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James Harrison Wilson
Portrait of James Wilson during the Civil War
Born (1837-09-02)September 2, 1837
Died February 23, 1925(1925-02-23) (aged 87)
Place of birth Shawneetown, Illinois
Place of death Wilmington, Delaware
Place of burial Old Swedes Churchyard, Wilmington, Delaware
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch United States Union Army
Years of service 1860 – 1870, 1898 – 1901
Rank Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Major General
Commands held Western Cavalry Corps
Battles/wars American Civil War
Spanish-American War
Boxer Rebellion

James Harrison Wilson (September 2, 1837 – February 23, 1925) was a United States Army topographic engineer and a Union Army Major General in the American Civil War. In the Maryland campaign, he served as an aide to McClellan, before joining Grant’s army in the West, where he was promoted brigadier. In 1864, he transferred from engineering to the cavalry, where he displayed notable leadership in many engagements of the Overland campaign, though his attempt to destroy Lee’s supply-line failed, when he was routed by a much-smaller and irregular Confederate force.

At the Battle of Franklin, he became one of the few commanders ever to defeat the legendary cavalry leader Bedford Forrest, helping to secure decisive Union victory in that campaign. Later, in Georgia, he had the honour of capturing the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Wilson was the fourth-last surviving Union general.

Early life and engineering[edit | edit source]

Wilson was born in Shawneetown, Illinois. He attended McKendree College for a year and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1860, sixth in his class of 41, receiving a commission as a brevet second lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers. His initial assignment was assistant topographical engineer of the Department of Oregon at Fort Vancouver.

Civil War[edit | edit source]

Engineering assignments[edit | edit source]

After the start of the Civil War, Wilson received promotions to second and first lieutenant and became the topographical engineer for the Port Royal Expeditionary Force, from September 1861 to March 1862. As the topographical engineer for the Department of the South, he took part in the Battle of Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River and received a brevet promotion to major in the regular army for his service. He transferred to the Army of the Potomac in April 1862 and served as its topographic engineer, but also as an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He served under McClellan during the Maryland Campaign and was present at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam.

Wilson was transferred to the Western Theater and joined Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee as a lieutenant colonel and topographical engineer. During the Vicksburg Campaign, he was the inspector general of Grant's army. On October 30, 1863, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, the only officer ever promoted to troop command from Grant's regular staff. He continued on staff duty during the Battle of Chattanooga and was chief engineer of the force sent to relieve Knoxville under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Cavalry commands[edit | edit source]

Union Cavalry General James Harrison Wilson & staff

In 1864, Wilson switched from engineering to the cavalry. On February 17, 1864, he was assigned as chief of the Cavalry Bureau in Washington, D.C. He was an excellent administrator and organizer, but his true talents turned out to be as a combat leader. Grant promoted him to brevet major general on May 6, 1864, and had him assigned to command a division of cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, which he did with boldness and skill in numerous fights of the Overland Campaign and in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. General Wilson's ill-fated joint adventure with General Brigadier General August V. Kautz was launched through General Grant's strategy of interdicting Robert E. Lee's supply lines to Petersburg, Virginia. If this could be done, Lee would be compelled to abandon Petersburg. General Wilson was ordered to conduct a cavalry raid that would destroy the tracks of the South Side and Richmond & Danville railroads, and to destroy the key R&D railroad bridge over the Staunton River. The raid began on June 22, 1864, with over 5,000 Cavalry troops and 16 pieces of artillery. During the first three days of their raid, Wilson's cavalry tore up 60 miles of track and burned two trains and several railroad stations. Confederate General W. H. F. "Rooney" Lee pursued the Union raid, but were ineffective. The audacious raid seemed to be wildly successful, though not uncontested, and the Staunton River Bridge loomed as the great objective. The railroad bridge was over a small but deep river, The Staunton. The Confederacy had sensed its strategic importance, putting a small fort there under Captain Benjamin Farinholt, and his 296 reserve troops. A valiant stand by local volunteers of old men and boys, with help from surrounding counties, gathered almost a force of nearly 1,000, which halted the 5,000 well-armed troops. Wilson’s cavalry fought the action dismounted. "Rooney" Lee's cavalry came up during the engagement's end, and routed Wilson's troops. There has been speculation that this damaged an otherwise brilliant career for Wilson. However, just before Sheridan's decisive Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, Wilson was upgraded to brevet major general of volunteers and transferred back to the West to become chief of cavalry for the Military Division of the Mississippi under Sherman.

As cavalry chief, he trained Sherman's cavalry (under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick) for the March to the Sea. Rather than accompanying Sherman, however, he and 17,000 troopers were attached to Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland for the Franklin-Nashville Campaign in November and December 1864. His repulse of a flanking attack by Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was instrumental in saving the Union Army at the Battle of Franklin; Wilson was one of only a few Union officers to best the legendary Southern cavalryman. He was promoted to brevet brigadier general in the regular army for his service in the Battle of Nashville. He led the successful Wilson's Raid through Alabama and Georgia, defeating the smaller force of Forrest and capturing Selma, Alabama, along with four other fortified cities. In this campaign, he commanded the troops that burned most of the buildings of the University of Alabama.[1] On Easter Day, 1865, his troops assaulted and captured the city of Columbus, Georgia, widely regarded as the final battle of the Civil War. His men did enormous damage to the military infrastructure of the South, but they did it with a sense of discipline that usually prevented looting and other collateral damage to civilian property. He was promoted to brevet major general in the regular army for his performance at Selma and received his full promotion to major general on May 6, 1865. In central Georgia, the cavalrymen under Wilson's command captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville, as he fled through Georgia in May 1865. At the end of the war, Wilson reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was assigned to the newly created 35th U.S. Infantry, but his duty assignments continued to be in the Corps of Engineers until he resigned from the Army in December 1870.

Later life and wars[edit | edit source]

After he left the Army, Wilson worked as a railroad construction engineer and executive. He moved to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1883. For the next 15 years he devoted his time to business, travel, and public affairs, and wrote on a number of subjects.

Wilson returned to the Army in 1898 for the Spanish-American War, and served as a major general of volunteers in Cuba and Puerto Rico. He also saw service in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 as brigadier-general. Retiring from the Army, in 1902 he represented President Theodore Roosevelt at the coronation of Edward VII of the United Kingdom.

Wilson died in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1925, with only three Union Civil War generals living longer.[2] He is buried in the Old Swedes Churchyard in Wilmington.

Works[edit | edit source]

  • The Life of General U. S. Grant, General of the Armies of the United States (co-authored with Charles A. Dana, 1868)
  • China: Travels and Investigations in the Middle Kingdom—a Study of its Civilization and Possibilities, with a Glance at Japan (1887)
  • Life and Services of Brevet Brigadier-General Andrew Jonathan Alexander, United States Army (1887)
  • Heroes of the Great Conflict: Life and Services of William Farrar Smith, Major General, United States Volunteers in the Civil War (1904)
  • The Life of Charles A. Dana (1907)
  • The Campaign of Chancellorsville (1911)
  • Under the Old Flag: Recollections of Military Operations in the War for the Union, the Spanish War, the Boxer Rebellion, etc. (1912)

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Center, Jr., Clark E (2008). "University of Alabama". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Auburn University. http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1678. Retrieved December 6, 2011. 
  2. Warner, p. 568. Union Generals Nelson A. Miles, John R. Brooke, and Adelbert Ames lived longer.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7.
  • Library of Congress biography of Wilson

External links[edit | edit source]

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