|Delaware Military History
James Harrison Wilson
James Harrison Wilson (September 2, 1837 – February 23, 1925) was a United States Army topographic
engineer, a Union Army General in the American Civil War and later wars, a railroad executive, and author.
Early life and engineering
Wilson was born in Shawneetown, Illinois. He attended McKendree College for a year and graduated from
the United States Military Academy in 1860, sixth in his class of 41, receiving a commission as a brevet
second lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers. His initial assignment was assistant topographical
engineer of the Department of Oregon at Fort Vancouver.
After the start of the Civil War, Wilson received promotions to second and first lieutenant and became the
topographical engineer for the Port Royal Expeditionary Force, from September 1861 to March 1862. As the
topographical engineer for the Department of the South, he took part in the Battle of Fort Pulaski at the
mouth of the Savannah River and received a brevet promotion to major in the regular army for his service.
He transferred to the Army of the Potomac in April 1862 and served as its topographic engineer, but also as
an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He served under McClellan during the Maryland
Campaign and was present at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam.
Wilson was transferred to the Western Theater and joined Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the
Tennessee as a lieutenant colonel and topographical engineer. During the Vicksburg Campaign, he was the
inspector general of Grant's army. On October 30, 1863, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers,
the only officer ever promoted to troop command from Grant's regular staff. He continued on staff duty
during the Battle of Chattanooga and was chief engineer of the force sent to relieve Knoxville under Maj.
Gen. William T. Sherman.
In 1864, Wilson switched from engineering to the cavalry. On February 17, 1864, he was assigned as chief of
the Cavalry Bureau in Washington, D.C. He was an excellent administrator and organizer, but his true
talents turned out to be as a combat leader. Grant promoted him to brevet major general on May 6, 1864,
and had him assigned to command a division of cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, which he did
with boldness and skill in numerous fights of the Overland Campaign and in the Valley Campaigns of 1864.
General Wilson's ill-fated joint adventure with General Brigadier General August V. Kautz was launched
through General Grant's strategy of interdicting Robert E. Lee's supply lines to Petersburg, Virginia. If this
could be done, Lee would be compelled to abandon Petersburg. General Wilson was ordered to conduct a
cavalry raid that would destroy the tracks of the South Side and Richmond & Danville railroads, and to
destroy the key R&D railroad bridge over the Staunton River. The raid began on June 22, 1864, with over
5,000 Cavalry troops and 16 pieces of artillery. During the first three days of their raid, Wilson's cavalry tore
up 60 miles of track and burned two trains and several railroad stations. Confederate General W. H. F.
"Rooney" Lee pursued the Union raid, but were ineffective. The audacious raid seemed to be wildly
successful, though not uncontested, and the Staunton River Bridge loomed as the great objective. The
railroad bridge was over a small but deep river, The Staunton. The Confederacy had sensed its strategic
importance, putting a small fort there under Captain Benjamin Farinholt, and his 296 reserve troops. A
valiant stand by local volunteers of old men and boys, with help from surrounding counties, gathered
almost a force of nearly 1,000, which halted the 5,000 well-armed troops. Wilson’s cavalry fought the action
dismounted. "Rooney" Lee's cavalry came up during the engagement's end, and routed Wilson's troops.
There has been speculation that this damaged an otherwise brilliant career for Wilson. However, just before
Sheridan's decisive Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, Wilson was upgraded to brevet major general of
volunteers and transferred back to the West to become chief of cavalry for the Military Division of the
Mississippi under Sherman.
As cavalry chief, he trained Sherman's cavalry (under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick) for the March to the
Sea. Rather than accompanying Sherman, however, he and 17,000 troopers were attached to Maj. Gen.
George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland for the Franklin-Nashville Campaign in November and
December 1864. His repulse of a flanking attack by Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was instrumental in
saving the Union Army at the Battle of Franklin; Wilson was one of only a few Union officers to best the
legendary Southern cavalryman. He was promoted to brevet brigadier general in the regular army for his
service in the Battle of Nashville. He led the successful Wilson's Raid through Alabama and Georgia,
defeating the smaller force of Forrest and capturing Selma, Alabama, along with four other fortified cities.
On Easter Day, 1865, his troops assaulted and captured the city of Columbus, Georgia, widely regarded as
the final battle of the Civil War. His men did enormous damage to the military infrastructure of the South,
but they did it with a sense of discipline that usually prevented looting and other collateral damage to
civilian property. He was promoted to brevet major general in the regular army for his performance at
Selma and received his full promotion to major general on May 6, 1865. The cavalrymen under Wilson's
command captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis as he fled through Georgia in May 1865.
At the end of the war, Wilson reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was assigned to the newly
created 35th U.S. Infantry, but his duty assignments continued to be in the Corps of Engineers until he
resigned from the Army in December 1870.
Later life and wars
After he left the Army, Wilson worked as a railroad construction engineer and executive. He moved to
Wilmington, Delaware, in 1883. For the next 15 years he devoted his time to business, travel, and public
affairs, and wrote on a number of subjects.
Wilson returned to the Army in 1898 for the Spanish-American War, and served as a major general in Cuba
and Puerto Rico. He also saw service in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901. Retiring from the Army,
in 1902 he represented President Theodore Roosevelt at the coronation of Edward VII of the United
Wilson died in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1925, with only three Civil War generals living longer. He is
buried in the Old Swedes Churchyard in Wilmington.
The Life of General U. S. Grant, General of the Armies of the United States (co-authored with Charles A.
China: Travels and Investigations in the Middle Kingdom—a Study of its Civilization and Possibilities, with
a Glance at Japan (1887)
Life and Services of Brevet Brigadier-General Andrew Jonathan Alexander, United States Army (1887)
Heroes of the Great Conflict: Life and Services of William Farrar Smith, Major General, United States
Volunteers in the Civil War (1904)
The Life of Charles A. Dana (1907)
The Campaign of Chancellorsville (1911)
Under the Old Flag: Recollections of Military Operations in the War for the Union, the Spanish War, the
Boxer Rebellion, etc. (1912)