The Hanging Of Henry Wirz

Andersonville photos

On this date in 1865, Henry Wirz, the Confederate commandant of the infamous Andersonville prisoner of war camp in Georgia, was hanged after the war crimes trial that became the precedent for the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

I know the story of Captain Wirz and the circumstances of his trial well, having directed Saul Levitt’s great ethics play “The Andersonville Trial” twice. Not that Levitt’s play was an accurate portrayal of the trial—for one thing, Wirz’s dramatic stage testimony defending himself never happened. However, Levitt brilliantly brought to the fore the deep hypocrisy of Wirz’s scapegoating after the Union victory. Not only were the atrocities at Andersonville no worse than those at some Northern prison camps, Lincoln and Grant deliberately provoked the crisis in managing such camps by the South when they made the tactical decision not to engage in prisoner exchanges.

I’m not sure Leavitt’s 1960 drama was or is usually performed as he intended it to be: on Broadway, Wirz was portrayed as monster, and the military prosecutor, Judge Advocate Chipman, was played to the hilt by George C. Scott as an avenging crusader. As was my practice as a director, I looked to the text and the historical record, and discovered “The Andersonville Trial” script makes the same argument that Wirz did in his lawyer’s defense brief: he was being executed for the exact conduct that his executioners would have been guilty of had they been in his impossible position.

Wirz was charged with murder and conspiracy to injure the health and lives of Union soldiers and murder. The charge was nonsense, but the public outrage over horrifying photographs of the skeletal Union soldiers after the prisoners were released was such that some symbolic retribution seemed unavoidable. Wirz was the perfect patsy: he was a Swiss immigrant with a thick accent, and stoic and arrogant by nature. Some demonstration of remorse or pity for the prisoners under his care might have saved his life, but he could muster none. He made it clear in his demeanor that he believed himself to be a victim of moral luck, which indeed he was.

Wirz’s two month trial began in August 1865, and like the kangaroo court trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, the result was never in doubt: it was a show trial. 160 witnesses testified, and some of the evidence against the defendant was fabricated. That the military tribunal would find Wirz guilty was never in doubt; some might say that a panel of Union officers might not be the fairest judges of an enemy officer charged with killing and abusing their comrades. He was hanged on November 10, on the spot where the U.S. Supreme Court now stands.

Standing n the scaffold as he prepared to die, Captain Wirz exonerated the officer in charge who displayed some distaste for the task he had to oversee. “I know what orders are, Major,” the prisoner said. ” I am being hanged for obeying them.”

21 thoughts on “The Hanging Of Henry Wirz

      • Maybe they just arrived.

        That’s a general complaint that is going to arise over almost all Civil War movies. Re-enactors seem to be *exceedingly* well fed and don’t look the part of Armies that walked hundreds and hundreds of miles over the course of a year – let alone 4.

        I always wondered, if a full strength Civil War Regiment’s “front” was about a football field wide, then a re-enactor’s regiment should be about a half a mile wide. Now I’m just being mean.

        But, in the most recent Alamo (which even given some complaints, is an enjoyable rendition), the director specifically demanded the extras in the Mexican army *look* like impoverished and hungry field workers (which they mostly had been before finding themselves in the Mexican Army).

        As for TNT’s “Andersonville”, it’s been probably 15-20 years since I saw it. I enjoyed it.

        • On that topic, we watched Glory, again about a month ago. I try to watch that one at least annually.

          Hard to find something to complain about with that one (even with the historical license taken for story telling purposes).

          • The portrayal of Frederick Douglass as an old man bother me, the rest of the movie is brilliant.

            My favorite scene is Mathew Broderick decapitating melons with a saber. That very last gasp of the idea that landowners are assumed to be able to lead their tenants in battle–and he can! Score one for feudal levies.

            • A lot of state units that, while not named so, were the 1860s equivalent of the National Guard. They were activated to protect the Republic from violent Democrats who were also unhappy about free elections.

              You should go roast marshmallows to celebrate their deaths, if you want to be consistent.

          • I saw “Glory” for the first time last month. I thought it was incredibly well done and, while I quibble with some of the details, it is now one of my favorite historical films.

            • They took some license with the order of events, but in terms of depicting the combat, a lot of historians of the era say that, as movies go, they get it spot on. Then top it all off with the character interactions encapsulating the various attitudes towards citizenship…especially attitudes towards citizenship help by the forcefully disenfranchised…it’s a phenomenally deep “conversation”.

        • About two months ago, we watched Clint Eastwood’s Stranger trilogy, culminating in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, which was the best of the lot. We’d never seen any of the spaghetti westerns and, dubbing aside, were astounded at the detail put into it. I was especially impressed with seeing Eli Wallach’s toes through his cracked boots which certainly would have been realistic for a down-on-his-luck desperado.

  1. I finished a book last week on Lew Wallace who was on the commission that investigated Wirz’s command of the camp (and was on the Lincoln assassination conspirators commission, too). Some of the conditions under which the Union prisoners lived could not be helped by Wirz who couldn’t get adequate food and shelter for them, but it is also true that he did go out of his way to penalize thirsty prisoners who ventured too near the fence to find water.

    It’s also a lesson in making surrender terms clear. Wirz had thought he was not going to be prosecuted based on the terms agreed upon at Appomattox and sealed his fate inadvertently by writing to the government indicating his wish to return to his native Switzerland, resulting in his quick arrest.

    I’ve never seen or heard of the play. Thanks for the information.

    • There was a very good TV version of the play that won an Emmy, starring actors mostly known for their TV roles. It featured a very young Martin Sheen as one of the witnesses. Jack Cassidy played Wirz’s defense attorney; Cameron Mitchell was terrific as Wallace; Wirz was played by Richart Basehart just off his “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” run, and as Chipman, William Shatner!

  2. A fine play directed by Jack – performed in a series of packed houses in Alexandria Virginia and a 2nd run of shows in the City of Fairfax old historic courthouse. A memorable cast and crew- talented!

    Jack even stood in for an actor and played 2nd chair for the prosecution!

  3. And then with The American Century Theater in Arlington Virginia to rave reviews.

    One more time, Jack! The world needs plays that focus on ethics, more than ever now.

  4. Andersonville (Camp Sumpter) is a haunting place to visit, but I imagine I would feel the same way at Union camps like Douglas, Florence, Elmira, Salisbury or Lookout had I ever visited them. Cahaba (Castle Morgan) prison in Alabama is equally eerie. Many of the Union troops who died in the Sultana riverboat explosion had been recently released from Cahaba and were on their way north to be mustered out.

    • I’ve been once. Places like that, even more so than battlefields (yet battlefields are as well), are surreal experiences. The real bringer-to-your-knees are War Cemeteries. I’ve been to the universally recognized Omaha Beach cemetery and I don’t know I can ever return. It is that moving. I was a 22 or 23 year old and was older than the average age of the man buried there. But if you can go, you have to go.

      Battlefields are a special place in our history and I think we should be more aggressive in preserving them against urban development than we are, while still recognizing that cities and towns have to grow.

      But Andersonville. That was interesting. It’s a still wildly out of the way place in rural Georgia, and if the town during the Civil War was smaller than it is now, I don’t know how that’s possible. It’s a surreal experience as well. Recognizing the ‘drama’ that played out in that small 30 acre site is one thing. Recognizing that the drama was compressed into, I think a 14 month experience, one has to appreciate just what conditions a regional crisis can compress into an out of the way, forgotten place, leading to men (on both sides) running into dozens of unethical circumstances leading them to make grossly monstrous choices.

      • And there’s a monument in memory of Henry Wirz smack dab in the middle of the “main” intersection of Andersonville. The town, which literally had NO connection to the man outside of accidence…has a monument to the man. At least when Southerners were given the option to erect monuments and name installations, they generally associated places with Southerners who had geographic connections with the place. Like Fort Benning. With a military career earning no more than a “yeah, he was there” mention, Fort Benning is named after a man who happened to be born near there.

        But Henry Wirz gets a monument in the town associated with his notoriety.

        Perhaps it would be fair to let his monument be the last torn down by the history-eaters, if only to remember that lethal scapegoating is wrong, if however temporarily useful.

  5. “He was hanged on November 10, on the spot where the U.S. Supreme Court now stands.”

    That’s where they put the Supreme Court? What, they couldn’t find any Indian burial grounds?

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