Henry Wirz wrote two letters shortly before his execution. One was an appeal to President Johnson. The second was addressed to Louis Schade, the last defense attorney to cease his representation in protest against the way the trial was conducted.
The content of the letters help to indicate the thoughts of Wirz following his conviction; his concerns; and the acceptance of his then potential fate.
Letter to President Johnson (dated November 6, 1865):
"To the President of the United States. Mr. President: With a trembling hand, with a heart filled with the most conflicting emotions, and with a spirit hopeful one moment and despairing the next, I have taken the liberty of addressing you. When I consider your exalted position; when I think for a moment that in your hands rests the weal and woe of millions - yea, the peace of the world - well may I pause to call to my aid courage enough to lay before you my humble petition. I have heard you spoken of as a man ready and willing at all times and under all circumstances to do justice, and that no man, however humble he may be, need fear to approach you: and, therefore, have come to the conclusion that you will allow me the same privilege as extended to hundreds and thousands of others. It is not my desire to enter into an argument as to the merits of my case. In your hands, if I am rightfully informed, are all the records and evidences bearing upon this point, and it would be presumption on my part to say one word about it. There is only one thing that I ask, and it is expressed in few words: Pass your sentence.
For six weary months I have been a prisoner; for six months my name has been in the mouth of every one; by thousands I am considered a monster of cruelty, a wretch that ought not to pollute the earth any longer. Truly, when I pass in my mind over the testimony given, I sometimes almost doubt my own existence. I doubt that I am the Captain Wirz spoken of. I am inclined to call on the mountains to fall upon and bury me and my shame. But oh, sir, while I wring my hands in mute and hopeless dispair, there speaks a small but unmistakable voice within me that says: 'Console thyself, thou knowest thy innocence. Fear not; if men hold thee guilty, God does not, and a new life will pervade your being.' Such has been the state of my mind for weeks and months, and no punishment that human ingenuity can inflict could increases my distress.
GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH
The pangs of death are short, and therefore I humbly pray that you will pass your sentence without delay. Give me death of liberty. The one I do not fear; the other I crave. If you believe me guilty of the terrible charges that have been heaped upon me, deliver me to the executioner. If not guilty, in your estimation, restore me to liberty and life. A life such as I am now living is no life. I breathe, sleep, eat, but it is only the mechanical functions I perform, and nothing more. Whatever you decide I shall accept. If restored to liberty, I will thank and bless you for it.
I would not convey the idea to your mind, Mr. President, that I court death. Life is sweet; however lowly or humble man's station may be, he clings to life. His soul is filled with awe when he contemplates the future, the unknown land which the judgment is before which he will have to give an account of his words, thought, and deeds. Well may I remember, too, that I have erred like all other human beings. But of those things for which I may perhaps suffer a violent death, I am not guilty; and God judge me. I have said all that I wished to say. Excuse my boldness in addressing you, but I could not help it. I cannot bear this suspense much longer. May God bless you, and be with you; your task is a great and fearful one. In life or death I shall pray for you, and for the prosperity of the country in which I have passed some of my happiest as well as darkest days.
Wirz had accepted that only a presidential pardon could save his life and resigned himself to the fact that he would die on the gallows if a pardon was refused. He maintained innocence to the end. On the gallows he stated to the hangman that he understood that the hangman was following orders and said that, he too, had followed orders.
Letter to Louis Schade (dated the day of his execution, November 10, 1865):
"Mr. Louis Schade. Dear Sir: It is no doubt the last time that I address myself to you. What I have said to you often as often I repeat. Accept my thanks, my sincere, heartfelt thanks, for all you have done for me. May God reward you, I cannot. I still have something more to ask of you, and I am confident you will not refuse to receive my dying request. Please help my poor family - my dear wife and children. War, cruelest, has swept everything from me, and today my wife and children are beggars. My life is demanded as an atonement. I am willing to give it, and hope that after a while, I will be judged differently from what I am now. If any one ought to come to the relief of my family, it is the people of the South, for whose sake I have sacrificed all. I know you will excuse me for troubling you again. Farewell, dear sir. May God bless you.
Wirz understood that his pardon request
would likely be denied. He had expressed concern for the fate of his family
to his lawyers through the duration of the trial and, knowing death was
near, made a final request of Schade. His family had nothing left following
the war, as the family home had been destroyed, and Wirz was imprisoned
awaiting death. Wirz was the most hated man in the country and had no one
left to ask for assistance but Schade.
Letters obtained, and comments regarding letters by Jon Rice.