American Civil War: Major General James H. Wilson

James H. Wilson during the Civil War
Major General James H. Wilson. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

James H. Wilson - Early Life:

Born September 2, 1837 in Shawneetown, IL, James H. Wilson received his education locally before attending McKendree College.  Remaining there for a year, he then applied for an appointment to West Point.  Granted, Wilson arrived at the academy in 1856 where his classmates included Wesley Merritt and Stephen D. Ramseur.  A gifted student, he graduated four years later ranked sixth in a class of forty-one. This performance earned him a posting to the Corps of Engineers.  Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Wilson's initial assignment saw him serve at Fort Vancouver in the Department of Oregon as a topographical engineer.  With the beginning of the Civil War the following year, Wilson returned east for service in the Union Army.

James H. Wilson - A Gifted Engineer & Staff Officer:

Assigned to Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont and Brigadier General Thomas Sherman's expedition against Port Royal, SC, Wilson continued to serve as a topographical engineer.  Taking part in this effort in late 1861, he remained in the region in the spring of 1862 and aided Union forces during the successful siege of Fort Pulaski.  Ordered north, Wilson joined the staff of Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Serving as an aide-de-camp, he saw action during the Union victories at South Mountain and Antietam that September.  The following month, Wilson received orders to serve as the chief topographical engineer in Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee.

Arriving in Mississippi, Wilson aided Grant's efforts to capture the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg.  Made inspector general of the army, he was in this post during the campaign that led to the siege of the city including the fighting at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge.  Earning Grant's trust, he remained with him in the fall of 1863 for the campaign to relieve Major General William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga.  Following the victory at the Battle of Chattanooga, Wilson received a promotion to brigadier general and moved north as chief engineer of Major General William T. Sherman's force which was tasked with aiding Major General Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville.  Ordered to Washington, DC in February 1864, he assumed command of the Cavalry Bureau.  In this position he worked tirelessly to supply the Union Army's cavalry and lobbied to equip it with fast-loading Spencer repeating carbines.

James H. Wilson - Cavalry Commander:

Though an able administrator, Wilson received a brevet promotion to major general on May 6 and command of a division in Major General Philip H. Sheridan's Cavalry Corps.  Taking part in Grant's Overland Campaign, he saw action at the Wilderness and played a role in Sheridan's victory at Yellow Tavern.  Remaining with the Army of the Potomac for much of the campaign, Wilson's men screened its movements and provided reconnaissance.   With the beginning of the siege of Petersburg in June, Wilson and Brigadier General August Kautz were tasked with conducting a raid into General Robert E. Lee's rear to destroy key railroads that supplied the city. 

Riding out on June 22, the effort initially proved successful as over sixty miles of track were destroyed.  Despite this, the raid quickly turned against Wilson and Kautz as attempts to destroy the Staunton River Bridge failed.  Harried east by Confederate cavalry, the two commanders were blocked by enemy forces at Ream's Station on June 29 and were forced to destroy much of their equipment and split up.  Wilson's men finally reached safety on July 2.  A month later, Wilson and his men traveled north as part of the forces assigned to Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah.  Tasked with clearing Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early from the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan attacked the enemy at the Third Battle of Winchester in late September and won a clear victory.

James H. Wilson - Back to the West:

In October 1864, Wilson was promoted to major general of volunteers and ordered to oversee the cavalry in Sherman's Military Division of the Mississippi.  Arriving in the west, he trained the cavalry that would serve under Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick during Sherman's March to the Sea.  Rather than accompany this force, Wilson remained with Major General George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland for service in Tennessee. Leading a cavalry corps at the Battle of Franklin on November 30, he played a key role when his men repulsed an attempt to turn the Union left by noted Confederate cavalryman Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Reaching Nashville, Wilson worked to refit his cavalry before the Battle of Nashville on December 15-16.  On the second day of the fighting, his men delivered a blow against Lieutenant General John B. Hood's left flank and then pursued the enemy after they retreated from the field.

In March 1865, with little organized opposition remaining, Thomas directed Wilson to lead 13,500 men on a raid deep into Alabama with the goal of destroying the Confederate arsenal at Selma.  In addition to further disrupting the enemy's supply situation, the effort would support Major General Edward Canby's operations around Mobile.  Departing on March 22, Wilson's command moved in three columns and met light resistance from troops under Forrest.  Arriving at Selma after several skirmishes with the enemy, he formed to assault the city.  Attacking, Wilson shattered the Confederate lines and routed Forrest's men from the town.

After burning the arsenal and other military targets, Wilson marched on Montgomery.  Arriving on April 12, he learned of Lee's surrender at Appomattox three days earlier.  Pressing on with the raid, Wilson crossed into Georgia and defeated a Confederate force at Columbus on April 16.  After destroying the town's navy yard, he continued on to Macon where the raid ended on April 20.  With the end of hostilities, Wilson's men fanned out as Union troops made an effort to capture fleeing Confederate officials.  As part of this operation, his men succeeded in capturing Confederate President Jefferson Davis on May 10.  Also that month, Wilson's cavalry arrested Major Henry Wirz, commandant of the of the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war camp.

James H. Wilson - Later Career & Life:

With the end of the war, Wilson soon reverted to his regular army rank of lieutenant colonel.  Though officially assigned to the 35th US Infantry, he spent the majority of the final five years of his career engaged in various engineering projects.   Leaving the US Army on December 31, 1870, Wilson worked for several railroads as well as took part in engineering projects on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.  With the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Wilson sought a return to military service.  Appointed a major general of volunteers on May 4, he led troops during the conquest of Puerto Rico and later served in Cuba.  

Commanding the Department of Matanzas and Santa Clara in Cuba, Wilson accepted an adjustment in rank to brigadier general in April 1899.  The following year, he volunteered for the China Relief Expedition and crossed the Pacific to combat the Boxer Rebellion.  In China from September to December 1900, Wilson aided in the capture of the Eight Temples and Boxer headquarters.  Returning to the United States, he retired in 1901 and represented President Theodore Roosevelt at the coronation of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom the following year.  Active in business, Wilson died at Wilmington, DE on February 23, 1925.  One of the last living Union generals, he was buried in the city's Old Swedes Churchyard.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General James H. Wilson." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General James H. Wilson. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General James H. Wilson." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2023).