Horatio Gouverneur Wright was born on March 6, 1820, at Clinton, Connecticut. He was the second of three children (all sons) born to Edward and Nancy Wright. As a youngster, Wright attended Alden Partridge’s military academy in Vermont (now Norwich University), which he entered at the age of fourteen.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
On July 1, 1837, Wright enrolled at the United States Military Academy. Among his classmates were Don Carlos Buell, Nathaniel Lyon, John F. Reynolds, and Confederate General Richard S. Garnett. Wright graduated from the academy on July 1, 1841, second in his class of fifty-two cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduation, Wright remained at West Point for four years, first as an assistant to the Board of Engineers, (1841-42), then as an assistant teacher of French (1842–43), assistant professor of engineering (1843-44), and again as assistant to the Board of Engineers, (1844–46).
During his tenure at West Point, Wright married Louisa Marcella Bradford of Culpeper, Virginia, on August 11, 1842. Their marriage produced three children.
Corps of Engineers
In 1846, the army transferred Wright to Florida, where he spent the next ten years working on various engineering projects. Officials promoted him to first lieutenant with the Army Corps of Engineers on February 28, 1848, and to the rank of captain on July 1, 1855. One year later, the army transferred Wright to Washington, DC, where he served as assistant to the chief engineer.
After the Civil War erupted, on April 20, 1861, army officials assigned Wright as chief engineer of an unsuccessful effort to destroy the Gosport Navy Yard (later, Norfolk Navy Yard), in Portsmouth, Virginia, before Confederates could occupy it. During the operation, Rebel soldiers captured Wright released him four days later.
First Battle of Bull Run
Following his release, army officials assigned Wright as chief engineer of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s 3rd Division. From May through July, Wright performed engineering duties in the construction of Fort Ellsworth and other defenses around Washington, DC. On July 21, 1861, Wright served a chief engineer for Heintzelman’s division during the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run.
Officials promoted Wright to the rank of major in the regular army on August 6, 1861. Five weeks later, on September 14, the War Department commissioned him as a brigadier general in the volunteer army. During the autumn, Wright took part in planning the Port Royal Expedition. He subsequently led one of three brigades that successfully executed the invasion plan from November 3–7, occupying the city of Port Royal and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Action in the South
The following spring, Wright took part in a combined army-navy expedition that resulted in the unopposed occupation of St. Augustine, Florida on March 11, and of Jacksonville, Florida on March 12, 1862. From there, Wright led a division during Major General David Hunter’s unsuccessful attempt to dislodge Confederate defenders of James Island at the Battle of Secessionville (June 16, 1862).
Department of the Ohio Commander
On August 19, 1862, the War Department issued General Orders Number 112, recreating the Department of the Ohio. Officials placed Wright in command of the reconstituted department, “composed of the States of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kentucky east of the Tennessee River, and including Cumberland Gap, and the troops operating in the vicinity.”
On August 23, 1862, Wright issued General Orders Number 1, taking command of the department and moving his headquarters from Louisville, Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio. During Wright’s tenure, the War Department issued General Orders Number 135 on September 19, 1862, which added all of western Virginia to the Department of the Ohio.
Wright commanded the department of the Ohio for only seven months. On March 12, 1863, President Lincoln revoked Wright’s promotion to major general after the Senate refused to approve it, leaving Wright ineligible to command a department.
Army of the Potomac
After losing his position as department commander, Wright briefly led the District of Louisville from March 26 through April 26, 1863. In May, the army transferred Wright to the Eastern Theater and placed him in command of the 1st Division of Major General John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Battle of Gettysburg
Wright’s division was present at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) but stood in reserve. Wright and his men did, however, pursue the Army of Northern Virginia, as it withdrew after the battle.
For the rest of 1863, Wright’s men took part in minor engagements in northern Virginia. In appreciation for his gallant and meritorious service at the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station (November 7, 1863), Wright received a brevet promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the regular army effective November 8.
When the 1864 campaign season got underway, Wright’s division took part in Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign (May 5-June 24, 1864). During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864), Wright received slight shrapnel wounds. Of greater consequence, Sedgwick received a mortal wound during the battle on May 9, as he was directing the placement of artillery. Wright immediately assumed command of the 6th Corps. Afterward, the United States Senate finally confirmed his promotion to major general on May 12, 1864. Soon after his promotion, Wright led the 6th Corps during the bloody fight at the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12, 1864).
In July, General Grant redeployed Wright and the 6th Corps Washington in anticipation of an attack by Confederate forces commanded by General Jubal Early. Wright’s troops arrived at the nation’s capital on July 11, the same day that Early’s soldiers entered the District of Columbia. The senior Union officer in command, Major General Alexander McCook, immediately sent Wright’s men to the front.
Battle of Fort Stevens
Wright’s men engaged Early’s forces on July 11-12 at Fort Stevens in the district’s northwest quadrant. During the Battle of Fort Stevens, President Lincoln rode out to observe the fighting. As the action heated, enemy sharpshooters wounded an army surgeon standing on a parapet next to Lincoln. Wright or one of his subordinates quickly ordered the president to take cover, possibly avoiding disaster.
Early had planned to launch a second assault against Fort Stevens on July 12, but in his own words:
. . .before it could be made it became apparent that the enemy had been strongly re-enforced, and we knew that the Sixth Corps had arrived from Grant’s army, and after consultation with my division commanders I became satisfied that the assault, even if successful, would be attended with such great sacrifice as would insure the destruction of my whole force before the victory could have been made available, and, if unsuccessful, would necessarily have resulted in the loss of the whole force. I, therefore, reluctantly determined to retire . . . across the Potomac to this county before it became too late.
That evening, Early withdrew his army from the District of Columbia.
Wounded at the Battle of Cedar Creek
Wright’s corps pursued Early’s forces into Virginia and joined Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah for the conclusion of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. Wright led his men at the Battle of Opequon (September 19, 1864), the Battle of Fisher’s Hill (September 22, 1864), and the Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864), where he received a wound to the left side of his face.
At the beginning of the latter engagement, Wright was temporarily in charge of the Army of the Shenandoah, while Sheridan was away at Washington. When Early’s Confederates launched a surprise attack, Sheridan was at nearby Winchester. Hearing the sounds of artillery in the distance, Sheridan dashed off to the site of the battle. He reached his fleeing army at mid-morning and began rallying his soldiers. Sheridan then ordered a general counterattack at approximately 4:00 p.m. that routed the Rebel army.
Although Sheridan received credit for saving the day, some observers claimed that Sheridan merely implemented plans already devised by Wright and that the outcome would have been the same had Wright remained in command.
In December 1864, Wright and the 6th Corps returned to the Army of the Potomac and took part in the Petersburg Campaign (June 1864–March 1865). Toward the end of that campaign, the army brevetted Wright to brigadier general in the regular army on March 13, 1865, for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Va.”
On April 2, Wright’s men were among the first Union soldiers to penetrate the Rebel entrenchments at Petersburg, forcing General Robert E. Lee’s army to abandon the Confederate capital at Richmond. Four days later, they played a major role in the overwhelming Union victory at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek (April 6, 1865). For his “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Capture of Petersburg, Va.,” officials brevetted Wright to major general in the regular army.
End of the War
As the Civil War wound down, Wright and his corps were present when Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House (April 9, 1865). Afterward, Wright’s corps was on the march to reinforce Major General William T. Sherman in North Carolina, when Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces at Bennett Place (April 26, 1865).
During Reconstruction, Wright commanded the Department of Texas from July 20 to August 18, 1866. While serving there, the army s promoted Wright to lieutenant colonel with the Corps of Engineers, in the regular army, on November 23, 1865. Wright served briefly as commander of the District of Texas from August 18-28, 1866, before mustering out of the volunteer army on September 1, 1866.
Wright remained on active duty with the Corps of Engineers for another eighteen years. During that time he served on many boards and commissions, overseeing internal improvement projects. On March 4, 1879, army officials promoted Wright to colonel.
Just a few months later, army officials named Wright as the army’s Chief of Engineers, with the rank of brigadier general, on June 30, 1879. Wright served as commander of the Corps of Engineers, and of the Engineer Bureau at Washington, DC., from July 3, 1879, until his retirement from the U.S. Army on March 6, 1884, at the age of sixty-four.
Wright lived the remaining fifteen years of his life in Washington, where he died at his residence on July 2, 1899, at the age of seventy-nine. Wright is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.