Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 74


On New Year's Day we were startled by the information that our old-time
enemy--General John H. Winder--was dead. It seemed that the Rebel Sutler
of the Post had prepared in his tent a grand New Year's dinner to which
all the officers were invited. Just as Winder bent his head to enter the
tent he fell, and expired shortly after. The boys said it was a clear
case of Death by Visitation of the Devil, and it was always insisted that
his last words were:

"My faith is in Christ; I expect to be saved. Be sure and cut down the
prisoners' rations."

Thus passed away the chief evil genius of the Prisoners-of-War. American
history has no other character approaching his in vileness. I doubt if
the history of the world can show another man, so insignificant in
abilities and position, at whose door can be laid such a terrible load of
human misery. There have been many great conquerors and warriors who

Waded through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

but they were great men, with great objects, with grand plans to carry
out, whose benefits they thought would be more than an equivalent for the
suffering they caused. The misery they inflicted was not the motive of
their schemes, but an unpleasant incident, and usually the sufferers were
men of other races and religions, for whom sympathy had been dulled by
long antagonism.

But Winder was an obscure, dull old man--the commonplace descendant of a
pseudo-aristocrat whose cowardly incompetence had once cost us the loss
of our National Capital. More prudent than his runaway father, he held
himself aloof from the field; his father had lost reputation and almost
his commission, by coming into contact with the enemy; he would take no
such foolish risks, and he did not. When false expectations of the
ultimate triumph of Secession led him to cast his lot with the Southern
Confederacy, he did not solicit a command in the field, but took up his
quarters in Richmond, to become a sort of Informer-General,
High-Inquisitor and Chief Eavesdropper for his intimate friend, Jefferson
Davis. He pried and spied around into every man's bedroom and family
circle, to discover traces of Union sentiment. The wildest tales malice
and vindictiveness could concoct found welcome reception in his ears.
He was only too willing to believe, that he might find excuse for
harrying and persecuting. He arrested, insulted, imprisoned, banished,
and shot people, until the patience even of the citizens of Richmond gave
way, and pressure was brought upon Jefferson Davis to secure the
suppression of his satellite. For a long while Davis resisted, but at
last yielded, and transferred Winder to the office of Commissary General
of Prisoners. The delight of the Richmond people was great. One of the
papers expressed it in an article, the key note of which was:

"Thank God that Richmond is at last rid of old Winder. God have mercy
upon those to whom he has been sent."

Remorseless and cruel as his conduct of the office of Provost Marshal
General was, it gave little hint of the extent to which he would go in
that of Commissary General of Prisoners. Before, he was restrained
somewhat by public opinion and the laws of the land. These no longer
deterred him. From the time he assumed command of all the Prisons east
of the Mississippi--some time in the Fall of 1863--until death removed
him, January 1, 1865--certainly not less than twenty-five thousand
incarcerated men died in the most horrible manner that the mind can
conceive. He cannot be accused of exaggeration, when, surveying the
thousands of new graves at Andersonville, he could say with a quiet
chuckle that he was "doing more to kill off the Yankees than twenty
regiments at the front." No twenty regiments in the Rebel Army ever
succeeded in slaying anything like thirteen thousand Yankees in six
months, or any other time. His cold blooded cruelty was such as to
disgust even the Rebel officers. Colonel D. T. Chandler, of the Rebel
War Department, sent on a tour of inspection to Andersonville, reported
back, under date of August 5, 1864:

"My duty requires me respectfully to recommend a change in the officer in
command of the post, Brigadier General John H. Winder, and the
substitution in his place of some one who unites both energy and good
judgment with some feelings of humanity and consideration for the welfare
and comfort, as far as is consistent with their safe keeping, of the vast
number of unfortunates placed under his control; some one who, at least,
will not advocate deliberately, and in cold blood, the propriety of
leaving them in their present condition until their number is
sufficiently reduced by death to make the present arrangements suffice
for their accommodation, and who will not consider it a matter of
self-laudation and boasting that he has never been inside of the
Stockade--a place the horrors of which it is difficult to describe, and
which is a disgrace to civilization--the condition of which he might, by
the exercise of a little energy and judgment, even with the limited
means at his command, have considerably improved."

In his examination touching this report, Colonel Chandler says:

"I noticed that General Winder seemed very indifferent to the welfare of
the prisoners, indisposed to do anything, or to do as much as I thought
he ought to do, to alleviate their sufferings. I remonstrated with him
as well as I could, and he used that language which I reported to the
Department with reference to it--the language stated in the report. When
I spoke of the great mortality existing among the prisoners, and pointed
out to him that the sickly season was coming on, and that it must
necessarily increase unless something was done for their relief--the
swamp, for instance, drained, proper food furnished, and in better
quantity, and other sanitary suggestions which I made to him--he replied
to me that he thought it was better to see half of them die than to take
care of the men."

It was he who could issue such an order as this, when it was supposed
that General Stoneman was approaching Andersonville:

ANDERSONVILLE, Ga., July 27, 1864.
The officers on duty and in charge of the Battery of Florida Artillery at
the time will, upon receiving notice that the enemy has approached within
seven miles of this post, open upon the Stockade with grapeshot, without
reference to the situation beyond these lines of defense.

Brigadier General Commanding.

This man was not only unpunished, but the Government is to-day supporting
his children in luxury by the rent it pays for the use of his property
--the well-known Winder building, which is occupied by one of the
Departments at Washington.

I confess that all my attempts to satisfactorily analyze Winder's
character and discover a sufficient motive for his monstrous conduct have
been futile. Even if we imagine him inspired by a hatred of the people
of the North that rose to fiendishness, we can not understand him.
It seems impossible for the mind of any man to cherish so deep and
insatiable an enmity against his fellow-creatures that it could not be
quenched and turned to pity by the sight of even one day's misery at
Andersonville or Florence. No one man could possess such a grievous
sense of private or national wrongs as to be proof against the daily
spectacle of thousands of his own fellow citizens, inhabitants of the
same country, associates in the same institutions, educated in the same
principles, speaking the same language--thousands of his brethren in
race, creed, and all that unite men into great communities, starving,
rotting and freezing to death.

There is many a man who has a hatred so intense that nothing but the
death of the detested one will satisfy it. A still fewer number thirst
for a more comprehensive retribution; they would slay perhaps a
half-dozen persons; and there may be such gluttons of revenge as would
not be satisfied with the sacrifice of less than a score or two, but
such would be monsters of whom there have been very few, even in
fiction. How must they all bow their diminished heads before a man
who fed his animosity fat with tens of thousands of lives.

But, what also militates greatly against the presumption that either
revenge or an abnormal predisposition to cruelty could have animated
Winder, is that the possession of any two such mental traits so strongly
marked would presuppose a corresponding activity of other intellectual
faculties, which was not true of him, as from all I can learn of him his
mind was in no respect extraordinary.

It does not seem possible that he had either the brain to conceive, or
the firmness of purpose to carry out so gigantic and long-enduring a
career of cruelty, because that would imply superhuman qualities in a man
who had previously held his own very poorly in the competition with other

The probability is that neither Winder nor his direct superiors--Howell
Cobb and Jefferson Davis--conceived in all its proportions the gigantic
engine of torture and death they were organizing; nor did they comprehend
the enormity of the crime they were committing. But they were willing to
do much wrong to gain their end; and the smaller crimes of to-day
prepared them for greater ones to-morrow, and still greater ones the day
following. Killing ten men a day on Belle Isle in January, by starvation
and hardship, led very easily to killing one hundred men a day in
Andersonville, in July, August and September. Probably at the beginning
of the war they would have felt uneasy at slaying one man per day by such
means, but as retribution came not, and as their appetite for slaughter
grew with feeding, and as their sympathy with human misery atrophied from
long suppression, they ventured upon ever widening ranges of
destructiveness. Had the war lasted another year, and they lived, five
hundred deaths a day would doubtless have been insufficient to disturb

Winder doubtless went about his part of the task of slaughter coolly,
leisurely, almost perfunctorily. His training in the Regular Army was
against the likelihood of his displaying zeal in anything. He instituted
certain measures, and let things take their course. That course was a
rapid transition from bad to worse, but it was still in the direction of
his wishes, and, what little of his own energy was infused into it was in
the direction of impetus,-not of controlling or improving the course.
To have done things better would have involved soma personal discomfort.
He was not likely to incur personal discomfort to mitigate evils that
were only afflicting someone else. By an effort of one hour a day for
two weeks he could have had every man in Andersonville and Florence given
good shelter through his own exertions. He was not only too indifferent
and too lazy to do this, but he was too malignant; and this neglect to
allow--simply allow, remember--the prisoners to protect their lives by
providing their own shelter, gives the key to his whole disposition,
and would stamp his memory with infamy, even if there were no other
charges against him.

John McElroy