If ever there was a man who was always at the wrong place at the wrong time, it was Henry Wirz. Wirz has become infamous as the commander of Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville, the most notorious of all Civil War prison camps.
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz, as he was originally christened, was born in Zurich, Switzerland. His father was a tailor who pushed his son to go into a merchant career that would take advantage of Zurich’s business-friendly environment. Young Heinrich, however, had set his sights on medicine. Unable to gain his family’s support for medical school, he had to settle for working as an attendant in a bathhouse—at the time, doctors believed strongly in the medicinal value of baths. Despite his efforts, young Wirz was forced to work with his father from 1823-1826.
In addition to the ongoing debate regarding his profession, Wirz quarreled over religion. Although Catholics and Protestants were no longer killing each other in the 1840s, religious prejudice was strong. As he had with his choice of professions, Heinrich flew directly in the face of family traditions when he abandoned Calvinism and converted to Catholicism. The consequence was a deep and lasting bitterness between him and his family.
Heinrich’s personal life went no better than his professional life. In 1824 he married a much older woman. Although the marriage produced two children, he and his wife fought constantly, usually about money. As he struggled in a job he disliked and fought with a woman he no longer loved, he sank deeper and deeper into debt. Finally, in 1848 his wife left him and took their two children back to her parents, but she died soon afterward. Meanwhile, probably as a result of excessive debt or financial malfeasance, Wirz was sentenced to a short prison term and was exiled from Switzerland upon his release.
Wirz then set sail for the United States, where he started a new life working in a cloth mill in Massachusetts. He later went to Hopkinsville, Ky., to apprentice with a doctor. After a short stint there, he moved on to Cadiz, Ky., and tried to set up his own practice as a homeopathic physician. Homeopathy, based on the belief that diseases can be cured by giving the patient minute amounts of the same substance that initially caused the problem, was no better received by the medical establishment in the 1850s than it is today. In spite of that, homeopathic treatment was popular with members of the public, who preferred its potions to the bleedings and other extreme treatments proposed by regular doctors.
Wirz, who by now had taken to calling himself Henry, not only chose a professionally suspect branch of medicine, he did so at a time when the northern portion of the country was experiencing a huge surplus of doctors. Into this tight market walked Wirz, an unfriendly, humorless man with a heavy German accent, and a Catholic to boot. The mostly Anglo-Protestant doctors of Cadiz united against the pretentious foreigner. Even his marriage to a local widow availed him nothing, and social and financial pressures ultimately forced him to move again.
Louisiana, with its heavy French influence, welcomed Catholics, and Wirz probably experienced the only truly happy years of his life there. He found work as a slave doctor. The cutoff of the slave trade with Africa years earlier had sent the price of slaves skyrocketing. As a result, slave owners were willing to expend heretofore unheard-of sums on slaves’ health. The standard rate of pay was $3 per year per slave treated. For a doctor who could get an exclusive contract with a large plantation that boasted hundreds of slaves, those fees could add up to the equivalent of a very successful practice treating free citizens in the North.
Working as a doctor to the slaves on the Marshall Plantation near Milliken’s Bend, La., Wirz was in his element. His standoffish personality and nonexistent bedside manner were irrelevant. His new patients came to him whether they wanted to or not. He was paid whether they liked him or not. Even doubts about the efficacy of his homeopathy were of little concern. As long as the mortality rate at the plantation did not surpass those of the surrounding area, his job was secure. In Louisiana, where the counties were called parishes because of the strong French-Catholic influence, he could shed his shabby past for the role of Dr. Wirz, a man with a family and a respectable position in society.
The election of Abraham Lincoln began the chain of events that would end that idyllic arrangement. Impelled by a sense of duty to serve the South, where he had found the life he had always wanted, Wirz entered Confederate service as a private in the Madison Infantry of the 4th Louisiana Battalion. He was soon promoted to the rank of sergeant. Following the Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, his battalion was assigned to guard Union prisoners. It was probably then that Wirz first came to the attention of Confederate Provost General John Winder.
During the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862, two Union Minié balls smashed into Wirz’s right arm and shoulder. He survived, but the wounds would never completely heal. Infections came and went, and his arm was virtually useless. In constant pain, he became even more unlikable and short-tempered. Unfit for frontline duty, Wirz was nevertheless commissioned a captain, probably through Winder’s intervention, and placed in command of a small prison camp near Tuscaloosa, Ala. Significantly, men who had been confined to the camp during that four-month assignment later remembered it as having been better and more humanely run than the average POW camp.
After a year-long mission to Europe, Wirz returned to the Confederate States of America, where General Winder selected him to command the new prison compound at Camp Sumter. The prison was initially envisioned to hold only 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners. The tiny creek that ran through it would have been hard-pressed to service even the smaller number of prisoners. As the war continued, however, the prison population eventually grew to nearly 30,000 men, overwhelming both the creek and all other accommodations. The prisoners had arrived before the walls were even completed; there were no barracks inside the camp, and no attempt was made to form an orderly layout within the walls. The initial group of prisoners was simply placed into the compound and allowed to fend for themselves. The confusion this produced had a grim effect on the already unhealthy conditions.
Although he would later die for what happened at Andersonville, Wirz had little power to change what went on there. To start with, he had authority only over the inner camp itself. The guard force and everything outside the stockade were under the authority of others who outranked him. To make an awful situation worse, Wirz—obsessed with order and discipline, yet in charge of a place that had none—began to take every act of disobedience from the prisoners as a personal insult. If he caught prisoners sneaking into the ration lines for a second or third time, he would curse at them and threaten to deny food to the entire camp. Although he eventually ceased making such outbursts for fear of provoking a prison riot, he would later be haunted by them.
Despite his rage, other actions and events seemed to show that Wirz was not as uncaring as many thought him. When word reached him that a group of prisoners known as the Raiders had begun assaulting and robbing fellow prisoners, he was genuinely moved to assist the prisoners in apprehending the offenders. After the six ringleaders were tried and found guilty by the other prisoners, Wirz was extremely worried about hanging them, fearing that he might later be accused of war crimes. He relented only upon realizing that denying the execution after a full trial might well result in a massive riot. Wirz further showed his concern for his prisoners by trying to get an officer who had been captured while serving with black troops transferred to an officers’ prison. This violated a Confederate government decree that any white officer found serving with black troops would not be treated as an officer.
Between Wirz’s arrival on March 25, 1864, and September of that same year, when all prisoners fit to be moved were transferred, some 12,000 Union prisoners died at Andersonville. When General Winder died in February 1865, Wirz was left as the sole scapegoat. Once again he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On May 7, 1865, a Union patrol arrested Wirz after sharing a meal of bacon and cornbread with him. His trial, presided over by Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, who had presided over the trial of the conspirators involved in the assassination of President Lincoln, was quick, and the results were a foregone conclusion. Purportedly, Wirz was offered his life in return for testimony that Confederate President Jefferson Davis had known of and approved the starvation and mistreatment of Union prisoners. As a matter of honor and principle, he refused. When Wirz was led out to the gallows, rows of Union troops stood in tight formations to witness the death of the man who had become known as the “Demon of Andersonville.”
Thus ended the unfortunate life of Henry Wirz. A man who had always felt out of place, he had found a modicum of respect as an officer on the losing side of the Civil War. In the end, that little scrap of respect and position was short-lived, and he died in infamy.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.