Jane Singer is a Civil War author, researcher, and lecturer. She is the author of Lincoln’s Secret Spy: The Civil War Case That Changed the Future of Espionage and The Confederate Dirty War: Arson, Bombings, Assassination and Plots for Chemical and Germ Attacks on the Union. Singer’s work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the Chicago Sun-Times. A popular lecturer and Civil War research consultant, she lives in Venice, California. Her new book The War Criminal’s Son: The Civil War Saga of William A. Winder (Potomac Books, 2019) is available now.
Today in Salisbury Maryland, on the grounds of the Wicomico County courthouse there stands a plaque honoring General John H. Winder. At first glance, it is a benign record of a career soldier —”West Point graduate and instructor of cadets, veteran of the Seminole and Mexican Wars who joined the Confederacy in 1861. And eventually directed all Confederate Prisons east of the Mississippi.” The plaque makes no mention of General Winder’s infamy as the cruel commandant of Richmond’s Belle Isle, Libby and the controversial and tragic Andersonville Prison where thirteen thousand Union POWs died in a sun scorched, disease riddled stockade-turned-death camp that at its peak in the summer of 1864 bulged with over thirty thousand men. General John H. Winder was the father of my subject William A. Winder, the sole member of the Winder clan to remain with the Union and who suffered accusations of disloyalty throughout his time as commandant of Alcatraz Prison in large part because he was a Winder. The Confederate branch of the clan—father, sons, cousins, uncles, aunts and grandmother—haunt the pages of The War Criminal’s Son.
The plaque caused great controversy and protests continued until days before the events in Charlottesville. Petitions for and against the removal of the plaque divided many. The protestors lost when the Town Council voted to keep the plaque in place without any accompanying information informing people as to just who General Winder was and that he was posthumously indicted for war crimes. A few yards from the plaque, among the many barbarities of the Jim Crow era, in 1914, an African American man was lynched. Unknown to most residents of Salisbury, past and present, in 1885, former slave-turned-abolitionist, orator and national figure Frederick Douglass spoke in the Courthouse. There are no memorials to these events. A new conflict is arising over the fact that NAACP members and many local Salisbury residents want those two important events recognized and memorialized. It could get ugly.
With today’s heated rhetoric, the veneration of the “Lost Cause,” the country-wide divisions apparent over the removal of Confederate monuments have made many determined to honor the sacrifices their ancestors made no matter how divisive and dangerous the results have and might again become. These new conflicts are engendering the fear that we are in a “Cold Civil War.”
What was the truth, and should the story of General John H. Winder be recorded for posterity?
A precis seen here might illuminate:
This poor man survived Andersonville Prison. Newspapers said he’d been “Windered.” With John H. Winder posthumously indicted for war crimes—he died of a stroke two months before the war ended—and his subordinate Henry Wirz was hanged in his stead in the military tribunal that came to be known as the Andersonville Trial. Shortly before he died, Wirz bleated, “I was just following orders.” Those orders, of course, were Winder’s.
Imagine how William A. Winder must have felt seeing images like these as well as reading the testimonies of survivors reduced to shattered and diseased remnants of men they’d once been as they shuffled, limped, and were borne on litters to bear witness to and later write about the horrors they’d endured.
It was impossible for William A. to escape the northern press repeatedly calling his father the devil incarnate, a beast, an inhuman fiend … on an on. For years. Notably, the “I was just following orders” defense oozed its way to the Nuremberg trials and illuminated the principle or justification of command responsibility.