From Switzerland to Rowan to clear Wirz name from Civil War

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 23, 2011

By Mark Wineka
For the past 20 years, Heinrich L. Wirz of Bremgarten, Switzerland, has made it a personal quest to learn as much as he can of an ancestor who became an infamous figure in the American Civil War.
In roughly a dozen trips to the United States, including his three-week visit this month, Wirz has collected a wealth of information that increasingly persuades him that Capt. Henry Wirz, commandant of the Andersonville (Ga.) Confederate Prison at war’s end, was unjustly executed.
“I do not blame anybody for all of this,” the 75-year-old Wirz said Wednesday during a visit to Salisbury. “My mission (is) to find the truth and give justice to my great-grand uncle … to take away the stain of the name on our own family.
“I’m especially touched with this.”
The Andersonville Confederate Prison was even more notorious than Salisbury’s in that 12,913 of 45,000 Union prisoners died there of starvation, dysentery and disease.
Estimates of the number of prisoners (and others) who died in Salisbury have varied wildly through the years. The best guess historians give today is between 4,000 and 5,000 dead, which led to the U.S. government’s establishment in 1870 of the Salisbury National Cemetery.
Part of the cemetery takes in the trenches of prisoners who were buried in mass graves.
After the Civil War, Captain Wirz was court-martialed on charges of conspiracy and murder, tried in Washington, sentenced to death by a military commission and hanged on Nov. 10, 1865.
He is often described as the only Confederate official to be tried, convicted and executed for war crimes resulting from the Civil War.
The present-day Heinrich Wirz has found “so many descriptions” about his ancestor’s trial suggesting it was a kangaroo court, he says. Captain Wirz proved to be a scapegoat of sorts, especially with the lingering Northern outrage over the assassination of President Lincoln, Heinrich Wirz adds.
He also cites evidence that the night before he was hanged, Captain Wirz was offered a pardon if he would implicate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and testify that he ordered Wirz to mistreat prisoners.
Wirz refused and was hanged in sight of the U.S. Capitol building. He is buried in Washington’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, a place Heinrich Wirz has visited many times, often for memorial services conducted by organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Wirz is a retired colonel in the Swiss Army, a writer in defense and military affairs and a self-described “independent parliamentary journalist.” He started out compiling information on Capt. Henry Wirz for a family history and a brochure on federal military history.
But now that his notebook of documents exceeds 170 pages, Wirz realizes he probably should be considering a book, with an English translation. Beyond that, he would like to see Capt. Henry Wirz someday receive a presidential pardon, or have a military commission posthumously reverse his ancestor’s conviction.
Wirz came to Salisbury Wednesday with a lawyerly young assistant, Florian A. Strahm, who will be taking his bar exam in Switzerland later this year.
They have been in the States since May 7, expecting to return home May 29.
Salisbury held interest to them because of its Confederate Prison history and the fact that its commandant, Maj. John Henry Gee, was similarly court-martialed after the war on charges of murder and not supplying sufficient rations, clothing, fuel, shelter and water at the Salisbury prison.
Gee was tried in Raleigh, not Washington, and was found guilty only of “weakness in retaining a position when unable to carry out dictates of humanity.”
The Gee trial was held in February 1866, and he was released by July of the same year.
Ed and Sue Curtis served as Salisbury tour guides for Wirz and Strahm Wednesday. It was only several months ago, Wirz said, that he became aware of the Gee trial and discovered a book written about Gee by one of his ancestors.
Wirz couldn’t help but notice how the stories of Andersonville and Salisbury parallel each other in many respects.
“That’s what is striking,” he said. “The scene behind the scene and the similarities.”
The original Hartmann Heinrich Wirz, who became known in the United States as Capt. Henry Wirz, was sentenced in his native Switzerland to four years in prison for debts. He served only one year but was banned from Zurich for 10 years.
An exile, he left the country for Russia, then Italy, then the United States, where he arrived in 1849. He eventually wound up a member of the Confederacy’s 4th Louisiana Infantry in 1861.
He rose in rank to sergeant, then captain. He served as an officer at the Richmond Confederate Prison and later as commandant for the prison in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Before becoming commandant for the Andersonville Prison, he also served as a special emissary in Paris and Berlin for Confederate President Davis.
He became commandant at Andersonville March 27, 1864.
“It’s a sad story,” Wirz says of his long-ago ancestor.
History has well documented the horrific conditions Union soldiers coped with at both the Andersonville and Salisbury prisons.
Wirz and Strahm left Salisbury Wednesday afternoon for Charleston and Hilton Head, S.C., where they hoped to speak with an attorney who wrote a 1986 article in which he described the Wirz trial as a national disgrace.
Other cities on the men’s itinerary include Savannah, Americus and Andersonville, Ga., where the prison site includes a National Cemetery and National Prisoner of War Museum.
Wirz also has made trips to Natchez, Miss., where local residents helped him to find the grave of Henry Wirz’s daughter, Cora Lee Wirz, in 2006.
He also has tracked down ancestors or information about Wirz in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
R. Fred Ruhlman of Pine Mountain, Ga., may be the biggest scholar in the United States when it comes to Wirz. He wrote the 2006 University of Tennessee Press book titled, “Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison: A Reappraisal.”
Wirz claims that Ruhlman, based on his research, applied for a presidential pardon for his ancestor in 2006.
Wirz, for one, is still waiting.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.