The Wirz Trial: A Mock Trial Lesson Plan Examining the Laws of War
- Grade Level:
- Twelfth Grade
- One week
- Group Size:
- Up to 24
- National/State Standards:
- This activity aligns to the common core standards for ELA/social studies.
OverviewIn 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. You can request a PDF of this lesson by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In many military tribunals there is no presumption of innocence. It is often up to the defense to prove their innocence.
- In a military tribunal, Constitutional rights often do not apply, especially in postwar cases involving defendants from the armed forces of foreign military powers.
Suggested Introductory Activities
- Visit www.nps.gov/ande/forteachers and select one or more lesson plan activities to introduce your students to Andersonville.
- Request a copy of "Voices from Andersonville," a 30 minute introductory film to the Andersonville story
Have students read the page, "Case Synopsis"
Have students read the page, "The Laws of War: The Lieber Codes"
Assign roles to students. This mock trial has been designed to be flexible so that you can work with as many or as few students as you need. You can assign one or more students to each role and have them work as a group.
- Prosecution Team: These will be the students that will serve as the prosecutors for the military tribunal of Henry Wirz. You will need to provide them with copies of each witness statement several days prior to the mock trial, so that they can prepare their questions in advance. This role can be filled by one student, or can be assigned as a group task if necessary.
- Defense Team: These will be the students charged with defending Henry Wirz in the military tribunal. You will need to provide them copies of each witness statement several days prior to the mock trial, so that they can prepare their questions in advance. This role cane be filled by one student, or can be assigned as a group task if necessary.
- Witnesses: There are 11 witness statements, and 1 statement by Captain Henry Wirz. Historically, Captain Wirz did not testify, he only submitted a statement. For the purposes of participation in the mock trial, you could have him testify as a twelfth witness.
- Tribunal Members: In a military tribunal these military officers serve as both the jury and the judge. You may consider assigning one student to be the head of the tribunal. This person will make rulings on objections. Historically, there were nine members of the tribunal at Henry Wirz's trial. For the purposes of this mock trial you can assign as many or as few students to this role as possible.
Have students read the page, "The Charges Against Captain Henry Wirz." Remind students that these charges need to be considered in the context of the Lieber Codes
Conduct the trial. Depending on your class schedule, this could take 1-3 class periods
- Prosecution Opening Statements. Give the prosecution team five minutes to briefly summarize their case prior to calling witnesses.
- Prosecution Witnesses
- The prosecution team can calls witnesses one at a time. Have the students serving as witnesses take the stand.
- The witnesses do not simply recount their story. Rather, the prosecution team asks them questions based on their statements that will highlight the prosecution's case.
- Cross-examination by Defense
- Defense witnesses
- The defense calls witnesses one at a time. They may call new witnesses or they may re-call witnesses who have previously testified.
- The witnesses do not simply recount their story. Rather, the prosecution team asks them questions based on their statements that will highlight the defense's case.
- Cross Examination by prosecution
- Defense Closing Arguments
- Prosecution Closing Arguments
- Military Tribunal Deliberations - Have the members of the military tribunal go to a separate room and deliberate the case. They must vote on whether or not Henry Wirz is guilty or not guilty of violating the laws of war. For the purposes of the mock trial, the students can reach their verdict with a simple majority.
Have students read the page, "Conclusion: What Happened to Henry Wirz?"
Assessment & Follow Up
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.
- Have members of the military tribunal explain to the class why they reached the verdict they did.
- Have members of the prosecution team explain what they found easy & difficult about their case.
- 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?
- Did the military tribunal feel fair? Why or why not?
- Would Wirz have gotten a better or worse trial if it were held in a civilian court?
- Should leaders of an enemy army be held accountable in trials after the war is complete?
- What are the similtarities and differences between the Wirz Trial and Nuremburg Trials of 1945?
- Should military tribunals be used today to prosecute those suspected of violating military law or the laws of war?
- Should prisoners of war be afforded special care under the laws of war?
- Are there circumstances you can think of where a military leader in charge of prisoners could be excused for the mistreatment of those prisoners?
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. https://go.nps.gov/wirztrial
Witt, John Fabian. Lincon's Code: The Laws of War in American History. Free Press, 2012.
Last updated: January 18, 2018