American Civil War: Major General Horatio G. Wright

Horatio Wright in the Civil War
Major General Horatio Wright. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Horatio Wright - Early Life & Career:

Born at Clinton, CT on March 6, 1820, Horatio Gouverneur Wright was the son of Edward and Nancy Wright. Initially educated in Vermont at former West Point Superintendent Alden Partridge's military academy, Wright later gained an appointment to West Point in 1837. Entering the academy, his classmates included John F. Reynolds, Don Carlos Buell, Nathaniel Lyon, and Richard Garnett. A gifted student, Wright graduated ranked second of fifty-two in the class of 1841. Receiving a commission in the Corps of Engineers, he remained at West Point as an assistant to the Board of Engineers and later as an instructor of French and engineering. While there, he married Louisa Marcella Bradford of Culpeper, VA on August 11, 1842. 

In 1846, with the Mexican-American War beginning, Wright received orders that directed him to aid in making harbor improvements at St. Augustine, FL. Later working on the defenses at Key West, he spent most of the next decade engaged on various engineering projects. Promoted to captain on July 1, 1855, Wright reported to Washington, DC where he acted as an assistant to Chief of Engineers Colonel Joseph Totten. As sectional tensions increased after the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Wright was dispatched south to Norfolk the following April. With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, he unsuccessfully attempted to implement the destruction of the Gosport Navy Yard. Captured in the process, Wright was released four days later.

Horatio Wright - Early Days of the Civil War:

Returning to Washington, Wright aided in the design and construction of fortifications around the capital until being posted to serve as chief engineer of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman's 3rd Division. Continuing to work on area fortifications from May to July, he then marched with Heintzelman's division in Brigadier General Irvin McDowell's army against Manassas. On July 21, Wright assisted his commander during the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. A month later he received a promotion to major and on September 14 was elevated to brigadier general of volunteers. Two months later, Wright led a brigade during Major General Thomas Sherman and Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont's successful capture of Port Royal, SC. Having gained experience in combined army-navy operations, he continued in this role during operations against St. Augustine and Jacksonville in March 1862. Moving to division command, Wright led part of Major General David Hunter's army during the Union defeat at the Battle of Secessionville (SC) on June 16.

Horatio Wright - Department of the Ohio:

In August 1862, Wright received a promotion to major general and command of the newly re-formed Department of the Ohio. Establishing his headquarters at Cincinnati, he supported his classmate Buell during the campaign that culminated with the Battle of Perryville that October. On March 12, 1863, Lincoln was forced to rescind Wright's promotion to major general as it had not been confirmed by the Senate. Reduced to brigadier general, he lacked the rank to command a department and his post passed to Major General Ambrose Burnside. After commanding the District of Louisville for a month, he transferred to Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac. Arriving in May, Wright obtained command of the 1st Division in Major General John Sedgwick's VI Corps.

Horatio Wright - In the East:

Marching north with the army in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of North Virginia, Wright's men were present at the Battle of Gettysburg in July but remained in a reserve position. That fall, he played an active role in the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns. For his performance in the former, Wright earned a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in the regular army. Retaining command of his division following the reorganization of the army in the spring of 1864, Wright moved south in May as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant advanced against Lee. After leading his division during the Battle of the Wilderness, Wright assumed command of VI Corps when Sedgwick was killed on May 9 during the opening actions of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Quickly promoted to major general, this action was confirmed by the Senate on May 12.

Settling into corps command, Wright's men participated in the Union defeat at Cold Harbor at the end of May. Crossing the James River, Grant moved the army against Petersburg. As Union and Confederate forces engaged north and east of the city, VI Corps received orders to move north to aid in defending Washington from Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early's forces which had advanced down the Shenandoah Valley and won a victory at Monocacy. Arriving on July 11, Wright's corps was quickly moved into the Washington defenses at Fort Stevens and aided in repelling Early. During the fighting, Lincoln visited Wright's lines before being moved to a more protected location. As the enemy withdrew on July 12, Wright's men mounted a brief pursuit.

Horatio Wright - Shenandoah Valley & Final Campaigns:

To deal with Early, Grant formed the Army of the Shenandoah in August under Major General Philip H. Sheridan. Attached to this command, Wright's VI Corps played key roles in the victories at Third Winchester, Fisher's Hill, and Cedar Creek. At Cedar Creek, Wright held command of the field for the early phases of the battle until Sheridan arrived from a meeting at Winchester. Though Early's command was effectively destroyed, VI Corps remained in the region until December when it moved back to the trenches at Petersburg. In the line through the winter, VI Corps attacked Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's men on April 2 when Grant mounted a massive offensive against the city. Breaking through the Boydton Line, VI Corps achieved some of the first penetrations of the enemy's defenses.   

Pursuing Lee's retreating army west after the fall of Petersburg, Wright and VI Corps again came under the direction of Sheridan. On April 6, VI Corps played a key role in the victory at Sayler's Creek which also saw Union forces capture Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. Pressing west, Wright and his men were present when Lee finally surrendered three days later at Appomattox. With the war ending, Wright received orders in June to take command of the Department of Texas. Remaining until August 1866, he then left volunteer service the following month and reverted to his peacetime rank of lieutenant colonel in the engineers.

Horatio Wright - Later Life:

Serving in the engineers for the remainder of his career, Wright received a promotion to colonel in March 1879. Later that year, he was appointed Chief of Engineers with the rank of brigadier general and succeeded Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys. Involved in high-profile projects such as the Washington Monument and Brooklyn Bridge, Wright held the post until his retirement on March 6, 1884. Living in Washington, he died on July 2, 1899. His remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery beneath an obelisk erected by veterans of VI Corps.       

Selected Sources:

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Horatio G. Wright." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Major General Horatio G. Wright. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Horatio G. Wright." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).