Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Letters in defence of General Winder

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Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

If it could be proven beyond all doubt that the officers at Andersonville were the fiends incarnate that Northern hatred pictures them to be, there is not one scintilla of proof that the Government at Richmond ordered, approved or in any way countenanced their "atrocities." It is not, therefore, necessary for our purpose that we should go into any


And yet, as an act of simple justice to the memory of this officer, we give the following letters:

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Sabot Hill, December 29, 1875.

Mr. W. S. Winder, Baltimore:

Dear Sir—Your letter reached me some two weeks since, and I have been prevented by serious indisposition from giving it an early reply.

I take pleasure in rendering my emphatic testimony to relieve the character and reputation of your father, the late General John H. Winder, from the unjust aspersions that have been cast upon them in connection with the treatment of the Federal prisoners under his charge during our late civil war.

I had, privately and officially, the fullest opportunity of knowing his character, and judging his disposition and conduct towards the Federal prisoners; for those in Richmond, where he was almost daily in official communication with me, often in respect to them, had been some time under his command before, in large measure from the care and kindness he was believed to have shown to them, he was sent South to have the supervision and control of the large number there being aggregated.

His manner and mode of speech were perhaps naturally somewhat abrupt and sharp, and his military bearing may have added more of sternness and imperiousness; but these were mere superficial traits, perhaps, as I sometimes thought, assumed in a manner to disguise the real gentleness and kindness of his nature.

I thought him marked by real humanity towards the weak and helpless—such as women and children, for instance—by that spirit of protection and defence which distinguished the really gallant soldier.

To me he always expressed sympathy, and manifested a strong desire to provide for the wants and comforts of the prisoners under his charge. Very frequently, from the urgency of his claims in behalf of the prisoners while in Richmond, controversies would arise between him and the Commissary-General, which were submitted to me by them in person for my decision, and I was struck by his earnestness and zeal in claiming the fullest supplies the law of the Confederacy allowed or gave color of claim to. This law required prisoners to have the allowance provided for our own soldiers in the field, and constituted the guide to the settlement of such questions. Strict injunctions were invariably given from the Department for the observance of this law, both then and afterwards, in the South, and no departure was to be tolerated from it except under the direst straits of self-defence. Your father was ever resolved, as far as his authority allowed, to act upon and enforce the rule in behalf of the prisoners.

When sent South I know he was most solicitous in regard to all arrangements for salubrity and convenience of location for the military prisons, and for all means that could facilitate the supplies and comforts of the prisoners, and promote their health and preservation. That afterwards great sufferings were endured by the prisoners in the South was among the saddest necessities of the war; but they were due, in a large measure, to the cessation of exchange, which forced the crowding of numbers never contemplated in the limited prison bounds which could be considered safe in the South, to the increasing danger of attack on such places, which made Southern authorities and commanders hostile to the establishment of additional prisons in convenient localities, and to the daily increasing straits and deficiencies of supplies of the Confederate Government, and not to the want of sympathy or humanity on the part of your father, or his most earnest efforts to obviate and relieve the inevitable evils that oppressed the unfortunate prisoners. I know their sad case, and his impotency to remedy it caused him keen anguish and distress.

Amid the passions and outraged feelings yet surviving our terrible struggle, it may be hard still to have justice awarded to the true merits and noble qualities of your father, but in future and happier times I doubt not all mists of error obscuring his name and fame will be swept away under the light of impartial investigation, and he will be honored and revered, as he ought to be, among the most faithful patriots and gallant soldiers of the Southern Confederacy.

Very truly yours,
James A. Seddon.


Montreal, 20th June, 1867.

My Dear Sir—  *  *  *  I have never doubted that all had been done for the comfort and preservation of the prisoners at Andersonville that the circumstances rendered possible. General Winder I had known from my first entrance into the United States army as a gallant soldier and an honorable gentleman. Cruelty to those in his power, defenceless and sick men, was inconsistent with the character of either a soldier or a gentleman. I was always, therefore, confident that the charge was unjustly imputed. * * * The efforts made to exchange the prisoners may be found in the published reports of our Commissioner of Exchanges, and they were referred to in several of my messages to the Confederate Congress. They show the anxiety felt on our part to relieve the captives on both sides of the sufferings incident to imprisonment, and how that humane purpose was obstructed by the enemy in disregard of the cartel which had been agreed upon.  *   *   *   *

I am, very respectfully and truly, yours,

Jefferson Davis.

To R. R. Stevenson, Stewiacke, N. S.}}

Special attention is called to the following from the venerable Adjutant-General of the Confederacy, whose endorsement upon the report of Colonel Chandler has been as widely copied (and perverted) as the reported action of Mr. Seddon "indignantly removing General Winder:"


Alexandria, Va., July 9, 1871.

Dear Sir—  *  *  *  I can, however, with perfect truth declare as my conviction that General Winder, who had the control of the Northern prisoners, was an honest, upright and humane gentleman, and as such I had known him for many years. He had the reputation in the Confederacy of treating the prisoners confided to his general supervision with great kindness and consideration, and fully possessed the confidence of the Government, which would not have been the case had he adopted a different course of action toward them; and this was exemplified by his assignment to Andersonville by the special direction of the President. Both the President and Secretary of War always manifested great anxiety that the prisoners should be kindly treated and amply provided with food to the extent of our means, and they both used their best means and exertions to these ends.

Yours, truly,
S. Cooper.

To Dr. R. R. Stevenson, Stewiacke, Nova Scotia.

The two following letters need no comment, except to call attention to the fact that General Beauregard's call for the prisoners was avowedly in retaliation for General Sherman's previous course, and that General Winder's refusal to fill the requisition is a most significant refutation of the charge of brutality to prisoners made against him:

Alexandria, April 3, 1868.

My Dear Captain—Yours of the 2d has been received, and in reply I beg leave to say that I have no copies of the letters and orders referred to, but I have an entry in my journal of the date of the 9th of January, 1865, whilst headquarters were at Montgomery, Alabama. The entry is substantially as follows: "In pursuance of orders, I addressed a letter to General Winder, requesting him to turn over thirty Federal prisoners to Major Hottle, quartermaster, for the purpose of taking out sub-terra shells and torpedoes from the cuts in the West Point and Atlanta railroad. Shortly afterwards I received from General Winder a reply, stating that he could not comply with the request, as it would not only violate the orders of the War Department, but would be in contravention of the laws and usages of war."

I have no objection to your using this information on such occasions and terms as you may deem proper for the vindication of your father, but I would suggest this consideration: that a public use in the present heated and embittered condition of political affairs would result in no practical use, and might possibly create unnecessary prejudice against those now living and to Southern interests.

Very truly, yours,
George W. Brent.

New Orleans, February 15, 1876.

My Dear Sir—I regret to find from your letter of inquiry, that General Sherman seeks to extenuate one of those violations of the rules of civilized warfare, which characterized his campaign through Georgia and South Carolina, by the easily refuted slander upon the Confederate army to which you call my attention, namely: That in his employment of Confederate prisoners during that campaign to search and dig up torpedoes, he acted "only in retaliation" for the like employment of Federal prisoners by Confederate commanders—an assertion reckless even for General Sherman, whose heedlessness of what he writes and speaks was notorious before the appearance of his "Memoirs."

I myself can recall no occasion when Federal prisoners were or could have been employed, as alleged by that General, even had it been legitimate, and not a shocking inhumanity, to do so; that is to say, I do not believe General Sherman can specify, with date, any place that came into possession of the Confederates during the war, where torpedoes were planted, which they had to remove either by resort to the use of Federal prisoners or any other means. There certainly was never such a place or occasion in the departments which I commanded.

I recollect distinctly, however, learning immediately after the fall of Savannah, that General Sherman himself had put Confederate prisoners to this extraordinary use in his approach to that city, as also at the capture of Fort McAlister, and I thereupon made, through my Chief of Staff, Colonel G. W. Brent, a requisition on our Commissary of Prisoners of War, General Winder, for a detachment of Federal prisoners to be employed in retaliation, should the occasion occur. I further recollect that your brother answered that, under his instructions from the Confederate War Department, he could not comply; also that, in his belief, prisoners could not rightfully be so employed.

That General Sherman, as I had heard at the time, did so employ his prisoners, stands of record at page 194, vol. 2, of his Memoirs: "On the 8th (December, 1864), as I rode along, I found the column turned out of the main road, marching through the fields. Close by, on the corner of a fence, was a group of men standing around a handsome young officer whose foot had been blown to pieces by a torpedo planted in the road.  *   *   *  He told me that he was riding along with the rest of his brigade staff of the Seventeenth corps, when a torpedo, trodden on by his horse, had exploded, killing the horse and literally blowing off all the flesh from one of his legs. I saw the terrible wound, and made full inquiry into the facts. There had been no resistance at that point; nothing to give warning of the danger; the Rebels had planted eight-inch shells in the road with friction matches to explode them by being trodden on. This was no war, but murder, and it made me very angry. I immediately ordered a lot of Rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost guard with picks and shovels, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode or discover and dig them up. They begged hard, but I reiterated the order, and could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode at each step, but they found no other till near Fort McAllister."

Here we have his own confession that he pushed a mass of unarmed men, prisoners of war, ahead of his column to explode torpedoes, which he apprehended were planted in the approaches to a strongly fortified position, his ability to carry which he greatly doubted, as may be seen from his "Memoirs." He does not there pretend that he acted "in retaliation" at all, but because, forsooth, he was "angry" that one of his officers had been badly wounded by a torpedo which had been planted in his path "without giving warning of danger!" Surely his own narrative, with its painful levity, gives as bad a hue to the affair as General Sherman's worst enemies could desire. It remains to be said that he omits mention of another instance of this unwarrantable employment of prisoners of war. After General Hazen (on December 13) had handsomely assaulted and carried Fort McAllister, General Sherman, in person, ordered the Confederate engineer officer of the fort, with men of that garrison then prisoners, to remove all the torpedoes in front of the fort which might remain unexploded; gallant soldiers who, under their commander, Major G. W. Anderson, had "only succumbed as each man was individually overpowered." (General Hazen's official report). Major Anderson, in his report, says: "This hazardous duty (removal of the torpedoes) was performed without injury to any one; but it appearing to me as an unwarrantable and improper treatment of prisoners of war, I have thought it right to refer to it in this report." General Sherman might with equal right have pushed a body of prisoners in front of an assaulting column to serve as a gabion-roller.

His manner of relating the incidents, which I have quoted in his own words, is calculated to give the impression that the use of the torpedoes is something so abhorrent in regular warfare that he could subject his unarmed prisoners to the hazard of exploding them and deserve credit for the act! A strange obliquity in the general-in-chief of an army which has, at the present moment, a special torpedo corps attached to it as an important defensive resource to fortified places; in one who, moreover, was carefully taught at West Point how to plant the equivalent of torpedoes as known to engineers of that date—i. e., "crow's-feet," "trous-de-loups," "fougasses," "mines," etc.

For my part, from the day of the capitulation of Fort Sumter, in 1861, when, in order to save a brave soldier and his command from all unnecessary humiliation, I allowed Major Anderson the same terms offered him before the attack—i. e., to salute his flag with fifty guns, and to go forth with colors flying and drums beating, taking off company and private property—down to the close of the war, I always favored and practiced liberal treatment of prisoners. At the same time, however, I always urged the policy of rigid and prompt retaliation, at all cost, for every clear infraction of the settled laws of war; for history shows it to be the only effectual method of recalling an enemy from inhuman courses. Washington never hesitated to apply the painful remedy during our Revolutionary war.

I am yours, most truly,
G. T. Beauregard.

W. H. Winder, Esq., New York, N. Y.}}