American Civil War: Major General John Newton

John Newton during the Civil War
Major General John Newton. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Early Life & Career

Born at Norfolk, VA on August 25, 1822, John Newton was the son of Congressman Thomas Newton, Jr., who represented the city for thirty-one years, and his second wife Margaret Jordan Pool Newton.  After attending schools in Norfolk and receiving additional instruction in mathematics from a tutor, Newton elected to pursue a military career and obtained an appointment to West Point in 1838. Arriving at the academy, his classmates included William Rosecrans, James Longstreet, John Pope, Abner Doubleday, and D.H. Hill

Graduating second in the Class of 1842, Newton accepted a commission in the US Army Corps of Engineers. Remaining at West Point, he taught engineering for three years with a focus on military architecture and fortification design. In 1846, Newton was assigned to construct fortifications along the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes. This saw him make various stops in Boston (Fort Warren), New London (Fort Trumbull), Michigan (Fort Wayne), as well as several locations in western New York (Forts Porter, Niagara, and Ontario). Newton remained in this role despite the start of the Mexican-American War that year. 

Antebellum Years

Continuing to oversee these types of projects, Newton married Anna Morgan Starr of New London on October 24, 1848. The coupled would ultimately have 11 children. Four years later, he received a promotion to first lieutenant. Named to a board tasked with assessing the defenses on the Gulf Coast in 1856, he was promoted to captain on July 1 of that year. Heading south, Newton conducted surveys for harbor improvements in Florida and made recommendations for improving the lighthouses near Pensacola. He also served as superintending engineer for Forts Pulaski (GA) and Jackson (LA).  

In 1858, Newton was made the chief engineer of the Utah Expedition. This saw him travel west with Colonel Albert S. Johnston's command as it sought to deal with rebellious Mormon settlers. Returning east, Newton received orders to serve as superintending engineer at Forts Delaware and Mifflin on the Delaware River. He also was tasked with improving the fortifications at Sandy Hook, NJ. As sectional tensions rose following the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, he, like fellow Virginians George H. Thomas and Philip St. George Cooke, decided to remain loyal to the Union.  

The Civil War Begins

Made Chief Engineer of the Department of Pennsylvania, Newton first saw combat during the Union victory at Hoke's Run (VA) on July 2, 1861. After briefly serving as Chief Engineer of the Department of the Shenandoah, he arrived in Washington, DC in August and aided in constructing defenses around the city and across the Potomac in Alexandria. Promoted to brigadier general on September 23, Newton moved to the infantry and assumed command of a brigade in the growing Army of the Potomac. 

The following spring, after service in Major General Irvin McDowell's I Corps, his men were ordered to join the newly-formed VI Corps in May. Moving south, Newton took part in Major General George B. McClellan's ongoing Peninsula Campaign. Serving in Brigadier General Henry Slocum's division, the brigade saw increased action in late June as General Robert E. Lee opened the Seven Days' Battles. During the course of the fighting, Newton performed well at the Battles of Gaines' Mill and Glendale. 

With the failure of Union efforts on the Peninsula, VI Corps returned north to Washington before taking part in the Maryland Campaign that September. Going into action on September 14 at the Battle of South Mountain, Newton distinguished himself by personally leading a bayonet attack against a Confederate position at Crampton's Gap. Three days later, he returned to combat at the Battle of Antietam. For his performance in the fighting, he received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in the regular army. Later that fall, Newton was elevated to lead VI Corps' Third Division. 

Courting Controversy

Newton was in this role when the army, with Major General Ambrose Burnside at the head, opened the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13.  Positioned towards the southern end of the Union line, VI Corps was largely idle during the fighting. One of several generals who was unhappy with Burnside's leadership, Newton traveled to Washington with one of his brigade commanders, Brigadier General John Cochrane, to voice his concerns to Lincoln.

While not calling for his commander's removal, Newton commented that there was a "want of confidence in General Burnside's military capacity" and that "the troops of my division and of the whole army had become entirely dispirited." His actions helped lead to Burnside's dismissal in January 1863 and Major General Joseph Hooker's installation as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Promoted to major general on March 30, Newton led his division during the Chancellorsville Campaign that May.     

Remaining at Fredericksburg while Hooker and the rest of the army moved west, Major General John Sedgwick's VI Corps attacked on May 3 with Newton's men seeing extensive action. Wounded in the fighting near Salem Church, he quickly recovered and remained with his division as the Gettysburg Campaign commenced that June. Reaching the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, Newton was ordered to assume command of I Corps whose commander, Major General John F. Reynolds, had been killed the previous day.

Relieving Major General Abner Doubleday, Newton directed I Corps during the Union defense of Pickett's Charge on July 3.  Retaining command of I Corps through the fall, he led it during the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns. The spring of 1864 proved difficult for Newton as a reorganization of the Army of the Potomac led to I Corps being dissolved. Additionally, due to his role in Burnside's removal, Congress refused to confirm his promotion to major general. As a result, Newton reverted to brigadier general on April 18.        

Ordered West

Sent west, Newton assumed command of a division in IV Corps.  Serving in Thomas' Army of the Cumberland, he took part in Major General William T. Sherman's advance on Atlanta. Seeing combat throughout the campaign at places such as Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain, Newton's division distinguished itself at Peachtree Creek on July 20 when it blocked multiple Confederate assaults.  Recognized for his role in the fighting, Newton continued to perform well through the fall of Atlanta in early September.

With the end of the campaign, Newton received command of the District of Key West and Tortugas.  Establishing himself in this post, he was checked by Confederate forces at Natural Bridge in March 1865. Remaining in command for the rest of the war, Newton then held a series of administrative posts in Florida into 1866. Leaving the volunteer service in January 1866, he accepted a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Engineers.

Later Life

Coming north in the spring of 1866, Newton spent the better part of the next two decades engaged in a variety of engineering and fortification projects in New York. On March 6, 1884, he was promoted to brigadier general and made Chief of Engineers, succeeding Brigadier General Horatio Wright.  In this post two years, he retired from the US Army on August 27, 1886. Remaining in New York, he served as Commissioner of Public Works of New York City until 1888 before becoming President of the Panama Railroad Company.  Newton died in New York City on May 1, 1895 and was buried at West Point National Cemetery. 

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John Newton." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Major General John Newton. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John Newton." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).