WIRZ, Henry (1822-1865), Confederate Commander of Andersonville Prison Camp. Autograph letter signed ("H Wirz") to his defense counsel, Louis Schade, "Old Capitol Prison", [Washington, D.C.], 10 November 1865. 1 page, 4to (12 x 7¾ in.), minor smudging of two words, otherwise in fine condition.
"MY LIFE IS DEMANDED AS AN ATONEMENT, I AM WILLING TO GIVE IT": THE COMMANDANT OF ANDERSONVILLE PREPARES FOR HIS EXECUTION
One of the last letters of Henry Wirz, the only man to be executed for war crimes following the Civil War, expressing his conviction that he has become the unwitting scapegoat for the horrors of Andersonville. Wirz, a native of Switzerland, came to the United States in 1849 to practise medicine, but when the war began, enlisted as an infantryman in a Louisiana regiment. After a wound prevented him from seeing further action, Jefferson Davis assigned him to a diplomatic mission and then placed him in command of Andersonville Prison. That Georgia camp was designed to house 10,000 prisoners, but after the U.S. government ended prisoner exchanges, its population swelled to 32,000. Conditions, not surprisingly, deteriorated. By the war's end, 12,912 Union soldiers had died of disease and starvation within the prison stockade.
Publicity about conditions within Andersonville caused a furor in the North. Although the situation in the camp was partly due to the general shortages afflicting the South, plus a lack of medical supplies and doctors, Wirz was charged with war crimes, convicted by a military commission and sentenced to death. On the night before his execution, he was offered a pardon if he would testify that Jefferson Davis was responsible for the deaths at Andersonville. He refused.
Here, Wirz writes his last letter to the lawyer who led his defense: "It is no doubt the last time that I address myself to you. What I have said to you often and often I repeat, accept my thanks, my sincere heartfelt thanks for all you have done for me. May God reward you, I cannot." Fearing for his family after his death, he makes an emotional request: "Still I have something more to ask of you, and I am confident that you will not refuse to receive my dying request: Please help my poor family, my dear wife my children. War cruel war has swept everything from me, and today my wife my children are beggars." In a final profession of honor and patriotism in whch the accused clearly proclaims the basis of the charges against him, Wirz concludes: "My life is demanded as an atonement, I am willing to give it, and I hope that after awhile I will be judged differently from what I am now. If any one ought to come to the relief of my family, it is the people of the South, for whose sake I have sacrificed all."
As Wirz was led to the gallows on November 10, a crowd of about 250 spectators taunted him with chants of "remember Andersonville." Asked if he had any last words, Wirz answered simply that he was being hanged for following orders.
Letters of Wirz are very rare.