Terrible atrocities were committed against prisoners during the Civil War where violations of one’s civil rights were not always honored. Yet, commanders were held accountable when abuse of power was discovered and ended up paying the ultimate price. One man did pay such a price as on November 10th, 1865 where a Swiss immigrant named Henry Wirz, commander of Andersonville prison in Georgia, was hanged for his role in the murders of incarcerated soldiers that were kept there while the Civil War was going on.
Originally born in 1823 Switzerland, Wirz came to the United States in 1849 and became a physician in the South, mostly Louisiana. Once the Civil War began, he found himself joining the Fourth Louisiana Battalion and when the First Battle of Bull Run was finished at Virginia in July of 1861; he was noticed in Richmond, Virginia by Inspector General John Winder while guarding prisoners. Wirz ended up being transferred to Winder’s department in which he would end up working with prisoners of war throughout the conflict’s completion.
Before Wirz was hurt in a stagecoach accident, he was in charge of exchanges with the Union, ran a prison in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and transferred prisoners throughout the Confederacy. Once able to return to duty, he most likely gave messages to envoys of the Confederacy as he journeyed throughout Europe. It was in early 1864 when Wirz time found his way back to the Confederacy and was ordered to be in charge of Andersonville prison; this was known to officials as Camp Sumter.
Although both parties were to blame for the horrible conditions prisoners had to live in, the disgusting ways and practices captured soldiers had to endure in Andersonville deserves special mention. Thousands of men were kept in a stockade on a patch of ground that was polluted, barracks that were supposed to be built never saw the light of day and men were forced to reside in poor housing known as “shebangs” that were made from blankets and scrap wood that lacked protection from inclement weather. Union soldiers had no supply of water except that of a small stream; however, it eventually turned into a cesspool of human waste and disease. The stream became a huge swamp as a result of the decay inmates. The prison was built to hold a capacity of 10,000 inmates but by August of 1864, 31,000 prisoners were packed in by the Confederates.
Even though Wirz was in charge in which thousands of prisoners died, some circumstances were beyond his control considering how prisoner exchanges with the Union ceased in 1864. When the Confederacy began to fall apart, medical and other supplies became more difficult to obtain. Once word spread of how the inmates were treated, to say that Northerners were horrified is an understatement. Finally, Wirz arrested under the charge of conspiracy to cause harm to the welfare and lives of soldiers of the Union as well as to murder. He would later be found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. He died at the age of 41 and was part of a select few who were convicted and executed for unlawful acts during the Civil War.
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