May 23, 2012

An unlucky general - General William Winder

In order to be a successful military command one must have skill to successfully lead troops and win battles; however, luck is also a factor. Unfortunately, William Winder was not the most fortunate commander during the War of 1812.

Winder was a prominent Baltimore lawyer before being appointed to command the Fourteenth U.S. Infantry. He led this regiment during the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek in November 1812. During this battle, Colonel Winder was ordered to send his men across the river to cover the American withdrawal. Winder sent part of his forces across when the British suddenly appeared with over 300 men. Winder’s force was seriously outnumbered and the men scampered back to the boats with the British in pursuit. The unlucky appearance of the British cost Winder almost 30 casualties.   

William Winder
After Frenchman’s Creek, Winder was promoted to brigadier general in early 1813; many had mixed feelings about this appointment. One contemporary described Winder as knowing “no more of Military affairs than his horse.” Others were more kind and commented that Winder would be “a tolerable good General” with more training. Despite some misgivings, General Winder took part in the successful capture of Fort George in May 1813. After the fort’s capture, General Winder, along with General Chandler, advanced to Stoney Creek in pursuit of the retreating British forces. The Americans set up camp at Stoney Creek on the night of June 5 with plans to advance upon the British the next day.

The British decided to launch a surprise attack against the American forces in the middle of the night. The British successfully silenced some of the American sentries as they advanced towards the American encampment. When the British opened fire the surprised American camp jumped into action. The Americans managed to recover from the initial surprise and began to create a stiff defence. However, fortune was not with Winder that night. As he redeployed his troops to protect the American left flank, Winder left a gap in the American lines as well as leaving the artillery unsupported by infantry. The British managed to exploit this mistake by routing and killing the U.S. artillerists. In the confusion, General Chandler proceeded towards the captured U.S. artillery not realizing he had walked into the hands of British troops. Shortly thereafter General Winder made the same mistake, but he managed to draw his pistol and pointed it at Sergeant Fraser of the British 49th Regiment. Fraser pointed his musket at Winder’s breast and exclaimed, “if you stir, sir; you die.”  
Battle of Stoney Creek

After Winder’s capture, he was eventually sent to Montreal to await exchange back to the U.S. The British were reluctant to exchange Winder since many British officers thought him to be a talented general. Winder managed to secure his release from British captivity just in time to be appointed by President Madison to command the newly formed military district around Washington. Winder’s unlucky streak continued with the British invasion of Washington in August 1814. Winder was not given proper resources for the defence of the capital and was unable to prevent the capture of Washington. After the war, Winder managed to survive a court martial and was discharged from the military in 1815.

Winder went on to continue his law practice in Baltimore when he died nine years later from tuberculosis at the age of 49. Winfield Scott described Winder as having the elements of a good soldier but no luck.    

If you want to find out more about Winder’s unlucky engagement at Stoney Creek, you can join Battlefield House in their 31st re-enactment of the Battle of Stoney Creek. The re-enactment goes from June 1 to 3 with a full list of activities. Don’t miss the night battle re-enactment on Saturday, June 2nd at 8:30 p.m. To see the full schedule of events, click here.

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