Brig. General (CSA), John H. Winder, [provost marshal]

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John Henry Winder

Death: February 21, 1865 (65)
Immediate Family:

Son of Brig. General William Henry Winder, USA and Gertrude Winder
Husband of Elizabeth Winder
Father of William Winder
Brother of Charles Winder

Managed by: Samantha Marie Barber
Last Updated:

About Brig. General (CSA), John H. Winder, [provost marshal]

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.

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.


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.

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.

Time Line

February 21, 1800 - John H. Winder is born at Rewston, in Somerset County, Maryland.

1820 - 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.


John H. Winder was born in Maryland, where his family had been prominent for many years. He was a son of General W. H. Winder, commanding the American forces at the battle of Bladensburg during the war of 1812.

General Winder was graduated at West Point in 1820 and assigned to the artillery; he resigned in 1823 but returned to the army in 1827. For a time he served as instructor at West Point, and entered the Mexican War as captain. He was brevetted major for gallantry at Contreras and Churubusco, and lieutenant-colonel for gallantry in the attack upon the City of Mexico. He reached the rank of major in the regular army in 1860 but resigned April 27, 1861.

He was soon appointed brigadier-general in the Confederate army and made inspector-general of the camps around Rich­mond, which included for the first few months supervision of the prisons. He afterward commanded the Department of Henrico, which is the county in which Richmond is situated, and was also provost-marshal-general of Richmond, where his strictness created considerable feeling against him. In 1864, after the largest number of enlisted men had been transferred to Andersonville and many of the officers to Macon, he was placed in charge of all the prisons in Alabama and Georgia. Finally, November 21, 1861, he was made commissary-general of prisoners east of the Mississippi River.

He died February 7, 1865, it is said from disease contracted while visiting the prison stockade at Florence. General Winder's char­acter has been the subject of much dispute. To the last, President Davis, Secretary Seddon, and Adjutant Cooper declared that he was a much-maligned man. He was set to perform a task made impossible by the inadequacy of supplies of men, food, clothing, and medicines. Also built Winder Building in Washington, DC before the Civil War.


John Henry Winder (February 7, 1800 – February 21, 1865) was a career United States Army officer who served with distinction during the Mexican War. He later served as a Confederate general officer during the American Civil War.

Winder was noted for commanding prisoner-of-war camps throughout the South during the war, and for charges of improperly supplying the prisoners in his charge.

Early life and career

Winder was born at "Rewston" in Somerset County, Maryland, a son of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William H. Winder and his wife Gertrude Polk. Winder's father fought during the War of 1812, and he was a second cousin to future Confederate general Charles Sidney Winder.

In 1814 Winder entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, and graduated 11th of 30 cadets in 1820. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery, and served first at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, and then in Florida.

During the early 1820s Winder went through numerous transfers going from the U.S. Rifle Regiment in 1820, to the 4th U.S. Winder resigned his commission on August 31, 1823, and would be out of the Army for almost four years. Later in 1823 Winder married Elizabeth Shepherd. The next year his father died, putting him in a deep economic strain, and his mother was forced to make her home into a boardinghouse. Winder had failed to manage his father-in-law's plantation successfully, so he was unable to help his mother. In 1825 Winder's wife Elizabeth died, leaving him to raise their young son William and forcing him to go back into duty in the U.S. Army.

On April 2, 1827, Winder was reinstated as a second lieutenant, and he served in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He would be promoted to first lieutenant on November 30, 1833. He then taught tactics at West Point in 1837, where among his students was future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He lost his job at West Point after one year, though, because of a temper that he got with a cadet. Winder then became the 1st Artillery's Regimental Adjutant from May 23, 1838, until January 20, 1840. He was promoted to captain on October 7, 1842.

Mexican War

Winder fought well in Mexico, winning brevet promotions to major on August 20, 1847 (for both his conduct at the Battle of Contreras and for the Battle of Churubusco) and to lieutenant colonel on September 14 (for his actions at the Battle for Mexico City.) He was also wounded in the fight near the Belén Gate, which guarded an approach into Mexico City, on that same day. After the war he was promoted to major on November 22, 1860.

American Civil War

Winder chose to follow the Confederate cause and resigned his U.S. Army commission on April 27, 1861. He was appointed a colonel in the Confederate Army infantry on March 16. He was then promoted to brigadier general on June 21 and the next day was made Assistant Inspector General of the Camps of Instruction that were in the Confederacy's capital of Richmond, Virginia, a post he would hold until October 21. In addition to his duties involving prisons, he was responsible for dealing with deserters, local law enforcement, and for a short time setting the commodity prices for the residents of a city dealing with a doubled population. During this time he commanded Libby Prison in Richmond as well.

In April 1864, Winder appointed Capt. Henry Wirz commandant a new prison camp in Georgia called Camp Sumter, better known as the infamous Andersonville Prison. Winder commanded the Department of Henrico for much of the war, lasting until May 5, 1864. He then commanded the 2nd District of the Department of North Carolina & Southern Virginia from May 25 until June 7. Ten days later he briefly commanded Camp Sumter himself, lasting until July 26. Winder then was given command of all military prisons in Georgia as well as those in Alabama until November 21, when he was put in charge of the Confederate Bureau of Prison Camps, a post which he held until his death on February 7, 1865.

Death and legacy

Winder died on duty in Florence, South Carolina, of a heart attack in 1865. His body was brought back to Maryland and interred at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

The assignment to run prisons in the South during the American Civil War was a difficult job at best, hampered by the Confederacy's poor supply system combined with diminishing resources. In their post-war writings, some of the high level leaders of the Confederate government voiced the difficulties of Winder's assignment, saying:

...President Davis, Secretary Seddon, and Adjutant Cooper declared that he was a much-maligned man. He was set to perform a task made impossible by the inadequacy of supplies of men, food, clothing, and medicines.

During the war, Winder was frequently derided in Northern newspapers, who accused him of intentionally starving Union prisoners. Military historian Ezra J. Warner believed these charges were without merit, saying "Winder adopted every means at his command to assure that the prisoners received the same ration as did Confederate soldiers in the field, scanty as that allotment was."

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