The execution of Captain Wirz
John William Tuohy
The old prison
On November 10, 1865, inside the courtyard at the old federal prison that once stood on the corners of 1st and A streets Northeast, (The present-day site of the US Supreme Court) the US Army hung Heinrich Hartmann Wirz (AKA Henry Wirz) to death.
Born and raised in Zürich, Switzerland, Wirz was a Confederate officer in command of Camp Sumter, a prisoner of war camp near Andersonville, Georgia. (Union prisoners named the camp Andersonville.) Here, union prisoners were jailed in a vast, rectangular, open-air stockade originally encompassing sixteen and a half acres, which had been intended as only a temporary prison pending exchanges of prisoners with the North.
The prisoners suffered from an extreme lack of food, medical supplies, severe overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of potable water. At its peak in August 1864, the camp held approximately 32,000 Union prisoners, making it the fifth largest city in the Confederacy. The monthly mortality rate from disease and malnutrition reached 3,000.
Wirz was arrested in May 1865, by a contingent of federal cavalry and taken by rail to Washington, D.C., where the federal government intended to place him on trial for conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war.
In July 1865, the trial convened in the Capitol building and lasted for two months, dominating the front pages of newspapers across the United States. The court heard the testimony of former inmates, ex-Confederate officers and even nearby residents of Andersonville. Finally, in early November, the commission announced that it had found Wirz guilty of conspiracy as charged, along with 11 of 13 counts of murder. He was sentenced to death.
Henry Wirz rejected an offer of a pardon the night before his execution because the offer was conditioned on his agreement to testify that former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was responsible for the deaths at Andersonville. Wirz said that the statement would be a lie and that he would not base his freedom on a lie. An honorable stand for a man who was responsible for the starvation of thousands of union troops.
On November 10, 1865 Wirz, guarded by four companies of soldiers, was led to the gallows before some 250 spectators who government had issued tickets who chanted "remember Andersonville" as Wirz ascended the stairway of the gallows.
A hood was placed over Wirz's head and the rope around his neck. Wirz last words reportedly were that he was being hanged for following orders. The trap door was sprung open at 10:32 a.m. stretching the rope as it suddenly bore Wirz's weight.
Wirz's neck was not broken by the fall and he writhed about as he slowly died of strangulation. Reports were that the crowd cheered as he choked. He was later buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.