The unluckiest general

Creating this website has put me back in touch with things I'd forgotten in my research into Jake and Eli's world. I'd forgotten about how remarkably unlucky had been the career of William H. Winder -- "General Stallion," as Eli nicknames him. Napoleon used to say that, of all the characteristics he admired in his generals, the most important was luck. General Winder surely represented the extreme on the other end -- the unlucky.

Before the war, Winder had the reputation as a brilliant lawyer in Baltimore, and his father was a prominent Federalist politician who would become Governor of Maryland in the autumn of 1812. In March of that year, Winder joined the U.S. Army,  was commissioned lieutenant-colonel, and promoted to colonel when war was declared.

On November 28, 1812, he was involved in an American raid near the Chippewa River which became known as the Battle of Frenchman's Creek.  On a moonless night, a two-pronged American attack landed across the Niagara River to destroy a bridge and spike the guns in anticipation of a later invasion. Lt-Col Winder was in command of the reserve.

After heavy fighting, the raiders succeeded in spiking the guns, but the kind of bad luck that would dog Winder throughout his career could also be found in the soldiers sent to destroy the bridge: the boat carrying the axes had returned to the US side in the darkness.

The resourceful Americans found other ways to dismantle the bridge, but with Crown re-enforcements arriving they had to retreat before the job was finished. At that point, Winder sent part of his command across the Niagara River to help withdraw the American raiders. His timing was unlucky -- 300 British troops arrived, mauling Winder's soldiers badly before they could get away.

Over the winter, Winder was promoted to brigadier general, and he commanded the 2nd Brigade during the attack on Fort George, May 27, 1813. After the battle, he was ordered to advance as far as St. Davids, but the order was countermanded when another officer, Brigadier General John Chandler ("General Bull," as Eli describes him) claimed he had the right to the advance position because of his seniority. Such infighting was all to common among the American senior officers in the war.

Readers of Blood Oath will know that both General Stallion and General Bull had excruciatingly bad luck a couple of weeks later when they co-led the pursuit of the British forces as they retreated back through the Niagara peninsula. Part of their bad luck was of their own making. They set up camp in an exposed position at Stoney Creek and failed to post sufficient pickets to guard against a surprise nighttime attack.

And that's exactly what the British, under Colonel Harvey, planned for the night of June 5, 1813. In the confusion of the night battle, both Winder and Chandler stumbled into the battle lines of their adversaries and were taken prisoner by the British.

William Winder -- the prominent Baltimore lawyer -- must have cut an impressive figure and could readily impress his British captors.  He was sent as a prisoner to Montreal where the British were reluctant to exchange him because they thought him to be a capable and talented general. He was offered parole and, although he could not command until an official exchange had been arranged, President Madison used his services to negotiate with the British the system of prisoner exchanges, and his own exchange was secured in the process, effective April 1814.  

General Winder returned to Washington where it seemed that his stint as a diplomat may have turned his luck around. He was given command of a new Tenth Military District created to defend Washington and Baltimore.  Alas for Winder's reputation, that is where his luck found its nadir.  Today in the United States, he is remembered as the American commander at the defeat at Blandensburg on August 24, 1814, and is held largely responsible for the burning of Washington that followed. It was a military reputation he never lived down, but after the war, he did resume his successful law practice in Baltimore. 

A footnote to his career:  his son, John A. Winder, became even more notorious.  As a general in the Confederate Army, John Winder was put in charge of the prison system in the South.  He had direct responsibility for Libby Prison in Richmond, and for a time took over command of the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia.