Destruction of General Lees Lines of Communication in Virginia by General Wilson

The Sons: James Harrison Wilson (1837-1925)

James Harrison Wilson's career in the five years after he graduated from West Point in 1860 was spectacular. He started the Civil war as a topographic engineer and worked on General George B. McClellan's staff before and after the Antietam campaign before transferring in November 1862to the staff of Ulysses S. Grant, where he worked as an engineer and inspector general He later joined Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana in Washington to organize the cavalry corps. He headed cavalry corps during the spring 1864 campaign toward Richmond, the December 1864 defense of Nashville and the 1865 campaign into Alabama. He also was in charge of the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the process, he also became friendly with Abraham Lincoln - with whom he occasionally socialized.

Civil War scholar Edward G. Longacre wrote: "Like [Philip] Sheridan, Wilson was a young man on the move - ambitious, impatient, outspoken, a stranger to humility and self-doubt. He had made a success of his recent stint in the Cavalry Bureau; up to the day he handed the post to his principal assistant, Brig. Gen. August Kautz, Wilson had tirelessly supplied Sheridan for the campaign ahead. He had showered the Cavalry Corps with remounts (35,000 of them just since the start of March), as well as with equipment, ammunition, and hundreds of Spencer carbines, the seven-shot repeater Wilson believed would revolutionize mounted warfare. He expected to achieve similar if not greater success in the field, leading thousands of Spencer-wielding troopers.1

Wilson (not to be confused with General James Grant Wilson) was a take-charge officer, the kind President Lincoln liked. Historian Bruce Catton wrote of the Tennessee campaign in late 1864: "James H. Wilson, the former staff officer who had fumed so mightily when the sailors failed to get their gunboats down through the Yazoo Delta swamps a year and a half earlier, was putting together a mighty force of mounted men, all of them to be armed with repeating carbines - but [General George] Thomas was not quite ready yet and he wanted time. He had sent John Schofield with approximately twenty-two thousand men down near the Tennessee-Alabama border to delay Hood and gain a little of this time for him, and for twenty-four hours it looked as if Hood might eat Schofield's force at one bite."2

Wilson's Illinois links provided him entre to the White House and he reported several revealing visits with Mr. Lincoln in memoirs. He recalled the visit of U.S. Marshal J. Russell Jones to the White House to deny General Grant's presidential aspirations. Congressman Elihu B. Washburne had referred Jones to Mr. Lincoln as the person with the best insight into Grant's character and ambitions. Jones told Mr. Lincoln: "I have just come from Vicksburg; I have seen General Grant frequently and talked fully and freely with him, about that and every other question, and I know he has no political aspirations whatever, and certainly none for the Presidency. His only desire is to see you reelected, and to do what he can under your orders to put down the rebellion and restore peace to the country."3

Because of his closeness to Grant and Grant's top aide, General John A. Rawlins, Wilson was in a position to be an important conduit of information. Rawlins wrote Wilson in March 1864 to confirm Grant's lack of political interest: "I cannot conceive how the use of General Grant's name in connection with the President can result in harm to him or our cause, for if there is a man in the United States who is unambitious of such honor, it is certainly he, yet the matter is not in such shape as to justify him in writing a letter declining to be a candidate for the Presidency. The nomination for the office has not been tendered him by the people; nor has it by either of the great political parties or any portion thereof. To write a letter of declination now, would place him in much the position of the old maid who had never had an offer declaring she 'would never marry'; besides it would be by many construed into a modest way of getting his name before the country in connection with the office, having, as he always has, avoided public notice or newspaper talking relating to him..."4

Wilson was closely linked to both Grant and Dana, with whom he wrote a campaign biography of the Union general for the 1868 presidential race. However, in 1869, he told Dana that he was to be appointed Collector of the Port of New York - a post which Dana strongly desired. Dana did not get the post and subsequently turned viciously on Grant.

The Illinois native may have been the only Civil War general who also served a major role in Spanish-American War and Boxer Rebellion over thirty years later. Wilson had retired from the Army after the Civil War and worked as both an engineer railroad official and an author. His books included Under the Old Flag, the Life of Charles A. Dana, and The Life and Service of William Farrar Smith.

 

Footnotes

  1. Edward G. Longacre, Lincoln’s Cavalrymen, p. 252.
  2. Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground, p. 363.
  3. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 484.
  4. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 539.