The Trial of Captain Henry Wirz: a brief summary

by Bill Carnes and Troy Drew

     The Civil War was a particularly brutal period in American History, and few places were as brutal as Andersonville.Captain Henry Wirz was the commandant of Andersonville Prison and the only Confederate soldier convicted and executed for war crimes during the Civil War. His conviction is in controversy still today. To some, he is guilty of atrocities not repeated until NAZI Germany, and to others, he is a martyr for the Great Southern Cause.

     After failing to link Confederate President Jefferson Davis to Lincoln's assassination, The Judge Advocate General of the Army sought to link Davis with the alleged war crimes of which Wirz was accused. Wirz was accused of conspiracy to destroy prisoners' lives in violation of the laws and customs of war. Named as co-conspirators were Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, and others. The name of Robert E. Lee was dropped from the final indictment.

     The second charge against Wirz was murder in violation of the laws and customs of war. This charge contained allegations of specific deaths caused by Wirz or guards acting on his orders.

     Before the actual trial began the defense made several pre-trial motions to dismiss. The first motion was that the commission had no right to try Wirz because had been included in the terms of the military surrender between Generals Sherman and Johnston. This surrender provided that once each solider agreed in writing not to take up arms against the United States he would be permitted to return to his home, "not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their obligation and the laws in force where they may reside." The defense argued that the effect of the surrender was to pardon the wartime accused.

     Colonel Chipman argued for the prosecution that the surrender terms never intended to pardon soldiers who committed war crimes, therefore Wirz was afforded no protection. The commission denied the motion.

     The next defense motion was that the military commission had no personal or subject matter jurisdiction to try Wirz. Personal jurisdiction was lacking because Wirz was a naturalized citizen of the United States who had never served in the United States military. Subject matter jurisdiction was lacking because the war was over and Wirz was entitled to a civil trial with a jury of his peers.

     Colonel Chipman devoted considerable argument to defending the jurisdiction of the commission. He argued that even though the war was over, a military tribunal was justified because the South was still a rebellious, armed camp, and the threat of war was very real. Again, Chipman and the prosecution prevailed.

     The defense finally argued that the charges against Wirz should be dismissed because they were unconstitutionally vague and indefinite. From the thirteen specific allegations of murder, not a single murder victim was named in the charges. All the alleged victims were referred to as an United States soldier, "whose name is unknown." This even thought the murders were to have taken place in the presence of many witnesses, and in spite of the carefully recorded lists of the name of every soldier who died at Andersonville. Chipman did not respond to this motion, and it was denied without comment.

     After all defense motions were denied, three of the five defense counsel withdrew from the case. Only Baker and Schade remained. Baker and Schade quit after complaining of the deferential treatment the commission showed prosecution witnesses. Only the pleading of Henry Wirz persuaded them to return. At the conclusion of the trial, when the defense request for time to prepare its closing argument was denied, both attorneys quite for good. The closing argument for the defense as well as the prosecution was handled by the same man, Colonel Chipman.

     The prosecutions strategy was to create a "parade of horrors" as to the terrible conditions at Andersonville. All of the disease, malnutrition, filth, overcrowding, misery, and death was described in detail. To establish the conspiracy, Chipman introduced letters from Wirz to the Department of Prisons. The letters detailed the problems existing at Andersonville, and made recommendations for improving the situation. This point was made to show knowledge on the part of the Confederate government and therefore their complicity.

     This documentary evidence was not viewed as the prosecution had hoped. Instead of showing a conspiracy to mistreat Union prisoners, it showed that the Confederate government, despite all of its problems late in the war, continued to regulate and inspect its prisons with a view to improving their conditions. None of the documents were critical of Captain Wirz, and others described him as "admirably performing his duties." Wirz's own letters to Richmond were composed of reports of the conditions and pleas for more food, tents, clothing, medicine, and supplies. This evidence was not supportive of the prosecutions depiction of Wirz as a man who was intentionally destroying the lives of his prisoners.

     Over 160 witnesses were called for the prosecution. Of that number, 145 testified they had no knowledge of Wirz ever killing anyone or treating a prisoner badly. One prisoner gave the name of prisoner Wirz had allegedly killed. The date of the alleged murder did not correspond to any of the dates alleged in the indictment, so the indictment was changed to match the testimony.

     The star prosecution witness was a man named Felix de la Baume. De la Baume testified about his captivity at Andersonville, and that he personally saw Wirz shoot men. After giving his testimony, and before the trial was completed, De la Baume was given a written commendation for his "zealous testimony" signed by all of the commission members. He was also rewarded with a government clerk's job in the Department of the Interior. After the trial had ended De la Baume was identified by veterans of the 7th New York Regiment as a deserter from their regiment. They went to the Secretary of the Interior and had De la Baume fired, at which time he admitted that he had committed perjury in the Wirz trial.

     Chipman exercised an great deal of control over the entire proceedings. He required that all witnesses called for the defense be interviewed by him before testifying. After this interview Chipman would determine if the witnesses testimony would be necessary or allowed. When defense counsel complained about this practice, Chipman admitted that he considered it within this discretion whether or not to allow a witness to testify. The commission upheld Chipman's actions without comment.

     The defense attorneys tried to counter the charge of conspiracy to destroy prisoners' lives, by showing that Wirz and the Confederate government did everything possible to exchange prisoners with the North. In 1863, Secretary of War Stanton decided to end prisoner exchanges on the grounds that the South had more to gain than the North. Even when the South explained its increasing inability to care for the prisoners, Stanton refused to resume the exchanges. Wirz allowed a party of four prisoners to go on parole, to Washington to explain the hardships at Andersonville and plead for an exchange. The men saw Stanton, but were unsuccessful in convincing him to the exchange. The men returned to Andersonville and in post-war accounts condemned Stanton for his refusal to allow prisoner exchanges.

     In November 1864, the South unilaterally released over thirteen thousand prisoners who were seriously ill, to the United States. The majority of the released men came from Andersonville. In February 1865, Wirz released three thousand prisoners who were well enough to travel on their own to Jacksonville, Florida to the Federal commander there. The Union commander refused to accept them, and they were returned to Andersonville.

     The commission refused to hear any of the evidence from the defense on the subject of exchange or release of prisoners. It ruled that such evidence was irrelevant.

     The defense was prepared to offer testimony that the conditions at Andersonville were similar to the conditions at most prison or war camps. This was the case for other Southern prisons of which seceral sent prisoners to Andersonville, but the Southern prisoners up North found conditions somewhat better. All Northern prisons had shelters for their prisoners, at Andersonville, men were left to the elements. Rations in the North were better than in the Southern prisons. The South could not feed its own Army, let alone its prisoners.

     The United States War Department's statistics showed that more Southern prisoners died in Northern camps than did Northern soldiers in Southern camps. The death rate in Northern camps was approximately 12%, while the death rate in Southern camps was about 9%. This evidence was kept out as irrelevant. Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners to enter Andersonville, over 13,000 died. The defense was allowed to prove that the Confederate guards at Andersonville received the same quantity and quality of rations as the prisoners, and that the death rate of the guards was approximately the same as the prisoners.

     Among the 68 defense witnesses who testified were former prisoners at Andersonville, relatives of prisoners, and a Catholic priest who was among the prisoner every day. The consensus of the testimony described Wirz as a kind hearted man, anguished by the terrible conditions in the prison, who did all that he could to alleviate the prisoners' suffering.

     The verdict of guilty on both charges was announced on October 24, 1865. Wirz was sentenced to hang. There was a post trial review conducted by Judge Advocate General Holt. Holt had been with the Bureau of Military Justice that had gathered evidence against Wirz. In his review, Holt describes Wirz as a "demon" whose work of death caused him "savage orgies" of enjoyment. Holt confirmed Wirz's conviction and sentence.

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Text by Bill Carnes and Troy Drew.

These materials were prepared as part of a class assignment for The Seminar in Famous Trials course at the University of Missouri-K.C. School of Law. The use of any sound or images in the trials sites is in furtherance of the educational mission of the Seminar.