Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andersonville Prison

Captain Henry Wirz

The man did not look like the devil. William Marvel in his book Andersonville: The Last Depot describes Captain Wirz as a stooped, frail fellow. Some said he had the demeanor of a rodent. His hair was dark, and he wore a full black beard. His hazel eyes betrayed the nervous energy within him. He tended not to wear his uniform coat, preferring a white linen shirt, white duck trousers and a gray army cap pulled down low over his brow. He never went anywhere without a sidearm, either a large, intimidating LeMat grape shot revolver or one of two Colt navy revolvers he owned. According to Marvel both of the Colts were defective and would not fire.

Captain Hartmann Wirz
Captain Hartmann Wirz
Captain Wirz was born Hartmann Heinrich Wirz in Zurich, Switzerland, in November 1823. As a young man he longed to study medicine, but his strict father discouraged that ambition, steering his son into commerce. Wirz married in 1845 and had two children. In the late 1840s, he was imprisoned briefly, though there is no record of his offense. Perhaps it was embezzlement, Ovid L. Futch speculates in his book History of Andersonville. Perhaps he lived beyond his means and incurred a debtors sentence. After his release, he divorced and was banished from Switzerland. He arrived in America in 1849.

After working for a short time as a weaver in Lawrence, Massachusetts, he resettled in Kentucky where he apprenticed with physicians. By 1854 he had set up his own medical practice in the town of Cardiz, where he married a widow named Elizabeth Wolfe. He was apparently ready to settle down, but his lack of medical credentials was discovered, and he was forced to leave Cardiz. He resettled in Millikens Bend, Louisiana, where he found employment on the Marshall plantation, tending to the sick and injured among the slaves. How Wirz felt about this turn of events is unknown.

Wirz enlisted in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry on June 16, 1861. A year later, after being promoted to sergeant, he suffered a wound to his right wrist in the Battle of Seven Pines. He never fully recovered from that injury, and it caused him constant pain for the rest of his life. He was promoted to captain on June 12, 1862, and detailed to General John Winder, who gave him command of the military prison in Richmond. A month later he was given command of the prison at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He remained there through the fall, then was dispatched to Paris and Berlin as a special emissary of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Wirz spent a year in Europe on that mission. In February 1864 he journeyed back to the Confederacy, and on March 27 he was installed as commandant of Andersonville. His jurisdiction was relegated to the prison area itself, not the entire facility.

How cruel or compassionate Wirz was at Andersonville is a topic of intense debate. During the 15 months that it operated as a war prison, it was widely regarded as hell on Earth. After the war, several Andersonville inmates published their recollections of the experience, and not all of them portrayed Wirz as a cold-blooded monster. The accounts of Wirzs command at Andersonville describe contradictory aspects of his personality.

The Chickamauga incident, for instance, has been reported in various ways, some showing Wirz as being needlessly punitive, others depicting him as iron-handed but consistent with the well-stated rules of the prison. Thomas Herburt, a one-legged Canadian immigrant who fought for the North, was a well-known eccentric at Andersonville. He earned the nickname Chickamauga because of his nonstop chatter about his participation in the Battle of Chickamauga, where he lost his leg. He was generally regarded as a pest and was often victimized by his fellow inmates, who would beat him to shut him up and steal his rations because he was an easy target. His amputation wound had never healed completely, and he was frequently admitted to the prison hospital for treatment. On occasion the kinder guards would let him out of the stockade to avoid the abuse of his peers. After all, how far could a one-legged man of questionable sanity go even if he did try to escape?

In May 1864 the Confederate War Department ordered guards from Andersonville to the front lines, and these men were replaced by young, inexperienced reserves from Georgia. On May 13 a tunnel under the stockade was discovered, and an escape plot was foiled. The bitter prisoners who had long planned this escape route concluded that someone inside the stockade had betrayed them. They were sure that the culprit was mad Chickamauga. The next Sunday, which happened to be Whit-Sunday, a gang of angry prisoners confronted him, and when they started to threaten him physically, Chickamauga hobbled to the south gate, crossed the dead line, and shouted to the nearest sentry, demanding to be let out.

The sentry was a teenager with little experience guarding prisoners. He knew the dead line rule, but Chickamauga was clearly mad. The shoot-on-sight order could not apply in this case. The angry prisoners gathered at the dead line like agitated animals of prey. Fearing them, Chickamauga scuttled out of their reach and screamed for the sentry to let him out. The boy didnt know what to do. A riot seemed imminent. Captain Wirz, who had retired for the day, was summoned to the gates.

A furious Wirz mounted his white mare and rode into the stockade where he found Chickamauga ranting and blubbering. Chickamauga threw himself on the commandants mercy. He pleaded to be admitted to the hospital, but Wirz refused him. Chickamauga then asked Wirz to kill him, for hed rather die by an enemys hand than by his friends. Wirz immediately drew his pistol and offered to grant him this request. (Whether this pistol worked or was loaded is not known.) The angry Yankees shouted at Chickamauga, demanding that he return to the prison grounds.

The situation was about to erupt when Wirz turned to the sentry and reprimanded him, ordering him to do his duty and shoot Chickamauga for violating the dead line. The young sentry hesitated, but according to some accounts, Wirz repeated the order, leaving the young man no choice. The sentry leveled his rifle on Chickamauga and fired, hitting him in the jaw. The mad man fell to the ground, thrashing and flailing. The guard apparently fired again, hitting him in the chest this time. Assuming that Chickamauga was dead, Wirz told the guards to leave the body where it fell as a warning to the other prisoners. The next morning when guards were finally sent into the stockade to retrieve the body, they discovered that the one-legged man was still alive. Chickamauga lingered a few more hours before he finally succumbed to his wounds. Several variations of this story were told after the war, and today historians cannot agree on the particulars.



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