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 1862 to 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.
Wilson was a native of Shawneetown in southern Illinois. A colleague said Wilson was “a slight person of a light complexion and with a rather pinched face.” Historian David Coffey described Wilson as a “proven organizer.” He wrote: “Undoubtedly brilliant, Wilson had graduated near the top of his West Point class and briefly performed engineering duties in the Pacific Northwest. With the outbreak of war, talented engineers were in great demand. Wilson first applied his gifts along the Atlantic coast and participated in the expeditions against Port Royal and Fort Pulaski. He also possessed a knack for being the right place at the right time…”1
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.2
Wilson began the Civil War as “a kind of protégé of [John] McClernand,” according to historian Victor Hicken, but after using McClernand to get an appointment in Grant’s army in the fall of 1862, the young officer quickly switched his allegiance to his new boss. Less than a year later, according to Hicken, he became the agent of McClernand’s military demise. After repeated squabbles with Grant and General William T. Sherman, McClernand was dismissed from his command for issuing an unauthorized and ill-advised proclamation to his troops. Wilson was chosen to deliver the message to the old legal colleague and political opponent of President Lincoln. “Though it was almost midnight, the southern Illinois officer walked his horse from campfire to campfire and finally to McClernand’s tent. The commanding general of the XIII Corps seemed to know what was coming; before reading the note, he retired in order to dress to full uniform.”3
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.”4 Biographer Edward G. Longacre wrote: “Wilson succeeded in transforming the Cavalry Bureau from an inefficient, disorganized agency hampered by bureaucratic fumbling, dishonesty, and outdated thinking into a highly effective, honest and well-appointed one. He gave unhesitatingly of himself, working at his desk from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. each day, and spending many of his off hours riding through the capital’s defensive lines while discussing ideas for improving cavalry administration with Assistant Secretary Dana (who was lodging at the same rooming house as Wilson).”5
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.”6
After one meeting the Lincolns at the White House, Wilson wrote: “My Uncle Abe and Aunt Mary are a remarkable pair of birds – particularly Mrs. L.” According to biographer Longacre, “On another occasion Mrs. Lincoln invited him to accompany the President and herself for an evening at the theater. This naturally made him feel quite important – an attitude which was rudely shattered when he accepted the invitation, only to learn that the Lincolns had mistaken him by name for the distinguished literary figure, Colonel James Wilson. Once the mistake came to light the First Family seemed rather aloof, and Wilson felt ‘much bored and disgusted through the rest of the evening.”7
Wilson himself is kinder to the President in his memoirs:”I took but little interest in social matters during that winter in Washington. Shortly after arriving there, I had been invited to dine at the White House and to accompany the President and his family to theater. It was a new experience for me, and one of mingled emotions. The President was kindness itself and seemed to know without explanations that I was the son of his old friend, Harrison Wilson, of the Black Hawk War. He told me many anecdotes and asked me a good man questions. Among the rest eh wanted to know about the Generals, Crooke and Stoughton, who had recently been captured in the Shenandoah Valley while visiting Ladies outside their camp. I so happened that I knew both quite well, and was enabled to assure the President that they were good officers, and that such an accident might readily overtaken any one in that region. It was upon this occasion that he said: ‘I don’t care so much for brigadiers; I can make them. But horses and mules cost money.’”8
A second theater invitation came when Mrs. Grant asked him to transmit to the White House their inability to keep a dinner invitation. “Upon that occasion I was again invited to dine, and go to the theater, and, of course, the invitation was equivalent to a command,” recalled Wilson. “After dinner we went to the theater and, while seated in the President’s box, he told me between the acts a great many characteristic anecdotes, but made no allusion to public affairs. Now and then, for an instant, his countenance seemed ‘sicklied o’er with a pale cast of thought,’ like a peaceful landscape shadowed by passing clouds, but on the whole he looked brighter and more cheerful than usual. He did not disguise the relief he felt at having at last found a leader for the army with the prestige and habit of success. This, more than anything else, lifted a great load from his mind, but, withal, it was evident that he was still wearied and weighed down by the cares of his great office and that he sought relief in the play before him. I was struck that night by the gravity of his countenance in contrast with the extraordinary mobility of his lips and tongue and the clear and rapid enunciation they gave to his words. Something in the play caused him to turn to me and imitate the low and plaintive ‘ba-a-a” of a lamb, which he did with a singular accuracy and effect.”9
Harrison wrote: “I attended, but one reception at the White House. Mr. Lincoln, accompanied by his wife, took position in what was then known as the Red Room, with a few invited guests behind, and, as the procession passed two by two, he listlessly grasped their extended hands and passed them on without a word. Occasionally a man and his wife more distinguished than the rest would be pulled over by an attendant to join the guests behind the President. I and my friends had this honor, and we found a few acquaintances who were enjoying it with us. But the whole meeting seemed pervaded by a sense of duty mingled with curiosity rather than by a spirit of enjoyment. The President’s gloves were far too large, and this was doubtless a matter of choice to enable him to get them on and off easily and to discourage the hearty handshake that was so prevalent both with the friends and the enemies of that illustrious man.”10
Wilson did not always agree with Lincoln’s policies, according to historian William C. Harris. “Gen. James H. Wilson, who had been sent on a mission to Washington by Grant, in a report to his commander deplored ‘the feverish anxiety on the part of the Government to bring back or reorganize the state governments in the conquered territory with as little delay as possible. Wilson suggested that reconstruction objectives would dictate military decisions. ‘We must destroy his armies before we begin to reerect the broke machinery of the states.’”11 On April 16, 1865, Wilson led his cavalry in an assault, capture, and burning of Columbus, Georgia. By then, the war was effectively over, and President Lincoln was dead. According to Wilson biographer Edward Longacre, “The president’s murder sobered him and plunged his entire command into mourning. To his friend [Adam] Badeau he wrote that he was ‘painfully agitated’ by the intelligence and found it hard to believe that ‘so atrocious a crime could have been committed on the eve of peace.’ Though he had met Mr. Lincoln only a few times, he had come to regard him as a gifted military commander, an adroit politician, and, at bottom, a sensitive and compassionate man. Wilson’s gloom was deepened by the realization that his old enemy, Andrew Johnson, was now president and commander in chief of the Army.”12
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…”13
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.