The War Criminal’s Son Cover

The War Criminal’s Son

The Civil War Saga of William A. Winder

Jane Singer

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2019, 312 pages

Book Review published on: January 24, 2020

Many individuals suffered from a crisis of loyalty during the U.S. Civil War. For many, this was a simple matter of state loyalty, a concept hard for most Americans to understand today. For others it was ideological, maintaining a belief in the abolitionist cause or in the rights of states versus federal overreach. But for some men loyalty was institutional: loyalty to the U.S. Army. In the case of William A. Winder, this loyalty would have tragic consequences.

William Winder’s father was John H. Winder, a U.S. Army officer who distinguished himself during the Mexican War. A Maryland native, John Winder chose to resign his commission and join the Confederate army, where he would quickly be promoted to brigadier general. Other Winders also chose this route while some remained in Maryland to try to sway the slave state to throw its lot in with the CSA, but not William A. Winder.

William Winder was stationed as an artillery officer in California, and more than distance placed him in the federal camp: he was married into a distinguished New Hampshire family. He would in fact personally swear his allegiance to the Union and to President Abraham Lincoln.

Unfortunately, in the hysteria following the secession of southern states and with so many southern-born Army officers going over to the Confederacy, William was a suspected Confederate sympathizer. Was his father not a Confederate general? A shadow of suspicion fell over Winder (who was now a captain), particularly when he was contacted by a messenger from his father, a messenger who actually turned out to be a double agent. The message? Escape to the Confederacy and join the rebel army. Or desert. Or commit suicide. Winder, however, did none of these things. For his pains, he was sent back to California to take command of the island-fortress of Alcatraz.

The concern over southerners betraying the Union was real. Brevet Major-General David Twiggs, a native of Georgia, surrendered the entire Department of Texas following that state’s secession, handing over twenty military installations, forty-four cannons, and numerous other weapons and equipment, all without a shot being fired. Secretary of War John B. Floyd conveniently shipped over one hundred thousand muskets to southern arsenals before resigning to avoid the incoming Lincoln administration, becoming a major-general in the forces of his native Virginia.

Then, Capt. Winder came under scrutiny again, this time in the local newspapers. Denied an opportunity to serve as a paymaster, denied an opportunity to serve as an officer in the Arizona Territory, and denied an opportunity to serve in the field where at least he would have some hope of fame and glory, Winder became a sad, forlorn figure. Certainly his position in California and the U.S. Army did not improve as evidence mounted in the east regarding Confederate treatment of prisoners of war under the authority of his father. Gen. John Winder, as provost marshal of the Confederacy, was ultimately responsible for the horrible treatment of prisoners, treatment which reached its nadir at Andersonville, where lack of food, water, and shelter took a horrendous toll.

Thus the title The War Criminal’s Son. There is no denying the conditions in some of Confederate camps, but there is little iron-clad evidence that the conditions were the policy of the government. Some of the “evidence” used by Singer is based on “overheard” conversations. In fact, the deterioration of camp conditions coincided with the deteriorating Confederate railroads, the deteriorating rations of Confederate soldiers, the deteriorating economy of the South, and the deteriorating worth of Confederate money. This does not excuse the treatment of Union POWs, but no documentary evidence exists that I’m aware of that the basic conditions were planned. In fact, the Confederate government sent inspectors to see for themselves if things were as bad in the camps as reported. At the very best, Gen. Winder seems to have been incompetent, at worst he was guilty of neglect. Nonetheless, Gen. Winder never faced charges as a war criminal. He died in Florence, South Carolina, while on a tour of the POW camp there, leaving Capt. Henry Wirz to face justice for the criminal neglect of Union prisoners of war. For this, Wirz would be hanged, one of the few Confederates punished for war crimes.

Following the war, Capt. William Winder resigned his commission and attempted to establish a financial foundation for his family in a mining scheme. Unfortunately, William Winder seemed to be born under an unlucky sign. This business venture and several others would never completely pan out, even as he became a respected citizen in his adopted state of California. Loyalty to the Union and becoming a pillar of society in San Diego never seemed to result in good fortune for William Winder.

Having read Arch Blakey’s book General John H. Winder, CSA, I was curious to learn more about John Winder’s oldest son, William. As the officer who ran Provost Guard in Richmond, declared martial law, initiated prohibition in Virginia, and ran a counterintelligence operation that missed most of the North’s reliable spies, Gen. Winder’s treatment in Civil War books varies, from doddering old fool to martinet, but none make mention of William Winder and what became of him. If nothing else, this book certainly presents the case that some people are simply unfortunate, regardless of the wisdom of their actions or the rightness of their cause.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. James D. Crabtree, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas