Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hanging of Henry Wirz: 'A lovelier day never dawned'

In an englargement of an Alexander Gardner image, a noose is placed around the neck 
of Henry Wirz, who appears stunned by his fate. 
(Library of Congress Civil War collection)
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"A lovelier day never dawned on the capital of the United States," a correspondent for the Hartford Courant wrote of the fall day that Captain Henry Wirz was hanged on the grounds of the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. "...Long before the appointed hour, an eager crowd of soldiers and civilians gathered on the prison, house-tops and trees adjoining, all anxious to get a sight of the condemned man."

The crowd also included famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, who recorded at least five glass plate images that, upon closer inspection, reveal remarkable detail of the hanging of the former commander of Andersonville prison.

Four days earlier, on Nov. 6, 1865, Wirz had been found guilty after a lengthy trial of "wanton cruelty" and murder of Union soldiers at the notorious POW camp in Georgia. Among the 13,000 men who died at Andersonville were 290 soldiers from Connecticut, including nearly 100 from the 16th Connecticut, who were captured at Plymouth, N.C., on  April 20, 1864. Survivors Austin Fuller and Wallace Woodford of the 16th Connecticut were in such wretched condition that the privates died in their hometowns of Farmington and Avon shortly after they were released.

Whether Wirz was indeed guilty of the crimes he was charged with remains controversial even today, but there's no doubt that the Swiss-born soldier was viewed with particular enmity in the North in 1865. "Every paper he looked at (during his trial) cried for his execution," the Courant correspondent wrote.

The scene at Old Capitol Prison shortly before Henry Wirz was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865. This is one 
of at least five images of the hanging taken  by Alexander Gardner. (Library of Congress Civil War collection)

Northern newspapers such as the Hartford Courant covered
Wirz's trial and hanging extensively.
"Hang the scoundrel!" soldiers yelled from trees outside the prison grounds as Wirz stood on the scaffold that morning. The 42-year-old former Rebel officer appeared to listen only occasionally, the Courant reported, as Major George.B. Russell read the death warrant. A priest placed a crucifix to Wirz's lips, perhaps temporarily relieving "the agony which must have wracked the wretch's very soul."

"What his thoughts were during these brief moments there was nothing in his expression to betray," the Courant reported, "but the spectator into whose imagination the story of this man's brutalities had been indelibly burned, as with a branding iron, could vividly recall the crowded prison pen, with its scurvy-eaten, starving, vermin-infested victims; the yelling of the dogs through the woods and swamps, where poor, escaping fugitives had sough refuge from the unspeakable horrors of their confinement."

Exterior of Old Capitol Prison. (Library of Congress Civil War Collection)

Shortly before the hangman's noose was placed around his neck, Wirz was asked by Russell if he had any final words. "I have nothing to say to the public," he said. "and to you, major, I will say I die innocent; I have but once to die, and my hope is in the future." Wirz had a look of "insolent indifference" and a smile on his face as a black hood was placed over his head, the Connecticut newspaper's correspondent noted.

At 10:32 a.m., the trap door was sprung, sending Wirz to his death.

"There were a few spasmodic convulsions of the chest, a slight movement of the extremities," the New York Times reported, "and all was over."  Left hanging for 14 minutes, Wirz was cut down and taken to a hospital for an autopsy. Gardner also shot an image of the autopsy, but it was ordered to be kept from the public by the War Department.

"What a day of judgment is coming when all these devils in human form shall be brought up to the final answer for their crimes," the Courant concluded in its coverage of Wirz's hanging. "Every maimed and wounded soldier will be there, every weeping widow, helpless orphan, and every sorrowing sister will be a witness, and every starved and poisoned prisoner will raise his bony hand in judgment."

(For a terrific analysis of the Wirz hanging photos, check out this post on Andy Hall's Dead Confederates blog.)

Major George B. Russell reads the death warrant to Wirz, who was seated on a stool to Russell's
  left and not seen in this enlargement of an  Alexander Gardner image.
Wirz's body dangles in the noose near the stool where he was seated minutes earlier.
An enlargement of Alexander Gardner's image of Wirz's hanging reveals bystanders in trees outside
 the prison grounds and the Capitol building in the background.
In this enlargement of a Gardner image, the soldier at left appears to be bored shortly after Wirz's hanging. 

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Anonymous2:51 PM

    The scaffold on which Wirz was hanged stood just about in the center of what is now the piazza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

  2. BS article-He did his best and how about the sadistic Northern POW camps where there was rampant mistreatment and deaths of Confederates. Typical one sided article.

    1. Camp Douglas in Chicago.

    2. If this country had been a united nation. None of this would have happened. Just like in WWII there is always consequences for war crimes of the losing army.

  3. My great, great uncle who was in the 16th Conn was wounded and captured in April 1864. They sent him to Andersonville. He died 4 months later from wounds and starvation and is buried there. In 1907 his brother who was also in the 16th attended the dedication of the Conn POW war memorial at Andersonville. Many more men of the 16th died from the terrible conditions at Andersonville than from battle.

    1. My great, great grandfather served in the 103rd Pennsylvania and was captured and sent to Andersonville in the spring of 1864. He was a lucky survivor of that hell hole.

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  5. To the victor go the spoils to the defeated go the atrocities. Combatants on either side of a conflict or always guilty of atrocities. I think there was much abuse at the prisoner of war camp in Chicago which has mostly gone undocumented. War itself is an obscenity for which no hanging can bring back the dead.

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  7. My great-uncle, Peter Kiene, who had lied about his age to sign up, was interned there at the age of fourteen. Miraculously, he survived to go home to Dubuque, where he grew up to be a respected citizen.

  8. Anonymous5:04 AM

    Wirtz saw prisoners dying of hunger and disease every day, and he cares nothing, he is guilty of omission and of treating a human being worse than an animal. Instead of excusing himself by blaming his superiors, he could have used every means in his power to shelter them and allow them to have their own garden and poultry or animals. He was well condemned and he is no martyr, now he is rendering accounts to God like all criminals in the world.