Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Is a Wirz Execution Photo Misidentified?

Posted in Media, Technology by Andy Hall on November 10, 2018

A repost on the 153rd anniversary of the event.


Henry Wirz (1823-1865) remains one of the most controversial figures of the American Civil War. Reviled in the North for his role as commandant of the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, Wirz was tried in the summer of 1865 in Washington, D.C. and condemned to death. He was hanged on November 10, 1865, on a scaffold set up in the courtyard of the Old Capitol Prison (below), on what is now the site of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wirz continues to have many supporters, who argue that he did the best he could to care for the Federal soldiers imprisoned at Andersonville, with the very limited resources he had at his disposal. The Confederacy, they argue, had not sufficient means to care for its own population, much less enemy prisoners, and point to hard conditions in Northern prisons, where lack of resources was far less a problem, in response. They also point out that one of the key witnesses in the prosecution’s case against Wirz was apparently an imposter, who could not have witnessed the things he testified to under oath. Nearly a century and a half after his death, efforts are still being made to exonerate Wirz and restore his reputation.

This post isn’t about any of that.

Wirz’ execution was the subject of a famous sequence of four photographs, now part of the collection of the Library of Congress, taken by Alexander Gardner. The sequence of the photos, as indicated by both their captions and catalog numbers, is usually given as follows:

  1. Reading the death warrant to Wirz on the scaffold, LC-B817- 7752
  2. Adjusting the rope for the execution of Wirz, LC-B8171-7753
  3. Soldier springing the trap; men in trees and Capitol dome beyond, LC-B8171-7754
  4. Hooded body of Captain Wirz hanging from the scaffold, LC-B8171-7755

The four images were taken from three different locations (below). The first two appear to have been taken from the roof of the prison kitchen (Point A), looking diagonally across the yard where the scaffold is set up. For the image of Wirz’ body hanging from the beam, Gardner moved the camera to the left, and to a higher position to get a clearer view of the body in the trap (Point B). Gardner may have also wanted to frame his shot to capture the dome of the U.S. Capitol in the background. For the shot labeled “springing the trap,” the camera is again at a lower position, similar to the height of Point A, but still further to Gardner’s left (Point C), again with the dome of the Capitol in the background. Gardner’s framing of these last shots is not subtle.

Plan of the Old Capitol Prison, showing the approximate positions of Gardner’s camera during the Wirz execution sequence. The plan is undated (from here), but shows the facility during its use as a prison during and immediately after the Civil War, 1861-67.

After looking closely at these images, though, I believe that these last two are transposed chronologically; the third image, labeled “springing the trap,” is properly the last image in sequence, and shows Wirz’ body being lowered from gallows into the space below the scaffold. The evidence – and somewhat graphic images of the hanging – after the jump:

The “springing the trap” image (above) seemed odd to me because, given the limitations of photography at the time, it would be difficult to capture the motion clearly. Although the image is often captioned as having been taken “moments after” the trap was sprung, but there’s no evidence of the inevitable swinging or movement of the hangman’s rope. This is inconsistent with reports of the hanging, that say Wirz struggled over a period of about four minutes. (Compare the “springing” image with this image, also by Gardner, of the Lincoln conspirators immediately after “the drop,” in which the swinging of the condemned is evident.) Further, Wirz’ body is not visible, as it clearly is in the ostensible last image, “body of Captain Wirz hanging from the scaffold.”

So what does the “springing the trap” image actually show?

First, in the “springing the trap” image, the hangman’s rope has been backed off several turns from the cleat on the far post. Compare this with a somewhat clearer shot of the same feature from the first image, “reading the death warrant:”

In “reading the death warrant” (A), there are multiple turns on the cleat, to secure the rope for the hanging. In “springing the trap” (B), most of those turns have been taken off the cleat, allowing the rope to be slacked to lower Wirz’ body through the trap.

Now, compare details of the last two images, “body of Captain Wirz” and “springing the trap:”

In the “body” image (A), Wirz’ head and shoulders are visible through the trap, and the hem of his outer clothing – described as a “black gown” in contemporary reports — and light-colored shoes are visible below the scaffold. In the same part of the “springing” image (B), supposedly taken just moments after the drop, Wirz is not visible at all.

So what does the “springing” image actually show? Take a closer look at the space beneath the scaffold, after the image has been lightened to reveal additional detail:

Here we can see clearly the rope, Wirz’ hooded head and shoulders, and men gathered around the body was it’s being lowered from above. The rope itself has little or no slack, and the noose is still in place. At least three men stand by under the scaffold, at left, to handle the body. A white-gloved officer, likely from one of the two Pennsylvania regiments drawn up to witness the execution, stands by with his hands on the scaffold’s diagonal brace.

The Annapolis Gazette of November 16, 1865 describes this moment:

The body was allowed to hang fifteen minutes, when it was lowered and placed on a stretcher, and carried to the hospital, where it was examined by Dr. C. M. Ford, surgeon of the prison, Dr. Ensign, 18th V.R., and Drs. Notson and Bliss, who found that his neck had been broken. His body was placed in a coffin furnished by the Government, and delivered to Rev. Father Boyle, who received from the prisoner his dying requests as to the disposition of his remains.

Wirz was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington.

Based on the Annapolis Gazette account, in fact, we can know the time of the so-called “springing” image, because the paper notes that the drop was made “at exactly 10.30 o’clock.” The “springing” photo, then, must have been taken at 10:45, fifteen minutes later, and is actually the last image in the sequence, not the third.

Additional image details:

Closeup of the first image in the sequence,”reading the death warrant to Wirz on the scaffold.” Wirz himself is almost completely obscured in this image, sitting on a stool with only part of his right shoe visible, right center. The Annapolis Gazette of November 16, 1865 identifies most of those present on the scaffold. As Major G. B. Russell, Provost Marshal of the District of Columbia, reads the death warrant, Wirz’ spiritual advisers, Rev. Frs. Boyle and Wiggett (or Wiget), minister to the condemned man. At left, Captain G. R. Walbridge, in command of the Old Capitol Prison, confers with a taller man in civilian clothes, presumably Sylvester Ballou, a military detective assigned to act as Wirz’ executioner. The bareheaded man at right is not mentioned in the account. The guards are part of the Veteran Reserve Corps, assigned to the Old Capitol Prison. The time is about 10:20 a.m.

Closeup of the second image in the sequence, “adjusting the rope for the execution of Wirz.” Major Russell stands with his back to the Gardiner’s camera at right; the man in civilian clothes, believed to be executioner Sylvester Ballou, adjusts the noose around Wirz’ neck. This is the only image of the four with a clear view of Wirz himself. The time is about 10:28 a.m.

Lowering Wirz’ corpse to the ground, in the image originally captioned “springing the trap.” As a Federal soldier eases off the hangman’s rope on the cleat, an officer — probably Provost Marshal Russell — leans forward to grasp the rope. At the edge of the trap nearest the camera (in shadow), one of the pins used to render the trap safe until the time of execution. The time is about 10:45 a.m., November 10, 1865.



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