At 10:32 AM on November 10, 1865, a federal executioner released a trap door, killing Henry Wirz, the notorious commander of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Some claim that, moments earlier, Captain Wirz said, “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.”
As his body convulsed, then stiffened, hanging for 14 minutes, Union veterans and former prisoners shouted “HANG HIM!” and “REMEMBER ANDERSONVILLE.” The pro-Yankee New York Times noted respectfully that Wirz—after a “liberal” shot of whisky—faced death calmly, bravely. The Times correspondent catalogued Wirz’s remaining “earthly effects,” including some clothing, a Bible, and his cat. Then, the reporter proclaimed: “This is all there is left of him.”
Not quite. Henry Wirz—the only Confederate officer hanged after the war—left a complicated legacy that still polarizes 150 years later. To Northerners who accept the moral cleansing of certain Confederates—allowing General Robert E. Lee to be termed a patriot dutifully defending his beloved Virginia—Wirz is the exception. They consider the Swiss immigrant-turned-prison master to be America’s Eichmann, a brutal bureaucrat who oversaw a camp that oppressed 45,000 men.