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 ain 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, andThe 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 , as well as arresting the numerous 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. ; 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-chiefhalted 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 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 presidentcreated 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.