the want of same.

“How often have we read during the war that ladies going South had been arrested and placed in the Old Capitol Prison by the Union authorities, because genuine and other medicine had been found in their clothing! Our Navy prevented the ingress of medical stores from the seaside and our troops repeatedly destroyed drug stores and even the supplies of private physicians in the South. Thus the scarcity of medicine became general all over the South.

“That provisions in the South were scarce will astonish nobody, when it is remembered how the war was carried on. General Sheridan boasted in his report that in the Shenandoah Valley alone he burned more than two thousand barns filled with wheat and corn and all the mills in the whole tract of country; that he destroyed all factories and killed or drove off every animal, even poultry, that could contribute to human sustenance.”

Schade added, “The Confederate authorities, aware of their inability to maintain the prisoners, informed the Northern agents of the great mortality, and urgently requested that the prisoners should be exchanged, even without regard to the surplus, which the Confederates had on the exchange roll from former exchanges — that is, man for man. But our War Department did not consent to such an exchange. They did not want to ‘exchange skeletons for healthy men.’ ”

Belated burial

Elizabeth Wirz returned to Trigg County, Ky., with her children, and lived there until her death.

Finally, in 1869, Schade was successful in forcing the government to return Wirz’s remains, and it seems that portions of his body were placed in a mahogany coffin interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in the District; the head, right hand and spine were missing, even though Schade personally wrote to President Andrew Johnson asking that the entire remains be provided to the family for burial. Wirz’s remains rest near those of another collateral victim of the era, Mary Surratt, executed in connection with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The site is only a few miles from the place where the execution was carried out. Ironically, the hanging of Henry Wirz, after his parody of a trial, took place where the U.S. Supreme Court now stands.

Interestingly enough, even after the interment at Mount Olivet, there still was no funeral. It would be years before the Episcopal Church Office of Burial finally was read over the grave of Henry Wirz. The Rev. Alistair Anderson of Frederick, Md., ultimately was responsible for working through the Jefferson Davis Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp No. 305 in Maryland to have a large marker placed there, and subsequently a Southern Cross of Honor. All of these formalities somehow escaped his wife, Elizabeth; her body remained in Trigg County.

Granite marker

The Georgia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a marker to Wirz at the Andersonville prison site in May 1908, but until recently, the burial site of Elizabeth Wirz was unknown and unmarked. With the diligence of Mrs. Hitt and the unswerving dedication of the Mollie Morehead Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a fundraising effort was undertaken to erect a large granite marker that bears her name.

Wirz has four great-great grandsons living in Louisiana: Perrin, Robert, William and John Watkins; some are expected to attend the grave-marking of Elizabeth Wirz, along with Heinrich Wirz, his great-grandnephew, who will make the trip from his home in Bremgarten, Switzerland.

Future generations will be able to find the final resting place of the brave wife of the beleaguered warden, her grave now marked in the small cemetery in Linton, Ky.

Martha M. Boltz is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. She is a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table.

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