A few minutes past 10 a.m., Nov. 10, 1865, former Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp commander Capt. Henry Wirz walked briskly from the Old Capitol prison in Washington D.C., where he had been held since his arrest in May after a military tribunal had found him guilty of violating the rights of prisoners according to the rules of war and where he had awaited his execution by hanging.
In front of him was the necessary scaffolding with trap door and noose and around that was a crowd of 200, including spectators and members of the press. Atop the prison walls and on the roofs of nearby houses, more spectators watched and shouted “Hang the scoundrel!” and “Remember Andersonville,” according to news stories.
Through all of this, Wirz wore what reporters described as a slight smile and they commented favorably on his calm demeanor.
The end was near for the man who had become the most hated Confederate officer in the North after the war. All the anger at the mistreatment and death of Union soldiers held in Confederate prisoner-of-war camps anywhere in the South was focused on this one man. Months of trial proceedings had produced daily headlines about the cruel starvation and exposure deaths of about 13,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumter, the official name for the prison that was located in Sumter County, Ga., near the town of Andersonville.
More than 150 witnesses, including a man on his prison staff, had testified to Wirz’s personal involvement in the harsh punishment given to prisoners for minor violations and the purposeful withholding of food and supplies. During the 14 months the prison was in operation, prisoners had only a contaminated stream for drinking water, bathing and laundry. For many, a hole dug into the ground provided the only shelter.
Wirz said he was innocent of the charges and was simply a pawn of a broken prison system. There is evidence to support him on some of that. Although he is often said to be the man who was in charge of Andersonville and everything that happened there, in reality he had very little control. Management of the camp was splintered.
Wirz was in charge only of the actual camp grounds with responsibility for taking roll, maintaining security and issuing rations and supplies. A different officer was in charge of the overall post of Camp Sumter while yet others were responsible for ordering food and supplies—the quartermaster’s office–and running the hospital. On top of that each guard regiment had its own command staff and those officers outranked Wirz, according to a history of the military career of Wirz written by the National Park Service.
However, Wirz could blame all the others involved in running the camp as well as his superiors but in the end he was held accountable for his own actions, how he personally treated prisoners.
After his execution, Wirz became a martyr for some in the defeated Confederacy who said he had been made a scapegoat for the Confederate effort and pointed out he was the only Southern officer arrested for war crimes. In fact, he wasn’t. According to a study of the myths that surround Wirz written by the National Park Service, Major John Gee, an officer at the Salisbury prison camp, was also tried for crimes similar to Wirz’s but was acquitted in the spring of 1866. General UlyssesS. Grant intervened in the tribunal trial of Bradley T. Johnson, another of Salisbury’s officers who had been arrested, and who faced negligence charges. Grant would not allow the trial to be held.
And then there was a man who worked in the Andersonville quartermaster’s office, James Duncan, and was arrested for manslaughter and convicted by a military tribunal of intentionally withholding food from the prisoners. Sentenced to hard labor at Fort Pulaski, he escaped a year later.