The Court Martial of Henri Wirz

2.15 The Court Martial of Henri Wirz – General Court Martial orders No 607 – Executive Mansion November 3, 1865 – Court Martial of Henri Wirz Charges and Specifications (  argesand-specifictions/htm) – Finding of the Court ( – ( wirzcourtmartial)

a) Background

An Anthology of Swiss law and legal culture making accessible to the reader and the user texts and documents which are relevant to the exchange and encounter of Swiss and American culture and their legal relationships is well advised to address the fate of certain Swiss individuals of Swiss origins, who emigrated to the United States, and whose activities led to widely visible and recognized  entanglements with American law and legal culture, which persist until today. This is the case as regards Johann August Sutter (see text 2.10); as regards to Louis Agassiz (see text 2.21, 2.22) and certainly as regards to Henri Wirz (see text 2.14).

The capital punishment inflicted on Henri Wirz by a military commission after the Civil War for his crimes committed while heading the Andersonville prison (see text 2.14) was entered in the legal history of the United States as one of “the legal battles that transformed our nation”. By Alan Dershowitz it got academic and public attention on both sides of the Atlantic until present days through at times superficial and sensational articles and books. The actual case and its specific context merit attention in this Anthology nowadays. The use of military commissions applying military criminal law became controversial in the United States again after Guantanamo. The use of death penalties under criminal law, is an issue, which confronts Switzerland and the United States in present times in front of international fora. Switzerland has used military commissions and military criminal law to execute Swiss Nationals during World War II. After the execution innumerable articles and books have apparently been written in the United States on Henri Wirz. It is a reality in Swiss public opinion and Swiss international legal culture of today as well. Popular books on Swiss emigrants in the United States regularly contain a chapter on him. Karl Lüönd in Schweizer in Amerika, compares Andersonville to concentration camps in World War II. The book of Helmut Stalder Verkannte Visionäre, 25 Schweizer Lebensgeschichten (misunderstood visionaries -  25 life stories of Swiss) on the other hand cites examples of revsional reactions to the death sentence.
We first turn to the life of Henri Wirz and paraphrase parts of his biography as follows.

Henrich Hartmann Wirz better known as Henri Wirz was a Swiss born Confederate officer in the American Civil War. He is best known for his command of Camp Sumter, the Confederate prisoner of war camp in Georgia. He was tried and executed after the war, based upon military criminal law for conspiracy and murder relating to his command.

Henrich Hartmann Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland. He attended the University of Zurich. There is no evidence that he obtained a degree. Wirz practiced medicine for a time before he emigrated to the US in 1949 as many 48ers were fleing the Swiss Sonderbund war and revolutions of 1848 in the German states and elsewhere. Wirz established a medical practice in Kentucky, where he married a methodist. He then moved to Louisianna, where he had a successful medical practice.

According to his biography, Wirz enlisted as a private in the company of a battalion of Louisiana volunteers of the Confederate States Army in may 1961. He took part in the Battle of Seven Pines in May 1862, during which he was wounded and lost the use of his right arm. After returning to his unit on June 12 1862, Wirz was promoted to captain “for bravery on the field of battle”. Because of his injury, Wirz was assigned to the staff of General John H. Winder, who was in charge of confederate prisoners of war camps. President Jefferson Davies made captain Wirz a Special Minister and sent him to Europe carrying secret dispatches to the Confederate commissioners Mr. Masson in England and Mr. Slidel in France. Wirz according to his biography returned from Europe in January 1864 and reported back to Richmond, Virginia where he began working for General Winder in the prison department. In February 1864 the Confederate government established Camp Sumter, a large military prison in Georgia in a small location depot of Andersonville. In April 1864, Wirz took command of Camp Sumter, where he remained for over a year, Wirz was promoted to the rank of major. The prison suffered an extreme lack of food, tools and medicines, severe overcrowding, and a lack of potable water. Because of his personal behavior and his harsh discipline he imposed on the prisoners, he was much hated. He recognized that the conditions were inadequate. At several occasions he made by himself petitions to his superious to provide more support were denied. At the peak in August 1864 the camp held approximately 32’000 union prisoners, making it the fifth-largest city in the Confederacy. The monthly mortality rate from diseases, disentary and malrutition reached 3000. Around 45’000 prisoners were incarcerated during the 14 month existence, of whom close to 13’000 (28 %) died.

b) Summary

In May 1865 Wirz was arrested by a contingent of federal cavallery and taken by rail to Washington DC, where the Federal government intended to place him on trial for conspiring to impare the lives of Union prisoners of war. The military tribunal took place between August 23rd and October 18th 1965. It was convened in the Capitol building. According to the reports, it dominated the front pages of newspapers across the United States. Charges against him were for combining, confederating, and conspiring, together with John Winder and others unknown to injure the health and destroy the lifes of soldiers in the military service of the United States and for “murder in violation of the laws and customs of the war”. The 13 murders commited by Wirz personally were by revolver, by physically stamping and kicking the victim and by confining prisoners in stuck, by beating a prisoner with a revolver and by chaning prisoners together. All murders occurred in 1864. Wirz was found guilty of all charges except the murder in specification (4). In a letter to president Andrew Johnson, Henry Wirz asked for clemency, but the letter went unanswered. Right before his execution, an attorney working on behalf of Wirz, according to his biography, was told by a high cabinet official, that he wished to assure Wirz, that if he would implicate Jefferson Davies with the atrocities committed at Andersonville, his sentence would be commuted. Wirz communicated, that Jefferson Davies had no connection to him and to what was done at Andersonville. Wirz was hanged in November 16th 1865 in Washington DC at the Old Capital Prison, the present site of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was buried in the Mount Olivet Cimetary in Washington DC after presumably first having been buried next to George Azerod, a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln.

On the internet the users and readers can find detailed sources on the documentation of the proceedings leading to the capital punishment of Henry Wirz. The document at hand is the General Court Martial Order 607. The order contains the specific order for execution. The document contains the charges and specifications of the court marshall and the findings of the court. We add, that the accessible document on the internet, contain as well personal letters and diaries written by Henri Wirz during the trial and before his execution.

The editor thanks Professor Urs Gasser of Harvard Law School for his help to mine the internet for accessible information and documents on the trial of Henry Wirz

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.15_Court Martial of Henry WirzCharges and Specifications


© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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