John Henry Winder was born on February 21, 1800, in Somerset County, Maryland. During the War of 1812, his father, General William Henry Winder, led American troops to defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg (1814). According to John Winder's biographer, Arch Fredric Blakey, this devastating setback was a turning point for the younger Winder. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, that same year, resolved to redeem his family's name. He graduated in 1820, ranked eleventh of thirty cadets.
During his United States Army career, Winder served in the artillery, taught infantry tactics at West Point, participated in the Second Seminole War, and received two brevet promotions for gallantry during the Mexican War. He took a temporary leave of absence in May 1860 and resigned his commission on April 27, 1861. Winder accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate forces on June 21, 1861. Described by Blakey as "impulsive, stubborn, short-tempered, profane, and aloof," Winder nevertheless enjoyed a good reputation as an officer.
In October 1861, Winder was given command of the newly created Department of Henrico and then, in February 1862, was made provost marshal of Richmond, both of which made much of the capital's day-to-day management his responsibility. As a practical matter, that meant dealing with rampant prostitution, gambling, drinking, and speculation, as well as arresting the numerous deserters and spies who lurked around the city. Winder was frequently accused of not doing enough to clean up Richmond, and then accused of doing too much. In particular, he earned the public's ire for establishing price controls over the city's food supply in an unsuccessful attempt to control inflation, as well as for his frequent declarations of martial law. After a reorganization of his staff in November 1862, the clamor against him somewhat subsided.
During the winter of 1863–1864, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant halted the exchange cartel. He understood that the Confederacy suffered more for missing its prisoners than did the Union, but the official, more politically palatable explanation was the Confederacy's refusal to grant exchange rights to African American troops and their officers. Absent exchanges, the Confederacy was forced to feed, clothe, and accommodate its prisoners for the long term. As the war progressed and resources became more scarce, this became increasingly difficult. The result was Andersonville Prison.
On July 26, 1864, Winder was promoted to command of all prisons in Georgia and Alabama. On November 23, Confederate president Jefferson Davis created the office of commissary general of prisons and Winder assumed command of all incarceration points east of the Mississippi River. With his new power, Winder attempted to establish new prisons, reform old ones, and, in general, improve the quality of life for Union prisoners; however, the post came too late in the war for him to successfully implement any dramatic changes. The Confederacy was hard-pressed to feed its own troops, much less its prisoners.
Winder died of a massive heart attack on February 7, 1865, and his death likely saved him from the gallows. His subordinate, Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz, famously was tried and executed following the war, in November 1865. Historians, meanwhile, have debated Winder's culpability in the deaths of thousands of Union prisoners, both in Richmond and at Andersonville. On the one hand, the evidence suggests that although he was hampered by poor-quality prison guards, an inconsistent supply of food, and no central management of the Confederacy's prison system, Winder attempted to treat prisoners well and, as commissary general, greatly reduced the death rate.
On the other hand, some historians argue that officials for both the Union and Confederacy were culpable for deliberately mistreating prisoners, either through physical punishment or the denial of adequate resources. The records not being entirely extant, the total number of prison deaths is difficult to calculate; however, the common figure is that 30,218 of 194,743 Union prisoners died in captivity. While a 15 percent mortality rate is high, it mirrors a 12 percent mortality rate among Confederate prisoners—25,976 Confederates died out of a total of 214, 865 prisoners. And these soldiers died despite the North experiencing no serious shortages of food or supplies. Either way, Winder appears to be a figure caught in the middle, implicated by his responsibility for so many deaths, vindicated—perhaps—by his efforts to avoid them.
February 21, 1800 - John H. Winder is born at Rewston, in Somerset County, Maryland.
1820 - John H. Winder graduates from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, ranked eleventh out of thirty cadets. He is assigned to the artillery.
August 31, 1823 - John H. Winder resigns from the U.S. Army in order to become a planter.
April 2, 1827 - John H. Winder reenters the U.S. Army after the death of his wife.
November 30, 1834 - John H. Winder is promoted to 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
April 1847 - John H. Winder arrives at Vera Cruz during the Mexican War.
May 1860 - John H. Winder takes a temporary leave of absence from the U.S. Army due to an illness.
October 1861 - Confederate general John H. Winder is given command of the newly created Department of Henrico, which contains the Confederate capital at Richmond.
February 27, 1862 - Confederate general John H. Winder is made provost marshal of Richmond, putting him in charge of the Confederate capital's day-to-day management, including its three military prisons: Castle Thunder, Belle Isle, and Libby Prison.
November 21, 1864 - Confederate general John H. Winder is assigned the newly created post of commissary general of Confederate prisons.
February 7, 1865 - Confederate general John H. Winder dies of a massive heart attack in Florence, South Carolina.
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First published: January 29, 2010 | Last modified: November 2, 2013