Lesson Plan

The Wirz Trial: A Mock Trial Lesson Plan Examining the Laws of War

Courtroom scene

A newspaper drawing of the courtroom, showing Captain Wirz reclining on a couch.

NPS/Andersonville National Historic Site

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Grade Level:
Twelfth Grade
Duration:
One week
Group Size:
Up to 24
Setting:
classroom
National/State Standards:
This activity aligns to the common core standards for ELA/social studies.

Overview

In the fall of 1865, Captain Wirz was tried by a military commission in Wasngton, D.C. His trial, convition, and subsequent execution for violations of the laws of war represent a significant moment in the evolution of the laws of war.

This mock trial lesson plan has been designed based on the historic Wirz Trial transcript. The witness statements are selections from the primary source.

Objective(s)

At the end of the activity, the students will be able to:

  • Explain conditions prevelant at Andersonville Prison
  • Understand and apply the laws of war to a real life scenario
  • Evaluate the effectiveness and fairness of a military tribunal
  • Connect the military tribunal of Henry Wirz to those of the modern world

Background

Scurvy, dysentery, diarrhea, gangrene, small pox, malnutrition, and exposure to the elements killed nearly 13,000 Union soldiers at Andersonville during the 14 months that Andersonville was in operation, making it the deadliest place in the Civil War. After the war, the northern public was outraged at what occurred at Andersonville and demanded justice. They saw no reason that prisoners, who were supposed to be cared for, should die in such large numbers. The commander of the prison, Captain Henry Wirz, was arrested in May 1865 and was charged with violating the laws of war. In the fall of 1865 a military tribunal met in Washington, DC to hear his case.

Historically, in the trial of Henry of Wirz, the prosecution sought to prove a conspiracy between Wirz and the leadership of the Confederacy. Much of the trial centered on trying to establish a connection between Captain Wirz and key Confederate leaders, including President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee. Their hope was to prove that Davis & Lee had conspired with Wirz to kill Union soldiers at Andersonville, and could thus use that to charge both leaders. For the purposes of this mock trial, this conspiracy has been ommitted, and the focus is on establishing Wirz's responsibility for Andersonville in light of the Lieber Code, which was adopted in 1863 to protect the rights of soldiers and civilians in the Civil War.

Civilian Trial vs. Military Tribunal
Students may ask about how a military tribunal is different from a traditional civilian trial.

  1. In a military tribunal there is no traditional judge or jury. Instead, officers from the military make up the tribunal. As a group they serve as the jury, but also make judgements on procedural matters like a judge would in a traditional court. In any post war military tribunal, it is important to remember that the tribunal is made up of members of the victorious army, and the defendants are often members of the defeated army.
  2. In a military tribunal there the prosection team is part of the military. Therefore, tribunal members and the prosector are on the same side going into the trial.
  3. Military tribunals are usually concerned with violations of military law and the laws of war. The cases that are heard by military tribunals are typically major cases involving military procedure and responsibility that may not make sense to a civilian jury in a traditional courtroom.
  4. In many military tribunals there is no presumption of innocence. It is often up to the defense to prove their innocence.
  5. In a military tribunal, Constitutional rights often do not apply, especially in postwar cases involving defendants from the armed forces of foreign military powers.

Procedure

Assessment

For assessment and follow up, these are merely suggestions for discussion points with students. Feel free to incorporate these into assignments, writing prompts, projects, tests, or even just a class discussion.

  1. Have members of the military tribunal explain to the class why they reached the verdict they did.
  2. Have members of the prosecution team explain what they found easy & difficult about their case.
  3. The student playing the role of Henry Wirz can share their thoughts about the trial. Did they feel like they had a chance? Did it feel like everything was turning against them?
  4. Did the military tribunal feel fair? Why or why not?
  5. Would Wirz have gotten a better or worse trial if it were held in a civilian court?
  6. Should leaders of an enemy army be held accountable in trials after the war is complete?
  7. What are the similtarities and differences between the Wirz Trial and Nuremburg Trials of 1945?
  8. Should military tribunals be used today to prosecute those suspected of violating military law or the laws of war?
  9. Should prisoners of war be afforded special care under the laws of war?
  10. Are there circumstances you can think of where a military leader in charge of prisoners could be excused for the mistreatment of those prisoners?

Additional Resources

American Red Cross, Exploring Humanitarian Law Curriculum. www.redcross.org/ehl

Banfield, Susan. The Andersonville Prison Civil War Crimes Trial: A Headline Court Case. Enslow Publishers, 2000.

Cloyd, Benjamin. Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory. LSU press, 2010.

Futch, Ovid. History of Andersonville Prison. University of Florida Press, 1968.

Leonard, Elizabeth D. Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Kellogg, Robert H. Life and Death in Rebel Prisons. Hartford, 1865.

Marvel, William. Andersonville: The Last Depot. University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

The Trial Of Henry Wirz, 1866. http://go.nps.gov/wirztrial

Witt, John Fabian. Lincon's Code: The Laws of War in American History. Free Press, 2012.