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.”