November 1823 – November 10, 1865
Heinrich H. Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1823 and educated at the universities in Paris and Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1849. He eventually settled in Louisiana, where he married and worked as a physician. When the war broke out Wirz enlisted in the Confederate army and was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines. He lost the use of his right arm, which never healed and gave him constant pain. Wirz was promoted to captain and traveled to Europe on Confederate business from December 1862 to February 1864. The next month he was named commandant of the newly opened Camp Sumter Prison at Andersonville, Ga.
Andersonville was the worst of all the Civil War prisons, and news of the atrocious conditions and horrible suffering of Union prisoners spread through the North in the spring of 1865. Wirz had a thick German accent, a quick temper, and was prone to curse and shout. Described as having a countenance of “ferocity and brutality” and as being “repulsvie in appearance,” many malicious and murderous deeds were reported to have been perpetrated by Wirz, who has been called the “monster of Andersonville.”
However many others, including some Union prisoners, have described Wirz as “good hearted by nature, and had nothing cruel about him,” a man who “would not have mistreated anybody.” Whether anyone else in the impossible position of Andersonville’s commandant could have performed the duties better, or that the prisoners would have suffered any less, remains doubtful. But at the end of the war, the North demanded that someone pay for the atrocities, and Wirz was quickly arrested, tried, and executed as a war criminal.
Wirz maintained his innocence to the end. The proceedings at his military trial were questionable: Most testimony regarding his alleged crimes was hearsay evidence, and one of his most articulate accusers was later discovered to be a Union deserter who was given a government job for his testimony.
Fascinating Fact: As Union soldiers chanted “Wirz, remember Andersonville,” the gallows’ trap door opened, but the execution was botched. Instead of his neck snapping, Wirz slowly strangled — while the Union soldiers chanted.