Mass imprisonment and poor supplies at Andersonville led to horrible cases of starvation.  The War Department publicized photos of emaciated soldiers, giving Andersonville an infamous and enduring reputation.

Historian Arch Fredric Blakey wrote a biography of Confederate General John H. Winder, who was later blamed for Andersonville.  Blakey writes:

To rescue a villain from history – to overturn a historical myth – is a difficult task.[1]

William Sidney Winder (“Sidney”), one of General Winder’s sons, spent years after the war ended, trying to rehabilitate his father’s name.

Family life and the law

Sidney grew up in a slave-holding military family in various Southern towns.  After attending Columbian College near Washington, D.C., Sidney practiced law in Keokuk, Iowa, from 1857 to fall 1860, and then he was an attorney in Baltimore.

William Sidney Winder

Sidney’s family became divided as war loomed.  His father, a career military officer, wavered between remaining in the U.S. Army and serving the Confederacy.  Sidney intended to fight for Southern independence, and his older half-brother remained a captain in the U.S. Army.

After Fort Sumter, North Carolina seceded, and Sidney’s father, John H. Winder, resigned his commission “with great regret” and became a brigadier general in the provisional Confederate army.

Sidney also joined the Confederate forces.  He was promoted from 1st Lieutenant to Captain and Assistant Adjutant General, eventually serving on his father’s staff.

Prison administration

General Winder became inspector general of prisons in the Richmond area.  When hungry housewives broke into shops, General Winder helped President Jefferson Davis put down the Richmond Bread Riot.

General John H. Winder

Late in 1863, the prisons in Richmond were seriously overcrowded.  General John H. Winder sent Sidney to Georgia to locate a site for a prison for Union POWs.  That order led to the infamous Andersonville Prison.

Andersonville

Sidney and his father tried to build and operate a prison that was spacious and relatively healthy, unlike the horror that became Andersonville.  However, they failed.

Andersonville Prison

Conditions worsened when, in December 1864, the North refused to resume the cartel (the exchange of POWs).  Prison populations continued to increase, in spite of insufficient resources to feed, clothe, and care for them.

General Winder proposed that the Confederates parole POWs and send them home without exchange.  That would have alleviated the problems at Andersonville, but his superiors rejected the idea, calling it “worse than evil.”

General Winder died a few weeks later in on Feb. 6, 1865.  Sidney went to Richmond, planning to resign, but instead he was charged with guarding the Confederate treasury and archives after the fall of Richmond.

Guarding Confederate gold and archives

Sidney and eight other officers eventually reached the David Levy Yulee plantation in Florida on May 22, 1865 – twelve days after Jefferson Davis was captured.

Author Blakey writes:

The group decided to bury the archives on the Yulee grounds [and allotted] one-fourth of the gold to support of Mrs. Davis and her children; the rest they divided equally among themselves.  Each officer received gold sovereigns in the amount of $1,995.

The nine officers surrendered and were paroled.  Sidney eventually resumed his law practice.

Focus on POW camps

Even before Appomattox, historian Marouf Hasian Jr. writes, “Northern presses were filled with lurid tales of lurid tales of victims of dysentery, scurvy, and gangrene” at Andersonville and other prison camps.  Writer Susan Sontag writes that “photographs of skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed public opinion.”[2]

Since General Winder was dead, the logical person to blame for Andersonville was commander Captain Henry Wirz.  Captain Wirz was given a military tribunal and hanged.

An uphill battle

Sidney maintained that he and his father had never been cruel to prisoners.  He and an uncle struggled to clear his father’s name.

However, Union officials who controlled the captured Confederate archives did not cooperate.  Without original documents, it was impossible to refute Union accusations that General John H. Winder was a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Sidney spent more than 10 years in a quixotic quest.  His health deteriorated, and he eventually withdrew from the world.  He died on February 25, 1925.

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[1] Arch Fredric Blakey, General John H. Winder (Gainesville, FL.: 1990), xv.

[2] Marouf Hasian Jr., In the Name of Necessity:  Military Tribunals and the Loss of American Civil Liberties (Tuscaloosa, LA:  2005), 123; and Susan Sontag, quoted in Rea S. Hederman, Anthology:  Selected Essays from Thirty Years of the New York Review of Books (New York:  New York Review of Books, 2001), 106.