John H. Winder (1800–1865)


John H. Winder was a Confederate general who served as provost marshal of Richmond (1862–1864) and commissary general of Confederate prisons (1864–1865) during the American Civil War (1861–1865). A career military officer, Winder served with distinction during both the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) and the Mexican War (1846–1848), but faced criticism from Union officials and, subsequently, historians for his management of Richmond’s wartime prisons and, beginning in June 1864, the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Described by his biographer as “short-tempered” and “aloof,” Winder was responsible for the Castle Thunder, Belle Isle, and Libby prisons when they became infamous in the North for their poor conditions. While he was at Andersonville, the mortality rate of Union prisoners surged as a result of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and poor rations. Winder’s defenders argue that he struggled with an inefficient Confederate bureaucracy and scarce resources, and that he instituted policies, late in the war, that reduced the number of prisoner deaths. He died of a heart attack in February 1865; his subordinate at Andersonville, Henry H. Wirz, was hanged later that year.

Early Years

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.

Richmond Provost

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.

Military Prisons in Richmond

  • Libby Prison Window
    Libby Prison Window

    A window from the old Libby Prison in Richmond bears witness to the days when Union soldiers were held behind its bars. E. L. W. Baker from the 21st Michigan Infantry, Company B, whittled his name and army affiliation on the upper left hand side of the frame. Rough Georgia pine encloses three flat iron cross bars in this prison window, which weighs about 300 pounds.

  • Libby Prison Interior
    Libby Prison Interior

    This engraving published in Harper's Weekly on October 17, 1863, shows an interior view of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, where Union officers were held during the Civil War. The rooms were only lightly furnished and generally open to the elements, with bars over the windows. Any officer who approached a window risked being shot by Confederate guards. Harper's credits the engraving to Captain Harry E. Wrigley of the Topographical Engineers, "who was several months in Libey Prison, and had ample leisure to make drawings and observations."

    The magazine also reports that the Wrigley portraits, in the upper left and right of the image, are of "Captains Sawyer and Flynn, the two officers who were selected by Jeff Davis to be murdered in retaliation for the execution by General Burnside of two rebel spies. The despot of the Slave Confederacy has not yet carried his threat into execution; but the sentence of death still hangs over the two officers, and must be hard to bear." Union officials responded by threatening to execute two prominent prisoners of its own, the sons of John Winder, provost marshal of Richmond, and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In the end, the executions did not take place, and in March 1864, Henry W. Sawyer was exchanged for Fitzhugh Lee.

    Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew lived just six blocks from the prison and although she was never able to gain entrance there, she bribed guards for various purposes, such as having prisoners transferred to hospitals where she might visit them. In several cases, she passed information to inmates using a custard dish with a secret compartment. In 1864, as the head of a Richmond spy network managed by Union general Benjamin F. Butler, she may have assisted some of the 109 prisoners who tunneled out of Libby. Fifty-nine eventually reached Union lines.

  • Libby Prison Artifacts
    Libby Prison Artifacts

    Three artifacts carved out of ivory—a cross, a stiletto (a pointed instrument used in embroidery) topped by a closed fist, and a ring—represent the handiwork of a Union soldier held at Libby Prison in Richmond. These pieces were made by Nicholas H. Boyce an Iowan who had been captured at the Third Battle of Winchester, for a Miss Sallie Barnett, perhaps a girlfriend back home.

  • Richmond Prisons and Hospitals during the Civil War
    Richmond Prisons and Hospitals during the Civil War

    A map of the Richmond warehouse district along the James River indicates the location of various prisons in pink—Castle Thunder, Libby Prison, Scott's Factory Prison, and Crew & Pemberton's Prison—and in yellow the hospitals designated for Union captives. This watercolor drawing was made by Union private Robert Knox Sneden, who was captured by John Singleton Mosby's rangers at Brandy Station in November 1863, and incarcerated in Crew and Pemberton's Prison (shown bottom right) that winter.

  • Map of Richmond Virginia. A.D. 1863.
    Map of Richmond Virginia. A.D. 1863.

    A pen-and-ink and watercolor map displays the street grid and major landmarks of 1863 Richmond. The city, which served as the capital of the Confederacy, grew from a town of fewer than 40,000 residents (more than a quarter of them slaves) in 1860 to more than 100,000 in three years' time. By the end of the Civil War population estimates reached as high as 150,000. Laborers, bureaucrats, war refugees, spies, Confederate soldiers, journeymen, prostitutes, gamblers, and speculators, all poured into the capital during the conflict.

    This map was based on sketches made by Union prisoner of war Robert Knox Sneden while he was jailed in Richmond. He shows the complex of prison buildings along the water at lower right (one of which he was held in), as well as Belle Isle in the middle of the James River where, the mapmaker notes, "10,000 U.S. Prisoners of War" were incarcerated. The industrial heart of Richmond is clearly delineated with its rail lines, mills, and the South's largest iron manufacturer, the Tredegar ironworks (located between the James River and the Richmond & Kanawha Canal), which armed and equipped the Confederate military for four years.

  • Castle Thunder After the Fall of Richmond
    Castle Thunder After the Fall of Richmond

    Union soldiers, a trio of barefooted children, and a young black man stand along cobblestoned Cary Street in Richmond, Virginia, in front of the infamous Confederate prison Castle Thunder. On the third floor, several men, perhaps prisoners, stick their heads through the barred windows. This image was made not long after the fall of the Confederate capital to Union forces. The Union occupiers took over the prison and used it to incarcerate former Confederates. Former Union prisoners claimed to have made off with the key to Castle Thunder as well as the immense dog, called variously, Hero or Nero, who had menaced the incarcerated soldiers. The May 19, 1865, edition of the Richmond Whig described the dog as follows:

    Hero is a dog about seven feet in length from tip to top, weighing nearly two hundred pounds. He is a splendid cross between a russian bloodhound and a bull-dog, and combines the faithfulness of the one with the ferocity of the other. We have seen him seize little dogs that came around his heels, shake them and cast them twenty feet from him. The stoutest man he would bring to the ground by one gripe on the throat, and it was always a difficult matter to get him off if he had once tasted or smelled blood.
  • Libby Prison Key
    Libby Prison Key

    The key to the main door at Libby Prison in Richmond remains in a shadow box at the Virginia Historical Society. This key was taken from the main entrance door by Union soldier Hiram G. Brandow, Company H, 4th New York Heavy Artillery, on April 10, 1865, just days after the fall of Richmond. An affidavit signed by Brandow accompanies the artifact.

  • Castle Thunder Prison
    Castle Thunder Prison

    A colored lithograph published in Washington, D.C., shows a brick industrial building in Richmond that had been converted into a prison during the Civil War. Known as Castle Thunder, the jail was first used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners, deserters, and those who opposed the Confederate cause; later in the war, it housed Union soldiers. After Richmond fell, Union military personnel took control of the prison and used it to hold former Confederates. This print was probably published shortly after Union forces had taken over the city and shows the prison located in a somewhat open section of town; in fact, Castle Thunder was set amid a crowded warehouse and factory district.

  • Belle Isle
    Belle Isle, Opposite Richmonnd, Va.

    The open-air prison camp for Union captives known as Belle Isle can be seen in this 1866 color lithograph printed in Washington, D.C. Located on an island in the James River opposite Richmond, Virginia, the camp became infamous for its mistreatment of prisoners, who were housed in tents and had to withstand blistering heat in the summer and bitter cold in the winter. The prison's primitive and unhealthy conditions made it a major source of Northern propaganda regarding Confederate cruelty to war captives. In 1864 the prison was closed, and in 1900 the Virginia Power Company bought the site.

  • Libby Prison Exterior
    Libby Prison Exterior

    In a photograph taken after Confederate forces evacuated Richmond in April 1865, men and boys—including a boy hanging onto the lamppost at center—pose in front of Libby Prison at the corner of Cary and 20th streets. In March 1862, Confederate officials converted L. Libby & Sons, a shipping and grocery company located in an isolated section of Richmond, into a prison for captured Union soldiers. Originally built as tobacco warehouses, the three-building complex was interconnected by inner doors.

    At first, Libby Prison housed Union soldiers of varying rank, but within several months only officers were confined there. Harsh conditions in the prison—including disease, overcrowding, and hunger—made it a cause célèbre in the North. Editors of the Richmond Enquirer, however, angrily refuted those charges, claiming that the Libby inmates enjoyed "sumptuous living" compared to the "poor and scanty fare" endured by their Confederate counterparts.

    In March of 1864, the Union officers at Libby were transferred to a new facility in Macon, Georgia, due to security issues and the scarcity of provisions in Richmond; nonetheless, when this photo was taken the following spring, the corner building still bears the sign "Libby Prison." After the war ended, federal authorities used the buildings to incarcerate former Confederates.

  • Belle Isle Prison
    Belle Isle Prison

    A rare Confederate photograph taken in the field shows tents where Union prisoners of war were housed on Belle Isle, an open-air prison located on an island in the James River across from Richmond. The photographer, Charles R. Rees, took the image from a high point on the island; in the distance, at center left, is the Capitol.

  • Castle Thunder
    Castle Thunder (1865)

    Union soldiers stand outside Castle Thunder in this photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell in April 1865, shortly after Confederate forces evacuated Richmond. Russell was a famed Civil War and railroad photographer.

    A former tobacco warehouse on Richmond's Tobacco Row, Castle Thunder was used as a prison by the Confederates from August 1862 until April 1865. The prison was established to incarcerate political prisoners, Unionists, and deserters, but its use quickly expanded to include women, spies, and African Americans.

The greatest criticism, however, was always reserved for his supervision of the Confederacy’s prison system. From March 1862 until September 1863, he oversaw Richmond’s military prisons, including the creation of three institutions: Belle Isle, which housed enlisted Union prisoners on an island in the James River; Libby Prison, which held Union officers in an old tobacco warehouse; and Castle Thunder, also a tobacco warehouse, reserved for political prisoners. Winder struggled with the inadequate and uncooperative Confederate commissary to feed and clothe the city’s prisoners. While a prisoner-exchange agreement reached between Union and Confederate representatives in 1862 alleviated overcrowding across the South for a short time, the same conditions did not apply to Richmond. Because the capital’s railroads made it a crucial prisoner-transfer point, the arrival of thousands of soldiers for exchange only led to even more overcrowding. Accounts of the wretched conditions in Richmond by former Union prisoners filled newspapers in the North, and Winder’s name became an abomination.

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.


Andersonville Prison Cemetery

On June 3, 1864, Winder was ordered to assume command of Andersonville, located about 60 miles southwest of Macon, Georgia. By the time of his arrival, 2,200 prisoners from a population of 24,000 had already died. Winder sought to alleviate the overcrowding by enlarging the stockade to twenty-six acres, but his efforts were frustrated by the arrival of even more prisoners, so that by August the prison’s population reached its peak of 33,000. By the end of the year, the advance of William T. Sherman’s Union forces into Georgia resulted in the transfer of most prisoners, but not before thousands of more deaths occurred. Despite efforts to feed, clothe, and house the prisoners, Winder received much of the blame for the debacle.

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.

Execution of Henry Wirz

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.
John H. Winder graduates from the U.S. 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.
April 27, 1861
John H. Winder resigns his commission from the U.S. Army.
June 21, 1861
John H. Winder is commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate army.
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.
February 1864
Andersonville Prison opens about sixty miles southwest of Macon, Georgia.
June 3, 1864
Confederate general John H. Winder assumes command of Andersonville Prison.
July 26, 1864
Confederate general John H. Winder is assigned command of all Confederate prisons in Alabama and Georgia, including Andersonville.
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.
  • Blakey, Arch Fredric. General John H. Winder, C. S. A. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1990.
  • Bergeron, Arthur W., Jr. “John Henry Winder.” The Confederate General. VI (1990), 148–149.
  • Sanders, Charles W., Jr. While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
  • Sifakis, Stewart. Who Was Who in the Civil War. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1988.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
APA Citation:
Atkinson, Frank. John H. Winder (1800–1865). (2021, December 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/winder-john-h-1800-1865.
MLA Citation:
Atkinson, Frank. "John H. Winder (1800–1865)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (22 Dec. 2021). Web. 20 Jan. 2022
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