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Famous Swiss in the U.S. Henry Wirz
 
 

1823 – 1865

Arbitrary execution, torture, starvation, lack of medical care - the photos and reminiscences of prisoners released at the end of the American Civil War have a chillingly modern ring. And yet only one person was tried and executed for war crimes: the Swiss emigrant, Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born in Zurich to an old Zurich family. His family had been granted a coat of arms in the 15th century, and its members had held government office there over many generations. Wirz qualified as a doctor, studying not only in Zurich but also in Paris and Berlin.

He immigrated to the US in 1849, and settled at first in Kentucky, moving later to Louisiana.

When the Civil War started, Wirz enlisted with the Louisiana Volunteers. He was badly wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, losing most of the use of one arm. He was promoted "for bravery on the field of battle", but this injury left him unfit to fight, and instead he was attached to General John Winder, who was in charge of Confederate prisoner of war camps. After stints in two other prisons, he took charge of Camp Sumter prison, near Andersonville, Georgia, in March 1864, where he remained for just over a year.

He was arrested by Federal troops in May 1865. Even before the end of the war, reports had been coming out about the appalling conditions at Andersonville. The conviction grew that the Confederates were deliberately mistreating Unionist prisoners. It is generally agreed today that the victors were looking for a scapegoat to vent their anger, and Wirz fulfilled that role.

His two-month trial, held in Washington, was a sensation, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion. He was found guilty of several counts of murder and of mistreating the prisoners in his care "willfully and maliciously, in furtherance of his evil designs" – the purpose being to "weaken and impair" the Unionist army.

The testimony was damning. In addition to the prisoners he was found guilty of shooting in cold blood, it was said that he had used bloodhounds "to seize, tear, mangle, and maim the bodies and limbs" of escapees, that he injected "impure and poisonous vaccine matter" into the arms of prisoners, some of whom died as a result, and that he used his boots to "jump upon, stamp, kick, bruise" a number of prisoners. He had shackled them in painful positions, and ordered the guards to shoot any prisoner who crossed the "dead line": a poorly delineated border within the outer fence. (The expression has changed its meaning in the last 150 years, but derives from the Civil War prison camps.)

It is undisputed that conditions at Andersonville were appalling. Ironically, it was built to relieve overcrowding at the camp in Richmond, where 10 prisoners a day were dying by the end of 1863. But it was poorly planned and brought into use too early. By the middle of August 1864 it held 32-33,000 men, and not 10, but up to 100 were dying every day. Between February 1864 and May 1865 a total of about 45,000 Unionist prisoners were held there. About 13,000 of them – nearly 29 per cent - died. (This compares with an average death rate of about 13 per cent in Unionist and Confederate prison camps as a whole.)

But Wirz was not responsible for the planning and construction of Camp Sumter. The authorities – notably Winder, who conveniently died shortly before the end of the war – had failed to build the wooden barracks that were originally planned, and the prisoners were held in the open air. The guards were poorly trained and equipped, there was insufficient food, and what there was was often unsuitable: many prisoners suffered from scurvy which left them unable to chew and swallow. There was a lack of drinkable water, and the sanitary conditions were poor. All this meant that prisoners were often in dire need of medical treatment, but the supplies were inadequate.

However bad-tempered and inefficient Wirz may or may not have been, there was nothing he could do to alleviate these problems.

Even at the time, there were some who recognized that it was a show trial. Many of the witnesses whom Wirz wanted to call in his defence were never summoned; others of them complained that "improper language" had been used to get them to provide material for the prosecution.

The Washington lawyer, James W Denver, whose firm was originally defending Wirz, wrote to his wife that he believed Wirz ought to be acquitted, "but I am of opinion that the intention is hang him and that no stone will be left unturned to effect it." Denver's firm backed out on the first day of the trial for that very reason. The lawyer who took over the defence complained that the military commission had violated " all rules of law and equity." He singled out the commission president - Lew Wallace, the author of "Ben Hur" – for his failure in ensuring justice.

Wirz was duly found guilty, and he was hanged on the same site where the Lincoln conspirators had been executed a few months earlier, and where now the US Supreme Court stands.

He denied his guilt until the last; when the death warrant was read to him, the officer overseeing the hanging told Wirz that he deplored carrying out this duty. Wirz's reply: "I know what orders are, Major. And I am being hanged for obeying them."

He lies buried in Mount Olivet cemetery; the simple stone describes him as "Confederate Hero-Martyr."

Wirz has gone down in history as the first man in modern times to face a war crimes trial. As such, it laid the ground for the war crimes tribunals that followed World War II and subsequent conflicts.

 

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