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 the United States hanged Captain Henry Wirz 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 before and after the execution of the former Andersonville commander.

Four days earlier, on Nov. 6, 1865, Wirz had been found guilty after a lengthy trial of "wanton cruelty" and murder of U.S. Army soldiers at the notorious POW camp in Georgia. 

Wirz remains controversial to this day. In 1865, Northerners — especially U.S. Army soldiers — viewed him with contempt.

"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 placed a noose around his neck, Russell asked Wirz 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 an executioner put a black hood 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 an excellent analysis of the Wirz hanging photos, see 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.

  9. Anonymous3:23 AM

    The humane treatment of prisoners written into the Geneva Convention came directly out of the horrors of Andersonville. Never again... Until the "quaint rules" pertaining to enemy combatants were rewritten by John Woo, Bush "dubya" et al....

  10. The north had similar prison camps. I know of one being in Chicago.

  11. He's lucky his death was quick, unlike those who suffered and died at Andersonville. My relative Amos Andrews McNish, was a survivor.

    CO. OHIO TO MRS. JAMES JOSEPHI written on February 8, 1909 on the death of her
    father, Morris Jackson Holly. Mrs. James Josephi, 1459 Wyamdotte Ave., Lakewood,
    Burton, OH. Feb. 8, 1909
    Mrs. Hattie Josephi
    My Dear Friend,
    Replying to your welcome letter of Jan. 31 would say, we noticed in the Plain
    Dealer the announcement of your Father's death and date of the funeral, and I made
    arrangements to go, but my throat was so bad and the day was so cold 1n the mornlng
    that I dare not venture out.
    His death did come rather sudden but that is by far the best way to go.
    Your father was a grand and good friend of mine in the days of our Prison Life
    in Andersonville and we came home to Cleveland together and I went with him to his
    home and his poor old mother (who had mourned him as dead) recognized him as we
    turned in and met him part way to the road and gave him a Royal greeting, such as a
    mother only can give. Hardened as I was, with 3 and 1/2 years of army experience,
    with thirteen months of Prison life, I modestly turned my back lest they would see
    the tears rolling down my cheek and I realized then how much before that, come what
    may, a mother's love endureth forever. You know his home life far better, than I
    do, but as a comrade he was a grand and noble specimen, mild, courteous and forgiving. His happiest moments were when he was contributing to the comfort and
    pleasure of his comrades.
    You would not think such a man, could be a good soldier. I once heard President Garfield (James A. Garfield, assassinated in 1881 and buried in Lakevi.ew
    Cemetery, Cleveland) say, "I don't want a bruiser or a bummer for a good soldier,
    but the more honor, refinement and culture you get into a man, the better soldier
    you will have."
    You do not know it, but I will tell you now that your father, mild and meek as
    he appeared to be, knew more of the horrors of war than any man now living in all
    Europe, unless he actively participated in the war of the rebellion. He understood
    all the ups and downs of camp-life. The long weary march, the lonely nights on
    picket, and the fury of battle.
    He understood the touch of the elbow when the roar of the artillery was so loud
    that the sound of the bugle could not be heard.
    He knew of deathly and gapping wounds of the cold and clammy clasp of the dying
    comrades hand, the last farewell the hurried made grave and the missing man at roll
    But my dear friend, he had memories which were sadder far than these. When he
    remembered his starving comrades in the Prison-pen, their haggard faces and almost
    idiotic stare, the live vermin sapping almost the last drops of their life's blood.
    The skeleton forms of our almost naked dead, and the unearthly groans of our dying,
    with no wife, mother or sisters hand to alleviate their pain or wife. The death
    damp from their brow.
    --MY-dear friend Hattie, although he did not like to speak about these memories,
    yet they did form an aggregate which could not be expressed by language, a mountain
    of woe which none but the Infinite mind can comprehend.
    Now Hattie, as You"remember your Father, in years to come, we trust you may realize that as a beardless boy he gave the most beautiful of his young life
    fighting the battles of our county, and so far as I know; his life has been good and commendable,and worthy of imitation. Peace to his ashes.
    Mrs. McNish joins in sending kind regards to yourself and, family, to your sister Frankie and last but not least to your dear mother, in her sad grief and loneliness.·' , ,.'. . ' '.. ;., ,'."
    Claude is gaining sslowly, and the rest of our people are in their usual health
    ,although my wife is not very strong.
    Very truly yours,
    A.A. McNish

  12. I had a number of relatives who were POW's at Andersonville. They were Southern Unionists who were captured by some of Forrests people at Union City, Teneessee, whilst serving in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment (USA). Some didn't survive. I understand that the Union POW camps were pretty bad as well, though the North had the resources and infrastructure to better care for their prisoners. I've read that the individual administering the Union camps was neglectful of the Confederate POW's welfare. I had one Confederate relative who was captured and sent to Camp Chase, Ohio. In a couple of months he was fighting for the North. Years later, at his death, his widow got a pension.