Thursday, April 30, 2009

Henry Wirz, Martyr

   Henry Wirz was born Hartmann Heinrich Wirz in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of Hans Caspar Wirz, a tailor, in 1822. Wirz wanted to study medicine, but his family was too poor. Instead, he received commercial training at a Zurich firm and then worked for one year in Torino, Italy. In 1845 he married Emilie Oschwald. Shortly after his marriage Wirz experienced financial trouble which ended in a court ordering him to leave Zurich. Wirz agreed to emigrate, but his wife refused, and they divorced in 1853 (some sources state she died).

   After a year in Russia, Wirz came to the United States in 1849 and worked at a factory in Massachusetts, for a short time. He was employed as a doctor's assistant at Hopkinsville, Kentucky, by 1853 and moved to nearby Cadiz in 1853 or 1854. In 1854 he married Elizabeth (Savells) Wolfe. Wirz practiced homeopathic medicine in Cadiz for a year but moved to Louisville and became superintendent of a water cure establishment in 1855. There he met Levin A. Marshall, a planter from Natchez, Mississippi, who hired him to run Milliken's Bend plantation for Marshall as overseer/physician until the War came.

   On 16 June 1861, Wirz enlisted in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry as a private but was soon promoted to sergeant. He was wounded in the right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines on 31 May 1862; he lost the use of his arm and suffered great pain for the rest of his life. Promoted to captain, he was assigned to the staff of Brigadier Gen. John Henry Winder, who put him in command of the Richmond military prison. Called "Dutch Sergeant" by the prisoners because of his accent, he was not unpopular with them. In fact, when he was sent to the prison in Cahaba, Alabama later in 1862, he was liked so much  by the inmates there, they actually petitioned to keep him in command. 

   Wirz went to Europe sometime in 1863 and traveled for the rest of the year. He may have been on official Confederate business, or may simply have been seeking medical help for his wound. The Confederacy he returned to in February 1864 had fallen on hard times as he found out when Winder placed him in command of the stockade at the Andersonville, Georgia, prison in March of that year (Camp Sumter). The exchange of prisoners had ceased, and the overpopulated compound rapidly became a hell on earth for everyone there. The Confederacy was so short of the basic necessities that even Confederate troops in the field were near starvation. Wirz was lucky to be able to feed the prisoners anything at all. Food, medicine, housing, even water were in short supply by that summer. As Union prisoners died by the thousands, the northern press characterized both Winder and Wirz as "inhuman fiends.”  Wirz made every effort to improve conditions at Andersonville. He dammed the creek trying to collect clean water, built sinks, and nearly worked himself to death during August 1864. 

   Lincoln’s assassination further inflamed the North, already enraged over the prisoner issue, and the public demanded that someone  pay.  Winder died of a heart attack on 6 February 1865, thus depriving vengeful Union officials of any opportunity of trying him as a war criminal. That left Wirz, who was arrested in May 1865, after he had been paroled. The Wirz "trial" lasted for three months; he was charged with murder and abuse of prisoners and of conspiring with Jefferson Davis, James Seddon, and others to murder the prisoners en masse. Lies and distortions were accepted as fact, and Wirz was sentenced to hang "for impairing the health and destroying the lives of prisoners." 

   The night before he was to be executed Wirz was approached by a secret emissary from the War Department, who offered him a full reprieve if he would swear that Davis had headed a conspiracy to murder Union captives. Wirz indignantly refused.  

   There is no question that Wirz did not receive a fair trial. Obvious perjury and testimony by men who were not even at Andersonville was routine, accusations that he committed murder when he was not even there were accepted as unimpeachable facts, and he was not allowed to freely choose anyone testify for his defense. So it was that Wirz, poor and foreign-born, was sacrificed to satisfy the Northern thirst for revenge. 

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