John T. Wilder

January 31, 1830–October 20, 1897

John T. Wilder was a Union officer during the Civil War. He rose to prominence as the commanding officer of the "Lightning Brigade."

John Wilder, Portrait, Lightning Brigade, Civil War

John T. Wilder. Image Source: Library of Congress.

John T. Wilder Biography

Born on January 31, 1830, in Hunter, New York, John T. Wilder moved to Indiana in 1857 and established a foundry. When the Civil War began, Wilder was commissioned as captain of an infantry regiment on May 3, 1861. On June 4, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. Wilder saw his first action during the Battle of Cheat Mountain.

In November 1861, Wilder’s unit transferred to Kentucky. He was promoted to colonel on April 25, 1862. After being captured at the Battle of Munfordville, Wilder spent two months as a prisoner of war before being exchanged. He returned to action as a brigade commander with the Army of the Cumberland. In 1863, Wilder received authorization to mount his men on horses and arm them with Spencer Repeating Rifles. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade” deployed more quickly than foot-soldiers. Upon encountering their enemy, they dismounted and employed infantry tactics.  Wilder’s men passed their first major combat test at the Battle of Hoover’s Gap. A few months later, they performed well during the Battle of Chickamauga.

Shortly after his promotion to brevet brigadier general on August 7, 1864, Wilder resigned his commission because of illness. Afterward, Wilder moved to Tennessee where he became a successful businessman, and he served one term as mayor of Chattanooga. Wilder died in Jacksonville, Florida on October 20, 1897. He was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Chattanooga.

Quick Facts About John T. Wilder

  • Date of Birth: Wilder was born on January 31, 1830
  • Date of Death: He died on October 20, 1897.
  • Famous For: Wilder is most famous for establishing the “Lightning Brigade” during the Civil War.

Early Life and Career

John Thomas Wilder was born on January 31, 1830, in Hunter, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. He was the firstborn of Reuben and Mary (Merritt) Wilder’s five children. Wilder’s father was a millwright — a person who might install, maintain, or repair industrial machinery and equipment. Wilder came from a long line of military men. His great-granduncle Ephraim Wilder fought in the French and Indian War, his great-grandfather and grandfather fought in the American Revolutionary War, and his father fought in the War of 1812.

Wilder’s Inventions and Business

Wilder spent his youth in Hunter and attended the local public school there. At nineteen, in 1849, he moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he found work as a draftsman and then as an apprentice millwright. In 1857, Wilder moved to Indiana and established his own foundry in Greensburg. An accomplished inventor, Wilder patented several hydraulic machines that caused his business to prosper. By 1861, he employed about 100 workers and sold equipment to businesses in the surrounding states in the Midwest and Upper South.

Marriage and Family

Shortly after moving to Greenburg, Wilder married Martha Stewart, the daughter of a Greenburg founder, on May 18, 1858. Their thirty-five-year marriage, which ended with Martha’s death in 1892, produced seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. On September 3, 1904, at the age of seventy-four, Wilder married twenty-six-year-old Dora Lee. They remained married for thirteen years until Wilder’s death in 1917. 

John T. Wilder in the Civil War

Wilder enlisted as a private in the First Indiana battery and — no doubt owing to his technical facility — was quickly elected captain. 

When the Civil War began, Wilder organized a light artillery unit that became Company A, 17th Indiana Infantry Regiment. When the regiment was organized into state service at Camp Morton, Indiana, on May 3, 1861, Wilder was commissioned as a captain. Less than a month later, on June 4, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel (bypassing the rank of major). The regiment mustered into federal service in the volunteer army on June 12, 1861, with Colonel Milo S. Hascall commanding. A few weeks later, on July 1, it deployed to western Virginia armed with two six-pound cannons cast at Wilder’s foundry in Greensburg. Upon arriving in Virginia, Wilder’s company saw its first action during the Union victory at the Battle of Cheat Mountain (September 12–15, 1861).

On November 19, 1861, the 17th Indiana was ordered to Kentucky and assigned to General William “Bull” Nelson’s 4th Division of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Early the next year, after Colonel Hascall was promoted to brigadier general, Wilder received command of the 17th Indiana and was promoted to colonel on April 25, 1862. For the next month, he and his men took part in the Siege of Corinth (April 29–May 30, 1862).

Battle of Munfordville — Prisoner of War

On September 13, 1862, a Confederate cavalry brigade, led by Colonel John Scott, approached Munfordville, Kentucky, and its garrison of 2,600 federal soldiers commanded by Wilder. Believing that he held the upper hand, Scott demanded that Wilder surrender. After Wilder refused, Brigadier General James R. Chalmers’s infantry brigade reinforced Scott, increasing the number of Rebels threatening Munfordville to nearly 2,000 men.

On Sunday morning, September 14, Chalmers launched an assault against the Union garrison. During the day, Colonel Cyrus L. Dunham arrived at Munfordville with approximately 500 federal reinforcements. Dunham was the senior officer, but he chose not to assume command until the events of the day ended. Although the Yankees held their ground, Chalmers sent a note to Wilder that night demanding an unconditional surrender. When Wilder refused, the two commanders negotiated a truce that enabled both sides to recover their dead and wounded. His bluff having been called, Chalmers withdrew during the night along with Scott.

The next day, Dunham assumed command of the garrison and Colonel Richard Owen arrived with nearly 1,000 reinforcements expanding the size of the federal garrison to a little over 4,000 soldiers. Dunham’s troops spent the day strengthening their fortifications.

While the Yankees bolstered their defenses, Confederate General Braxton Bragg advanced his 34,000-man Army of the Mississippi toward Munfordville. Compelled to finish what Chalmers had started, Bragg divided his force into two wings, commanded by generals William J. Hardee and Leonidas Polk, and surrounded the Yankees.

With Munfordville surrounded, Bragg called for a truce and offered Dunham an opportunity to surrender. Dunham sent Wilder into the Confederate lines with his refusal but when Wilder returned he reported the Yankees were in a perilous situation. Based on Wilder’s observations, Dunham asked Bragg for some time to reconsider.

When Bragg agreed, Dunham telegraphed his superior, Major General Charles C. Gilbert, in Louisville, informing him that unless reinforcements arrived soon, he would have to surrender the garrison. Skeptical of Dunham’s assessment, Gilbert wired Wilder, ordering him to take command of the garrison. When Dunham refused to serve under a junior officer, Gilbert ordered Wilder to arrest Dunham for insubordination and send him back to Louisville. Although Wilder complied with Gilbert’s order, he knew that refusing Bragg’s demand to surrender would be senseless. Yet, he also suspected that suggesting surrender would prompt Gilbert to arrest him too.

Faced with a dicey situation, Wilder requested a meeting with Bragg, hoping to gather more evidence to support his inclination to surrender. Bragg agreed to meet Wilder again. When Wilder suggested Bragg prove his assertion that an overwhelming force surrounded the Federals, Bragg ordered General Buckner to lead Wilder on a tour of the Rebel positions. The tour, on September 16, convinced Wilder that his situation was hopeless. He agreed to meet with Bragg to negotiate a surrender.

Bragg and Wilder spent the night wrangling over the terms of capitulation before reaching an accord. At 6 a.m. on September 17, 1862, Wilder led approximately 4,000 soldiers under his command out of the Munfordville fortifications and surrendered to Bragg. The Confederate general’s terms were generous. Bragg paroled all the Federals and allowed them to march south toward Bowling Green and Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

Wilder spent two months as a prisoner of war in the fall of 1862 before being exchanged. He immediately returned to action as a brigade commander with Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland.

The Lightning Brigade

On January 2, 1863, the Union Army of the Cumberland defeated the Confederate Army of the Mississippi at the Battle of Stones River (also known as the First Battle of Murfreesboro) after three days of spirited fighting. Following the hard-fought Union victory, Bragg withdrew his army from central Tennessee to Tullahoma, near the Tennessee-Georgia border. As Rosecrans planned his pursuit of the Rebel army, Confederate cavalry commanded by General John Hunt Morgan harassed the Union rear and threatened their supply lines. Desperate to stop Morgan’s raids, Rosecrans wrote to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on January 14, 1863:

“I must have cavalry or mounted infantry. I could mount infantry had I horses and saddles…with mounted infantry I can drive the rebel cavalry to the wall and keep the roads open in my rear Will you authorize the purchase of saddles and horses for mounting, when, requisite, 5000 or more infantry?”

When the War Department proved unable to supply the horses Rosecrans needed, he issued Special Field Order Number 44 (Department of the Cumberland) on February 16th, 1863, stating:

“Brig Gen. J. J. Reynolds, commanding Fifth Division, Fourteenth Army Corps, is authorized to mount the Second Brigade (Wilder’s) of his command.”

Rosecrans and Wilder agreed the horses needed to mount the infantry brigade would be confiscated from “loyal Rebel citizens” from the surrounding Tennessee counties. By mid-April, the entire brigade was mounted.

Wilder also insisted on arming his men with newly introduced Spencer Repeating Rifles. Unlike the standard-issue breech-loaded muskets that a skilled soldier could load and fire a maximum of three times per minute, Spencer’s lever-action repeating rifle could quickly fire seven shots before needing to be reloaded. In the hands of skilled soldiers, the rifle could deliver up to twenty rounds per minute.

Spencer Repeating Rifle, Civil War
Spencer Repeating Rifle. Image Source: National Park Service.

Wilder was so impressed by Spencer’s rifle that he canvassed his men and they agreed to adopt the new weapon. Unfortunately, army officials were unwilling to purchase repeating rifles because of concerns about soldiers wasting ammunition. Refusing to be denied the new weapon, Wilder bypassed the War Department and personally ordered enough rifles from Spencer to arm his brigade. To pay for the weapons, Wilder mortgaged his business and home to secure a bank loan, and each of his men co-signed promissory notes to cover the price of their individual rifles. Later in the year, after the rifles proved highly effective, the army reversed its position and covered the cost. 

Although the brigade traveled on horses, Wilder and his men viewed themselves as infantrymen rather than cavalrymen. Reportedly, one of their first acts upon receiving their new uniforms was to remove the yellow piping that would have identified them as a cavalry unit. Much like the air cavalry units that were rapidly transported by helicopter to hot zones during the Vietnam War in the 20th Century, Wilder’s men used their mounts to deploy more quickly than traditional infantrymen who traveled by foot. Upon encountering their enemy, they dismounted and employed infantry tactics. 

Wilder’s men passed their first major combat test at the decisive Battle of Hoover’s Gap (June 24–26, 1863) during the Tullahoma Campaign (June 24–July 3, 1863). Following the Union victory, Major General George Thomas told Wilder, “You have saved the lives of a thousand men by your gallant conduct today. I didn’t expect to get this Gap for three days.” Thomas christened Wilder’s command as the “Lightning Brigade.”

Chickamauga Campaign and Battle of Chickamauga

Following the Union victory at the Battle of Hoover’s Gap, Confederate General Bragg’s Army of Tennessee retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland in pursuit. Early in September 1863, Rosecrans used Wilder’s brigade to deceive Bragg into believing that Rosecrans intended to cross the Tennessee River north of Chattanooga. Instead, Rosecrans divided his forces and crossed the river at three other locations, forcing Bragg to abandon Chattanooga. Rosecrans occupied the city on September 8, but rather than regrouping and securing the city as he had done at Murfreesboro, he pursued Bragg’s army into Georgia. 

During the second week of September, Wilder’s brigade probed Confederate lines in northern Georgia and skirmished with Rebel cavalry near Ringgold, Georgia.

In mid-September, Rosecrans realized that rather than being in full retreat, Bragg intended to attack the divided Union forces in northern Georgia. On September 17, Rosecrans ordered Wilder’s Lightning Brigade and Colonel Robert Minty’s cavalry brigade to hold back over 8,000 advancing Rebels at several bridges and fords as they attempted to cross West Chickamauga Creek. The two brigades were all that stood in the way of Bragg’s effort to cut off the Union army from Chattanooga. 

For over five hours, the two Union brigades held back the surging Rebels before they forced their way across the creek. Wilder’s men fell back three miles and formed a defensive line. Armed with their Spencer repeating rifles, the Lightning Brigade halted two furious onslaughts from a much larger force before the Confederates abandoned their advance at about 10 p.m.

Battle of Chickamauga, Rosecrans and Bragg in the Field
The Battle of Chickamauga. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Although Bragg punished the Army of the Cumberland for the next two days and forced Rosecrans to retreat to Chattanooga, Wilder’s Lightning Brigade and Minty’s cavalry had bought precious time for Rosecrans to reorganize his forces and prevented what could have been a much more devastating Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. Rosecrans later observed:

“His [Wilder’s] command merits the thanks of the country for his noble stand at the crossing at Chickamauga.”

During the rest of the battle (September 19–20) the Lightning Brigade was held in reserve and deployed to various hot spots to thwart Rebel advances and enabled the Army of the Cumberland to retreat to Chattanooga in an orderly fashion.

Resignation from the Army

During the summer of 1862, Wilder contracted typhoid fever. The disease required him to be absent from the field for three months and plagued him with bouts of dysentery. Just two months after his promotion to brevet brigadier general on August 7, 1864, Wilder was forced to resign his commission due to health reasons on October 5, 1864.

Post-bellum Career

After resigning from the army, Wilder returned to Indiana for two years. He then moved to the milder climate of southern Tennessee in 1866, where he had acquired some land before the war. The next year, he and two comrades from the war erected a blast furnace and founded the town of Rockwood about ninety miles from Chattanooga. He then established the Roane Rolling Mills, and later, Wilder’s Machine Works in Chattanooga. 

The thriving industrialist soon became a leading citizen of Chattanooga. In 1871, Wilder was elected as mayor of Chattanooga but his official duties interfered with his many business ventures and he resigned after eight months in office. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1876 and served as Chattanooga’s postmaster from 1877 to 1882.

In 1886, Wilder moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, where he helped found the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago Railroad. He also organized the Carnegie Land and Improvement Company which chartered a new community next to Johnson City in 1891.

When the Panic of 1893 impoverished his land development company, Wilder moved to Monterey, Tennessee, and then to Knoxville. Direly in need of an income, in 1897 he gratefully accepted an appointment from President William McKinley as a federal pension agent. 

Death of John T. Wilder

During the fall of 1897, Wilder made his annual trip to Florida to avoid the rigors of winter in Tennessee. He died in Jacksonville on October 20, 1897, at the age of eighty-seven. Wilder’s second wife, Dora Lee, returned his body for burial in Forest Hills Cemetery in Chattanooga alongside his first wife, Martha Jane Stewart.

Significance of John T. Wilder

Wilder established the “Lightning Brigade” in the spring of 1863. Mounted on horses and armed with Spencer repeating rifles, his men could deploy more quickly than traditional foot-soldiers and then punish their enemy with superior firepower.

Interesting Facts About John T. Wilder

  1. He was a successful businessman and inventor before the Civil War.
  2. He fathered seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. 
  3. At the age of seventy-four, he married twenty-six-year-old Dora Lee.
  4. Facing overwhelming odds, he surrendered his command at the Battle of Munfordville.
  5. To pay for the Spencer repeating rifles he wanted for the Lightning Brigade, Wilder mortgaged his business and home to secure a bank loan, and each of his men co-signed promissory notes to cover the price of their individual rifles.
  6. In 1871, he was elected as mayor of Chattanooga but his official duties interfered with his many business ventures and he resigned after eight months in office.
  7. During the summer of 1862, he contracted typhoid fever. The disease required him to be absent from the field for three months and plagued him with bouts of dysentery.
  8. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1876.

Accomplishments of John T. Wilder

  1. Established a successful foundry in Indiana
  2. Commanded troops at the Battle of Cheat Mountain
  3. Established the “Lightning Brigade”
  4. Commanded troops at the Battle of Hoover’s Gap
  5. Served as mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title John T. Wilder
  • Date January 31, 1830–October 20, 1897
  • Author
  • Keywords John T. Wilder, Wilder's Brigade, Lightning Brigade
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024