Linda Duyer: Book offers insights on Civil War family

The controversial Gen. Winder historical marker is on the county Courthouse lawn, even though Winder was born near Nanticoke in what was then Somerset County.

The son may be the focus of the expressive story woven by historian Jane Singer in her new book “The War Criminal’s Son, The Civil War Saga of William A. Winder,” but it’s the father who steals the attention then and now.

The war criminal of the book, Confederate Gen. John Henry Winder, was not born nor lived in Salisbury, yet a controversial historical marker about him decorates the Wicomico County Courthouse lawn. Nor does the marker adequately describe his role as leader of the southern prison camps, including the notorious Andersonville.

Gen. John Henry Winder, above left, was the intriguing father of Gen. William Winder. Both men are the subjects of a new book, “The War Criminal’s Son, The Civil War Saga of William A. Winder.”

But it is the son who shines in Singer’s sweeping tale of William Andrew Winder’s life, one in which William tried to follow in the military footsteps of his family but defied them when his Winder relatives left the Union to join the Confederacy. That choice resulted in a lifetime proving his loyalty to the country and being forcibly erased from the family tree.

It might be easy to shrug off this tale as just another case of a family being torn apart by the divisions of the country during the Civil War. But Singer notes that family divisions within the service of the war were isolated singular cases. The division in the Winder family was exceptional. “In all my years of writing about the Civil War,” says Singer, “I’d never heard of one man against an entire Confederate clan: father, half-brothers, and cousins.”

The most dramatic part of the book occurs when a courier delivers a message to William from his father, then with the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., with a distressing ultimatum.

The order was clear, Gen. Winder insisted his son resign his Union commission. The message indicated Gen. Winder would rather his son languish in jail or “suffer death of the most ignominious character” than continue to hold his commission and serve the United States in this War against the South.

Or, as Singer put it, “Resign, be jailed, or die: this from a father to a son.”

Not only did William defy his father’s orders, he went straight to President Lincoln to profess his loyalty to the Union. And from then on, William was forever fighting to prove that loyalty.

The Confederate Winders were well known from the District of Columbia to Baltimore, as was the history of Gen. Winder’s father for his failures during the War of 1812. William’s frequent requests during the Civil War to be ordered into combat were refused because of fears of disloyalty due to the proximity of his Winder relatives.

The Union Army settled the matter by distancing William from much of the war altogether. William was ordered to command the fort at Alcatraz in California. On the west coast he devoted much of his life following his military service as a physician, speculator, artist, and local leader, particularly in the frontier region of San Diego. He ended his life while working in South Dakota at the Rosebud Reservation.

William’s choice to defy his father came at considerable personal cost, separating him from his wife and son and severing his relationship with his Winder relatives.

William had married a northerner, Abby Goodwin, the daughter of a New Hampshire governor and strong Unionist who fully supported his son-in-law during the dark times William fought to prove his loyalty. And while circumstances kept William from his wife and son, the family seemed to understand what it was like for him to be a Winder and faithful to the Union.

Singer and the reader grapple over how William was able to fight the forces of his Confederate Winder relatives and why he chose distant estrangement from his family over proximity to the Winders who disowned him. The answers may be multiple, beginning with the early loss of his mother and the domineering and sporadic parenting of his father.

Different temperaments and values toward dealing with people may have been factors (William was considered humane in military service, as a physician, and in working with native Americans). Singer cites multiple sources which describe Gen. Winder as a bully as well as hated and feared during his adult life, whereas William was a kind man in stark contrast to his father.

The answer may be as simple as William spending a lifetime struggling however he could in an effort to distinguish himself from the powerful legacy of the Winders.

Gen. John Henry Winder.

Readers are left with a need to learn more about these families. Gen. Winder’s ancestors were indeed part of the founding of Salisbury, though the General had nothing to do with the city’s history. After reading this thoughtful book about Gen. Winder’s extraordinary son, readers may have the same experience as this reviewer, gazing at that historical marker and wondering if the wrong Winder is depicted on the courthouse lawn. 

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com

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