Jump directly to Index of Letters
Introduction to the Andersonville / Wirz Collection
By George Rugg
On 10 November 1865 Captain Henry Wirz of the Confederate army was hanged at Old Capitol Prison in Washington - the solitary defendant in the first war crimes trial in American history. In 1864-65 Wirz was commander of the stockade (or prison interior) at the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Sumter County, Georgia. Over the period from February 1864 to May 1865 some 45,000 Union prisoners were held at Andersonville, of whom around 13,000, or 29 per cent, died. Conditions were, in almost every respect, appalling: the prison was badly overcrowded, food, shelter, and medical attention were inadequate, the water supply was foul. Long before the end of the war sensational accounts of the horrors of Andersonville began to appear in the Northern press, sparking the popular conviction that the Southern government was deliberately and systematically mistreating Union prisoners. In fact, the poor conditions at Andersonville and other Southern prisons were due to bad long range planning, mismanagement, and (above all) a lack of resources - not to any malign purpose.
Wirz was brought to trial because Northern outrage over the prison issue demanded a scapegoat, and because as commander of the stockade he was well known to the prisoners and figured prominently in their recollections. His most notable superior at Andersonville, General John H. Winder, had died in February. In early May, while still at the prison, Wirz was arrested by Federal troops and after a period of confinement at Macon, Georgia, was taken to Nashville and then to Washington to stand trial before a military commission. He was charged with conspiracy "to impair and injure the health and destroy the lives . . . of large numbers of federal prisoners," and with murder; ex-prisoners swore he himself had shot or otherwise killed men in his charge. Historians today generally agree that: 1) while Wirz was ill-tempered and in some respects incompetent, he was guilty of neither of these charges; 2) the testimony gathered by the prosecution was in some instances exaggerated or wholly fabricated; and 3) the trial itself was conducted in an irregular and highly prejudicial manner. On 24 October, after two months of highly publicized proceedings, Wirz was found guilty of conspiracy and of eleven counts of murder.
The Andersonville/Henry Wirz Collection is a group of 16 manuscripts and two clippings relating to the prison in general and to Wirz's trial. An initial group of six items (MSN/CW 0200-1 to MSN/CW 0200-4) documents a wife's application for the back pay of her husband, Andersonville prisoner Stephen F. Sullivan, a sergeant in Company H, 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. Sullivan was imprisoned at Andersonville from May to September 1864. A second, similar grouping of three items (MSN/CW 0200-5 to MSN/CW 0200-7) relates to prisoner Lewis Lynch, a private in Company A, 12th New York Cavalry. Each of the two groups includes a letter written by the prisoner to his wife following his arrival at Andersonville; these were supplied to the army by the recipients as proof of the mens' incarceration.
Most of the remaining manuscripts in the collection pertain to Wirz's arrest and trial. The first of these (MSN/CW 0200-10) is a letter of 17 May 1865 signed by Major General James H. Wilson, commanding the Cavalry Corps of the Union army's Military Division of the Mississippi, announcing the arrest of Henry Wirz. On 2 May Captain Henry Noyes of Wilson's staff, while passing through Andersonville, had noticed that a lone Confederate officer remained at the camp. Wilson ordered Noyes to return to make the arrest, which he did, on 7 May; the officer proved to be Wirz. The letter is directed to Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant General of the U. S. Army. Wilson informs Thomas that prison records recovered by Noyes at Andersonville are being forwarded "herewith" to Washington, and that Wirz himself has been sent under guard to Major General George Thomas at Nashville. The endorsements on the second sheet allow us to track Wilson's letter as it passed from the Adjutant General's office (where it was received on 31 May) to the Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, to the Bureau of Military Justice (7 June). Addison A. Hosmer, the author of the long endorsement on the verso of the sheet, would ultimately serve as assistant judge advocate in the Wirz trial (i.e., as assistant to Judge Advocate Norton P. Chipman, the Army lawyer prosecuting the case). Hosmer proclaims Wirz guilty of the twin charges of conspiracy and murder that would later be levied against him, while admitting that available testimony "is not sufficiently complete for the framing of full and specific charges." His rhetorical excess ("fiendish cruelties . . . horrible outrages . . . detestable crimes") is typical of Federal writing and oratory on the prison issue, and would characterize Wirz's trial as well. Hosmer did not succeed in having Major Osborne appointed as prosecutor; that plum went to Chipman. The Wilson letter bears the Adjutant General's office file number 1082W.1865. A nearly identical letter, dated one day earlier, appears in the Official Records, Series I, Volume 49, Part 2, p. 800.
Also included among the trial-related documents are several manuscripts of Henry Wirz. Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1823 and emigrated to the United States in 1849. He joined the army in 1861 and was soon transferred to the command of John H. Winder, who in 1864-65 would serve as commissary general of all Confederate prisons east of the Mississippi. An initial manuscript (MSN/CW 0200-11) is a letter dated 6 July 1865, some two months after Wirz's arrest and seven weeks before the start of his trial. The letter is a petition for release addressed to the superintendent of the prison at Fort Carroll in Washington, where Wirz was then confined. The prisoner describes his personal background, his military service, and the circumstances of his arrest. He also emphasizes two points to which he would frequently return in the months following: that the deficiencies at Andersonville were outside the province of his authority to correct, and that of all the officials associated with the prison he alone seems to have been singled out for persecution. Wirz mentions no charges because he had been informed of none: "I am unable to say why I was arrested and why I am kept as a prisoner."
Two additional sheets (MSN/CW 0200-12) comprise a "list of witnesses" compiled by Wirz in prison, bearing the names and addresses of 34 individuals whom he wished to have subpoenaed to testify on his behalf. The penciled annotations are also in Wirz's hand; these clarify the rationale for the witnesses' appearance. The list bears no date, but may be the one discussed during the trial proceedings of 11 September:
The Judge Advocate [i.e., Norton P. Chipman] stated that, from time to time, during the progress of the trial, he had urged upon the counsel of the prisoner that the rule of the court in reference to furnishing a list of witnesses should be complied with; but no such list had been furnished. Four weeks ago, a special bailiff had been sent to Georgia and other States of the south, mainly for the purpose of procuring witnesses for the defense. At that time the prisoner himself furnished a list of witnesses required by him from that part of the country, stating upon the list that they were all that he would require. All those witnesses were present, with the exception of four or five. . . . H. Doc. 1331, The Trial of Henry Wirz, p. 266.
In fact, only eighteen of the individuals on Wirz's list testified at the trial, and of these only twelve testified for the defense. As defense counsel O. S. Baker remarked, in responding to Chipman:
It may be well . . . to call the attention of the court to the fact that many witnesses who have come, subpoenaed for us, have been examined on the part of the government, and sometimes witnesses have complained that improper language has been used to them to draw out of them something for the prosecution. . . . [W]itnesses come here under very peculiar circumstances. Many of them feel it to be necessary to say and do all that they can to leave a favorable impression with the government officers. . . . H. Doc. 1331, The Trial of Henry Wirz, p. 266.
Finally, the collection includes a brief note written by Wirz to an unknown party on 8 November 1865, two days before his execution (MSN/CW 0200-14).
Another manuscript relevant to the Wirz affair is a personal letter of 13 August 1865, written by Washington lawyer James W. Denver to his wife in Ohio (MSN/CW 0200-13). At the time of the letter Denver's firm, Hughes, Denver & Peck, was defending Henry Wirz. Denver writes that if friendly witnesses follow through with their testimony Wirz ought to be acquitted, "but I am of opinion that the intention is hang him and that no stone will be left unturned to effect it." As it happened, the firm withdrew from the case on the first day of he trial, and Wirz ended up being represented by Louis Schade and O. S. Baker. In a post-trial letter to President Johnson seeking clemency for Wirz, Schade wrote of Hughes et al's withdrawal:
[T]his commission, before which the prisoner has been tried, has in many instances excluded testimony in favor of the prisoner, and, on the other hand, admitted testimony against the prisoner, both in violation of all rules of law and equity. That the whole country knows. Every lawyer in this city and elsewhere has regarded this and the treatment the counsel suffered at the hands of the president of the commission and the judge-advocate with indignation and as an insult to the profession. My former colleagues, Messrs. Hughes, Denver, and Peck, left for that reason, and then I would have followed their example had not the prisoner had my word of honor not to forsake him. (Official Records, Series 2, Volume 8, p. 773).
Bibliographic note: For the Wirz trial see U.S. Congress, House, The Trial of Henry Wirz, 40th Cong., 2d sess, 1867-68. H. Doc. 1331. For the judge advocate's highly self-serving (and self-published) account, see N. P. Chipman, The Tragedy of Andersonville: Trial of Captain Henry Wirz, the Prison Keeper, Sacramento CA, 1911. A contemporary Southern view is Anon., The Trial and Death of Henry Wirz with Other Matters Pertaining Thereto, Raleigh NC, 1908. Documents in the Official Records relating to the trial appear in Series II, Volume 8, pp. 537-794, passim. For a history of publication on the trial see Douglas Gibson Gardner, "Andersonville and American Memory: Civil War Prisoners and Narratives of Suffering and Redemption," (Ph.D. diss., Miami University, 1998), pp 24-26. See also William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot, Chapel Hill NC, 1994, and Robert Scott Davis, "An Historical Note on 'The Devil's Advocate': O. S. Baker and the Henry Wirz/Andersonville Military Tribunal," The Journal of Southern Legal History 10 (2002): 25-57. Thanks to Peter Lysy of the Notre Dame Archives for his comments on the collection.
Index of Documents
|MSN CW 0200-1||Letter||October 7, 1864||Lynn, Massachusetts||Lucy J. Sullivan|
|MSN CW 0200-2||Letter||May 3, 1864||Camp Sumter, Georgia||Stephen F. Sullivan|
|MSN CW 0200-3||Note||December 1, 1864||Major S. C. Harbert|
|MSN CW 0200-4||Lynn, Massachusetts|
|MSN CW 0200-5||Letter||May 1, 1864||Camp Winder, near Andersonville, Georgia||Lewis Lynch|
|MSN CW 0200-6||Endorsements||January 12, 1865||Camp Palmer, New York|
|MSN CW 0200-7||Federal pay voucher||January 13, 1865|
|MSN CW 0200-8||Prison guard report||July 27, 1864||Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Dulaney|
|MSN CW 0200-9||Andersonville prison pass||July 11, 1864||Andersonville, Georgia||Captain Henry Wirz|
|MSN CW 0200-10||Letter||May 17, 1865||Macon, Georgia||Major General James H. Wilson|
|MSN CW 0200-11||Letter||July 6th, 1865||Carroll Prison, Washington, D.C.||Henry Wirz|
|MSN CW 0200-12||List of witnesses||||Henry Wirz|
|MSN CW 0200-13||Letter||August 13, 1865||Washington, D.C.||James William Denver|
|MSN CW 0200-14||Letter||November 8, 1865||Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C.||Henry Wirz|
|MSN CW 0200-15||Map and newspaper clipping||April 12, 1934||Washington, D.C.||David Rankin Barbee|