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James H. Wilson

James Harrison Wilson
Portrait of James Wilson during the Civil War
Born (1837-09-02)September 2, 1837
Shawneetown, Illinois
Died February 23, 1925(1925-02-23) (aged 87)
Wilmington, Delaware
Place of burial Old Swedes Churchyard, Wilmington, Delaware
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service 1860–1870, 1898–1901
Rank 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 Maryland Campaign before joining Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army in the Western Theater, where he was promoted to brigadier general. 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 lines failed, when he was routed by a much smaller force of Confederate irregulars.

Returning to the Western Theater, Wilson became one of the few Union commanders to defeat Confederate cavalier Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Andersonville Prison commandant Henry Wirz in May 1865. Upon his death in 1925, he was the fourth-to-last living Union general from the war.


  • Early life and engineering 1
  • Civil War 2
    • Engineering assignments 2.1
    • Cavalry commands 2.2
  • Later life and wars 3
  • Works 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life and engineering

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

Engineering assignments

After the start of the Civil War, Wilson received promotions to second and 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. 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

Union Cavalry General James Harrison Wilson & staff

In 1864, Wilson switched from engineering to the 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 was 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 Gen. Ira Foster the Confederate mules, horses, wagons, and harness, for distribution to the poor, and Col. J.H.R Washington of Macon, was associated with Gen. Foster to aid in the distribution.[2][3]

On June 24, 1865, in General Order #31, General Wilson expressed appreciation to Foster and Washington, and relieved them of their authority, placing the task with Capt. R. Carter, A.Q.M., Cavalry Corps Military Division of the Mississippi.[4]

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

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.

He was a Veteran Companion of the District of Columbia Commander of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) - a military society of Union officers and their descendants. He was assigned MOLLUS insignia number 12106.

Wilson died in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1925, with only three Union Civil War generals living longer.[5] He is buried in the Old Swedes Churchyard in Wilmington.


  • 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)
  • The Life of John A. Rawlins: Lawyer, Assistant Adjutant-General, Chief of Staff, Major General of Volunteers, and Secretary of War (1916)

See also


  1. ^ Center, Jr., Clark E (2008). "University of Alabama". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Auburn University. Retrieved December 6, 2011. 
  2. ^ United States. War Dept; Robert Nicholson Scott; Henry Martyn Lazelle; et al. (1897). The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 631–632.  
  3. ^ Avery (January 2010). The History of the State of Georgia from 1850 to 1881, Embracing the Three Important Epochs; The Decade Before the War of 1861-5; The War;. General Books LLC. p. 338.  
  4. ^ New York Times. "The Cotton in Georgia.; IMPORTANT ORDER BY GEN. WILSON". Retrieved 26 October 2013. 
  5. ^ Warner, p. 568. Union Generals Nelson A. Miles, John R. Brooke, and Adelbert Ames lived longer.


  • 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

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