Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The 1865 Werze/Wirz Trial: "A Fresh Accumulation of Horrors!"

A couple of weeks ago, in a post about an 1865 baseball boxscore in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I mentioned in passing that there was also an article about the trial of a Confederate officer for war crimes at Camp Sumpter, a prisoner-of-war camp he commanded in Andersonville, Georgia, during the Civil War.

The man on trial was Heinrich Hartmann Wirz, who was better known as Henry Wirz. For some reason, The Inquirer spells his last name Werze throughout this edition of the newspaper. It would be interesting to know how that misspelling came about, because I can't find much other evidence online of that spelling being used. It's not even the most common misspelling of Wirz — there are some instances of his last name being spelled Wertz in the historical record.

So, anyway, I'll use Werze today, because I'll be quoting this 148-year-old issue of The Inquirer.

From August through November of 1865, Werze was tried, convicted and executed in Washington, D.C., for "combining, confederating, and conspiring ... to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States" and for "murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war."

You can read about Werze on Wikipedia, on an official report about the tribunal housed at the Library of Congress, and at

What I'm including here are three excerpts from The Inquirer's coverage of the Werze tribunal. It's a long article that features 10 headlines, including "A Fresh Accumulation of Horrors!" and "Further Details of the Rebel Slaughter Pen."

* * *

WASHINGTON, AUG. 28 — The Werze Commission reassembled this morning.

The cross-examination of Robert H. Kellogg was resumed by Mr. Baker. The witness said he entered the United States service on the 11th of March, 1862, and was discharged on the 1st of June, 1865.

Question — Were you at any other prison than Andersonville?

Answer — I was at Charleston and Florence.

Question — Was the treatment at those places materially different from that at Andersonville?

Judge Advocate Chipman objected.

Mr. Baker — I thought my question was a little out of the way, but that no objection would be made.

The Judge Advocate — This manner of cross-examination will not be tolerated. If the counsel persists, I ask for the enforcement of the rule that reduce his questions to writing.

Mr. Baker — The intention of my question was to show that the treatment of prisoners was equally good as that of other prisons.

Judge Advocate Chipman — That is a point of your defense, but not proper in a cross-examination.

Mr. Baker — The indictment charges Captain Werze with acting contrary to the laws and usages of war. This is the gist of the whole thing. No matter how destitute the prisoners were, or how much they suffered, if we show nothing was done contrary to the laws and usages of war, then this man cannot be punished, as we think.

Judge Advocate — The question is improper. There is no evidence as to the treatment in other prisons.

The Court sustained the objection.

The cross-examination was resumed and long continued, during which the witness said that unless men sent out to cut wood were strongly guarded, they would overpower the guard, and would have been fools if they had not attempted to make their escape; the proper guard for a squad of twenty men would be an armed corporal and six men; he did not know of his own knowledge that Captain Werze prevented men from going out to cut wood; he knew that the men dug a well with whatever they could get, such as half canteens and tin plates and spoons; the water at the wells was fair; there was not room enough to dig all the wells which were needed; the space was required for the prisoners; he never saw Captain Werze order or take away from the prisoners anything which contributed to their health and comfort; he thought the police regulations might have been better; on one occasion Captain Werze did him a kindness; he had been in the woods and had left his knife there, and Captain Werze was the means of his recovering it; he did not himself know, from his own observation, of any willful or inhuman act by Captain Werze.

* * *

Thomas C. Alcock was sworn, and testified that he was captured and sent to Andersonville Prison some part of December, 1864; on arriving there he was searched by Captain Werze, the prisoner, whom he now recognized at the bar, who took from him his belt, containing $150 in gold, $280 in greenbacks, a jack-knife, a breast-pin and gold ring, and his pocket-book; these were never returned to him; on one occasion a weak man asked Captain Werze to let him go out for some fresh air; Werze asked what he meant, and turning round pulled a revolved out of his pocket and shot him down, and the man died two or three hours afterwards; the witness spoke in condemnation of this act to Werze, who said he would put him in the same place; the witness replied he was not afraid of it; Werze then called a corporal and two yards, who put upon him a ball and chain; he, by gradually working at the ball and chain, freed himself of the weight and then made his escape; the man who was shot was named Waight, and belonged to the Eighth Missouri; the prisoners would sometimes get water from the stream or brook by attaching their vessels to the end of poles; while doing so they were often fired at with shell.

Cross-examined by Mr. Baker — Where did you get the $150 in gold? A. I captured it at Jackson, Mississippi.

Mr. Baker — And Captain Werze captured it from you. Had he not a right to do so? Answer — No. (Laughter.)

Mr. Baker — That's your opinion.

* * *

S.D. Brown, captured at Plymouth and taken to Andersonville, testified that one or about the 15th of May, 1864, having written a letter to his parents, and about to take it to the letter box, he saw a cripple, with one leg, who asked the sentinel to call Captain Werze; the Captain came, and the man asked him to let him go out; the Captain never answered him, but turning to the sentinel said, "Shoot the one-legged Yankee devil;" the shot was fired and part of the man's head was blown off, and he died in a few minutes... [snip]

Jacob R. Brown, a brother of the former witness, and late a prisoner at Andersonville, testified that one the 27th of July, 1864, he saw Werze in the sentry box when a man came beyond the dead line to get water; Werze ordered that he be shot down; the sentinel fired and killed him, the bullet taking effect in the head... [snip]

Mr. Baker declined to cross-examine the two witnesses last named, having taken offense at the Court. He said, "I desired that my relations should be amicable with the Court, but after what has taken place I think I can be of no further assistance to the prisoner by remaining here any longer. I had hoped the mass of testimony would have — (the Court, interrupting him, "Do you decline? what is your purpose?")

Mr. Baker — I must state that we leave the prisoner to himself.

The Court — We don't desire to hear you.

Judge Advocate Chipman — I should like to know whether the counsel have abandoned the case?


Mr. Baker — We do not, but leave him in the hands of the Court and the Judge Advocate.

The Court — Not another word from you; you are now a mere spectator.

Judge Advocate Chipman — I will try to adapt myself to the interests of the prisoner.

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