Excerpt: The War Criminal’s Son


The following is an excerpt from The War Criminal’s Son: The Civil War Saga of William W. Winder by Jane Singer (May, 2019).

Driven by Lincoln’s election on November 6, 1860, further irritating already inflamed sensibilities, ignoring the president’s pleas to “rely on the better angels of our nature,” and further enraged by his promise to contain the spread of slavery, uncountable numbers began massing in Richmond to swear loyalty to the newly formed Confederacy. Among them was the Winder clan.

First to go was Capt. William A. Winder’s cousin, Capt. Charles Sidney Winder, who had left the Third Artillery on April 1, eleven days before war was declared. On April 21 William A.’s father, Maj. John H. Winder, a hard-handed martinet with more than thirty-eight years of service in the U.S. Army, resigned his commission and went to the Confederate capital at Richmond. John H. Winder’s second son, William Sidney Winder—known as “Sidney” or “Sid”—and another cousin, Richard Bayley Winder, joined John there. John H. Winder’s third son, John Cox Winder, an engineer before the war, was first a Confederate captain, then a major “placed in command of Company A, Second Engineers,” at North Carolina’s Fort Fisher.

Noting John H. Winder’s arrival in Richmond, the War Department clerk and diarist John Beauchamp Jones took an immediate dislike to the “stout gray-haired old man from Maryland applying to be a general, . . . the son of the General Winder whose command in the last war with England unfortunately permitted the City of Washington to fall in the hands of the enemy.”

It was true that Gen. William Henry Winder’s failure to hold the lines at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, during the War of 1812 and his inability to prevent his troops from throwing down their weapons and running from enemy rocket fire allowed the British an undefended and unobstructed path across the Potomac into Washington. They sacked and burned buildings until they reached the White House, setting it afire. The “Bladensburg Races,” as the American rout was derisively termed, nearly caused the demise of an infant nation, and the defeat made Gen. William Henry Winder an object of scorn and suspicion and led to his being court-martialed. Although cleared, his army career was over and his reputation in tatters. His biographer notes that even his closest friends felt it necessary to refer to Winder as ‘that most unfortunate general’ of the war of 1812.” This was a humiliation for all the Winders, including the disgraced general’s namesake son William H. and his brother Charles H., but especially John H., who like his father was a soldier and who wanted desperately to restore honor to the family name by serving a cause the Confederate president deemed “just and holy.”

Born in Maryland on February 21, 1800, at Rewston plantation in Nanticoke (present-day Wicomico County, originally part of Somerset and Worcester Counties), John H. Winder was from a storied, patrician Maryland family boasting of judges, generals, lawyers, and a governor. He was a West Pointer, veteran Indian fighter with notable service in the Mexican War, a failed plantation master, and ultimately a peripatetic Third Artillery officer unable to rise above the rank of major in the U.S. Army. At sixty-one, too old to fight and too fired up not to, he was promoted to the much-coveted position of brigadier general in Richmond on June 21. Rumor had it that his old friend Confederate president Jefferson Davis had succumbed to his constant petitions, finally awarding Winder his first assignment as inspector general of the camps, a position that made him “responsible for overseeing the fitting out of soldiers for field duty . . . handling discharges, returned deserters and medical care for sick and wounded soldiers.” Six months later Winder “was given command of the Department of Henrico.” On March 1, 1862, he received his next post, as “commander of the Federal prisoners in Richmond . . . and Danville,” and it gave him sweeping powers.

John H. Winder, the man who would come to be known as the “formidable dictator of the Capital,” would see his career reborn in Richmond.

John H. Winder’s reign of terror began when, with a growing reputation for brutality to Union prisoners as well as his own people, he hunted down and incarcerated those suspected of disloyalty to the Confederacy—anyone deemed a threat to the government. Part of the crackdown on Richmond citizenry was first made possible by an earlier product of the Confederate Congress: “An act respecting Alien Enemies.” Pres. Jefferson Davis had proclaimed, “I do hereby warn and require every male citizen of the United States” over the age of fourteen and “now within the Confederate States” that if they should “adhere to the Government of the United States” and “not declare themselves a citizen of the Confederate States, they must depart from the Confederate States within forty days or will be treated as alien enemies.” Worse, if any alien left the Confederacy and returned to the United States (i.e., Union territory), they “shall be regarded and treated as an alien enemy” and, if made prisoner, would be turned over “to the nearest military authority, to be dealt with as a spy or [a] prisoner of war.”

With this dictate many innocents, suspected spies, and underground Unionists were later rounded up and jailed by Winder’s much-feared “force of civilian detectives,” composed of petty larceny detectives from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Known as “plug-uglies,” they were given free rein and “interfered intolerably with citizens going about their lawful business.”

With illegal arrests and the eventual suspension of habeas corpus when martial law was enacted, the fears of Winder’s police state becoming a harsh reality, and the price of food and dry goods skyrocketing, Winder’s biographer writes, “Richmond was a rather grim place . . . and Winder was blamed for much of the despair.”

William A., the last of the Winders left in the Union Army over this long winter of 1861–62, must have known that in spite of the “dragons” that summoned most of his family, surely there was comfort in knowing that his wife, Abby, and eleven-year-old son, Willie, might soon join him in Washington. Would the reunion be bittersweet or bitter? He was a Winder, after all. His beautiful, musical, and extremely competent wife—they’d married on December 24, 1850, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—was well aware of his family’s disloyalty. Perhaps she feared that her husband might be torn and tested by their defection and that their son might be ridiculed or worse by the stolid and solid residents of her home state—most if not all had voted for Abraham Lincoln. Abby’s father was former New Hampshire governor Ichabod Goodwin, a Unitarian, abolitionist, and passionate Lincoln man. As soon as war was declared and Lincoln had sent out the call for “seventy-five thousand volunteer militiamen to fight for the Union for a period of just ninety days . . . [Goodwin] set up recruiting offices throughout the state.” Volunteers—more than two thousand men streamed in—eventually made up the First and Second Regiments of New Hampshire. “Fighting Governor Goodwin,” who at first funded the regiments with personal and borrowed funds, thrilled to the sight of Union flags everywhere he looked.

With William A.’s blood kin rooted deep in the Confederacy, his father-in-law positioned as the sworn enemy of those kin, and William A. himself now squarely at the seat of war in Washington, he surely looked back to the days of dread before the war began, when it seemed he might remain at the front.  Possibly with his consent, Ichabod Goodwin and his daughter had decided to pursue a position for William A. as a paymaster with the Union Army. It was a plum job. Only a few were awarded the post, which required appointment by the president. At a salary of eighty dollars a month and the rank of major, paymasters traveled with the troops to the front, where they set up in mobile tent offices to disburse pay to the soldiers. Although armed, they would not be fighting with the troops unless dire conditions required their support; surprise attacks, friendly fire, or unforeseen emergencies could require a paymaster to raise his weapon. Surely the Goodwin clan would have discussed William A.’s plight with him in person or by mail. Would he too bolt south or would he turn his back on the Winders to remain with the Union? What would he choose to be—a paymaster or an artillery officer in the bloody chaos sure to come? On April 11, one day before the firing on Fort Sumter, the New Hampshire Sentinel reported, “Percival Pope of this state has been appointed a second Lieutenant and Captain Winder, a Paymaster in the army.” This article made it seem that William A.’s position was a fait accompli. It was not.


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