John Thomas Wilder
John Thomas Wilder
|Born||January 31, 1830|
Catskill Mountains in Hunter, Greene County, New York
|Died||October 20, 1917 (aged 87)|
Forest Hills Cemetery, Chattanooga, Tennessee
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Years of service||1861 - 1864|
Brevet Brigadier General
|Commands held||17th Indiana Infantry Regiment|
|Battles/wars||American Civil War|
John Thomas Wilder (January 31, 1830 - October 20, 1917) was an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, noted principally for capturing the key mountain pass of Hoover's Gap during the Tullahoma Campaign in Central Tennessee in June 1863. Wilder had personally ensured that his "Lightning Brigade" of mounted infantry was equipped with the new Spencer repeating rifle, though he initially had to appeal to his men to pay for these weapons themselves, before the government agreed to carry the cost. The victory at Hoover's Gap was attributed largely to Wilder's persistence in procuring the new rifles, which totally disoriented the enemy.
Wilder was born in the Catskill Mountains in Hunter, Greene County, New York, the son of Reuben and Mary (Merritt) Wilder. He was a descendant of a long line of soldiers. His grandfather and great-grandfather, both named Seth Wilder, fought in the American Revolutionary War. After the great-grandfather lost a leg in the Battle of Bunker Hill, Seth, Jr. took his place. Wilder's father Reuben fought in the War of 1812.
Wilder spent his younger years in Hunter, where he attended school. When he turned nineteen, his school days over, he decided to head west to make it on his own. Wilder soon arrived in Columbus, Ohio, nearly penniless, and found employment as draftsman and then as an apprentice millwright at a local foundry. This training would lay the groundwork for his career.
In 1857, eight years after he arrived in Columbus, Wilder moved to Indiana, first to Lawrenceburg and then to Greensburg, where he married Martha Jane Stewart and raised a large family. He established a small foundry of his own, which rapidly became a success. Wilder invented many hydraulic machines that he patented, and he sold equipment, as well as building mills and hydraulic works in many of the surrounding states. He also became nationally renowned as an expert in the field of hydraulics, patenting a unique water wheel in 1859.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Wilder organized a light artillery company in the Greensburg area, even going so far as to cast two six-pounder cannons at his foundry. Wilder's company was mustered into state service but the Federal government declined to accept it, as Indiana had already met its quota of artillery units. Instead, Wilder was commissioned as a captain, and his men were organized as Company A, 17th Indiana Infantry Regiment at Indianapolis. When the 17th Indiana left for western Virginia in July 1861, Company A took along the two cannons. Once in Virginia, the old Company A was permanently detached and eventually reorganized as the 26th Independent Battery Indiana Light Artillery but was commonly known as the "Wilder Battery" in recognition of its first commander. Meanwhile, Captain Wilder was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 17th Indiana on 4 June 1861, serving where he remained during the early campaigns in Virginia and garrison duty in Kentucky. In March 1862 Wilder was promoted to colonel, becoming the commander of the 17th Indiana. During the campaign to take Corinth, Mississippi, Wilder quickly earned a reputation as a competent, and even gifted, regimental commander.
In the 1862 Confederate offensive into Kentucky, Gen. Braxton Bragg's army left Chattanooga, Tennessee, in late August. Bragg approached Munfordville, a station on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad where Wilder commanded the Union garrison, which consisted of three regiments with extensive fortifications. Wilder refused Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers's demand to surrender on September 14, telling him, "I think we'll fight for a while", and his men repulsed Chalmers's attacks that day, inflicting 283 casualties with a loss of only 37. This forced the Confederates to conduct siege operations September 15-16. By this time, Wilder's 4,000 men were almost completely surrounded by 22,000 Confederates with 100 artillery pieces. Realizing that Union reinforcements were nearby and not wanting to kill or injure innocent civilians, the Confederates communicated still another demand for surrender. Wilder personally entered enemy lines blindfolded under a flag of truce, and Maj. Gen. Simon B. Buckner escorted him to view all the Confederate troops and to convince him of the futility of resisting. Impressed, Wilder surrendered his garrison. The formal ceremony occurred on September 17. Wilder spent two months as a prisoner of war before being exchanged.
Wilder received wide attention for his performance in the Tullahoma Campaign. He mounted his brigade on horses and mules that his men appropriated from the local area and moved into the battle with such rapidity that his men soon became known as the "Lightning Brigade", comprising the 17th Indiana Infantry Regiment, the 72nd Indiana Infantry Regiment, the 98th Illinois Infantry Regiment, the 123rd Illinois Infantry Regiment, and the 18th Independent Battery Indiana Light Artillery. (They were also known as the "Hatchet Brigade" because Wilder issued them long-handled hatchets to carry instead of cavalry sabers.) His men also carried Spencer repeating rifles, which were capable of a rate of fire far greater than their Confederate adversaries. Bypassing Army red tape, Wilder had asked his men to vote on purchasing the rifles and they agreed unanimously. He obtained a loan from his hometown bank and each man of the brigade co-signed a personal loan of $35 ($713 in 2019) for his rifle. Embarrassed, the Government paid for the weapons before the men expended any of their personal money. On June 24, the Lightning Brigade seized and held Hoover's Gap. Despite orders from general Joseph J. Reynolds to fall back to his infantry, which was still six miles away, Wilder decided to hold the position, defeating repeated attempts to dislodge his force until the infantry arrived and winning the most significant battle in the Tullahoma Campaign. The Army of the Cumberland's commanding officer, William Rosecrans soon arrived on the scene. Rather than reprimand Wilder for disobeying orders, he congratulated him for doing so, telling him it would have cost thousands of lives to take the position if he had abandoned it. Wilder was the principal commander of a diversion launched against Chattanooga - artillery bombardments known as the Second Battle of Chattanooga - deceiving the Confederates into thinking the Union army would approach Chattanooga from the north in conjunction with Union forces at Knoxville.
Just before the start of the Battle of Chickamauga, Wilder's brigade played a crucial role at Alexander's Bridge on September 18, 1863, defending the crossing of West Chickamauga Creek and helping to prevent the Confederates from flanking the Union army. On the second day at Chickamauga, September 20, Wilder's brigade with its superior firepower was one of the few units that was not immediately routed by the Confederate onslaught against the Union right flank. Advancing from its reserve position, the brigade launched a strong counterattack, driving the enemy around and through what became known as "Bloody Pond". Wilder decided to capitalize on this success by attacking the flank of the main Confederate column. However, just then Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana found Wilder and excitedly proclaimed that the battle was lost and demanded to be escorted to Chattanooga. In the time that Wilder took to calm down the secretary and arrange a small detachment to escort him back to safety, the opportunity for a successful attack was lost and he ordered his men to withdraw to the west.
Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas formally commended Colonel Wilder for his performance at Chickamauga. Wilder did not directly participate in the main Battles for Chattanooga in November, but he led the brigade during much of the Atlanta Campaign in the spring and summer of 1864. He was promoted to brevet brigadier general of volunteers on August 7, 1864. Throughout much of 1863 and 1864, Wilder suffered from bouts of dysentery  brought on by a case of typhoid fever in 1862. For health reasons, he resigned from the Army in October 1864 and returned home.
After the war, Wilder settled in Rockwood, Tennessee, and later in Chattanooga. In 1867, he founded an ironworks in the Chattanooga region, then built and operated the first two blast furnaces in the South at Rockwood, Tennessee. In 1870, he established a company in Chattanooga to manufacture rails for the railroads. From 1884 to 1892, he helped promote and construct the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago Railroad while living in Johnson City, Tennessee. While in Johnson City, he developed the booming industrial suburb of Carnegie, named in honor of fellow industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, and a host of iron making and railroad-related manufacturing facilities. Iron ore was brought to Johnson City via the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, and Wilder constructed a popular 166-room hotel near Johnson City named the Cloudland Hotel near the summit of Roan Mountain to serve tourists via this scenic narrow gauge railway line.
Wilder entered politics and was elected mayor of Chattanooga in 1871. He resigned a year later to pursue his business interests. He unsuccessfully ran for the United States Congress in 1876. In 1877, he accepted the position of city postmaster, serving until 1882.
He moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1897 after receiving an appointment from President William McKinley as a Federal pension agent, then was commissioner of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
He died in Jacksonville, Florida, aged 87, while on his annual winter vacation with his second wife, Dora Lee, and was returned for burial in Forest Hills Cemetery in Chattanooga with his first wife, Martha Jane Stewart.
Two of Wilder's homes in Tennessee, the General John T. Wilder House in Knoxville and the John T. Wilder House in Roan Mountain, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Another that he built in Greensburg, Indiana is commemorated by a historic marker.