A Notable Bully: Colonel Billy Wilson, Masculinity, and the Pursuit of Violence in the Civil War Era
By Robert E. Cray
The Kent State University Press, 2021, $55 – hardcover
U.S. Civil War history is an epic and compelling drama starring dozens of A-list actors like Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Lee, and Sherman alongside hundreds of B-List politicians, general officers, and others. Although such figures dominate Civil War historiography, vast and dynamic stages in multiple theaters afford ample space for thousands of minor cast members to make brief appearances, garner a few headlines, and then disappear from historical memory. Few of these bit players ever see their lives and deeds recounted in a book-length biography. Professor Robert Cray of Montclair State University rescues an unusual character from historical obscurity and helps readers understand how a culture of urban street violence intersected with military necessity to transform a criminal political operative into a colonel of a Union regiment.
Billy Wilson was an immigrant who used his fists and guile to bludgeon his way to minor fame and fortune as a pugilist, pawn broker, immigrant-runner, ticket-scalper, and political muscle in the savage underworld of New York City’s notorious First Ward. Mayor Fernando Wood’s Democratic Party cronies rewarded him with nomination and election as alderman, but his propensity for violence and disregard of authority doomed him to one short term. He resurrected his reputation by raising a regiment of local toughs and ex-cons at the outbreak of the Civil War, becoming colonel and commander of the Sixth New York Volunteer Infantry, popularly known as the “Wilson Zouaves.” Wilson’s incompetence as a leader was apparent early as his first and second officers were cashiered and dismissed from service. Wilson and his troops performed poorly in their only substantive engagement against Brigadier General Richard Andeson’s Confederates at Santa Rosa Island, Florida in October, 1861. Wilson’s Zoauves sustained their infamous reputation for drunkenness, theft, and dereliction of duty throughout their stays in Pensacola and New Orleans, plundering plantations and refusing to fight alongside Black soldiers near Fort Hudson.
The final episode of Wilson’s ignoble wartime saga occurred in March 1863, when his men physically assaulted Brigadier General William Dwight and attempted to throw him overboard and raid his liquor stores. Wilson was asked to restore order but refused, going to bed instead. He was arrested and held for eighty days. He was restored to command in time to allow fifty Confederate officer prisoners to overpower his men on a tugboat and escape. Returning to New York in June, 1863, he was relieved of command, but did help raise 300 volunteers to help quell the New York draft riots on Staten Island. Subsequent attempts to garner another commission were quashed by the adjutant general and a brevet promotion to brigadier general was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1865. Curiously, President Johnson granted him the honorary rank in 1866. Wilson lived out the balance of his years in comfortable, quiet retirement upstate, but still managed to finagle a lucrative appointment to the New York Customs House in 1869. He died in 1874 with a substantial estate from his various legal and extralegal pursuits. Diarist George Templeton Strong remembered him as “colonel in 1861 of Billy Wilson’s Zouaves, a most debauched regiment.”
Professor Cray demonstrated scholarly courage in attempting to pen the biography of such an unlikable minor character. To his credit, Cray seldom excuses Wilson from his despicable actions or his failings as a leader. His characterization of Wilson as a determined fighter in the rough and tumble environment of immigrant ghettos is fascinating and refreshing in a genre too often prone to hero worship. On the other hand, choosing to write a biography of a man whose immigrant origins and family life are almost completely unknown is treacherous territory for a scholar. Wilson left no personal papers, so what we know about him rests primarily on his few public statements and the impressions of others. Furthermore, Cray relies almost exclusively on newspaper accounts, so his evidence is often conflicting and subject to partisan bias. When Cray claims that Wilson “felt no qualms” (p. 18) about using violence to achieve his ends and “espoused a rough masculinity” (p. 19), he crosses the line into speculation. We have no idea how Wilson felt, since we have no personal letters to tell us what he felt or if he equated violence with masculinity.
What Cray lacks in primary sources he supplements with an astounding depth of secondary references from eminent scholars in the fields of political violence, immigration studies, and urban history. Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Joanne Freeman, Mark Neely, and many others allow Cray to synthesize their in-depth studies and paint an accurate and credible picture of immigrant life and politics in mid-century New York City. In this sense, the book has more value as a window into that experience, with Wilson’s Civil War service seen as an unfortunate diversion. But if Wilson had not commanded a regiment, however poorly, would Cray had taken the project on? Probably not, as his interest in Wilson stemmed from an ancestor who had fought under Colonel Billy.
A Notable Bully is useful for anyone interested in immigrant history or politics in nineteenth century New York. It allows Civil War enthusiasts to compare and contrast Billy’s regiment of street toughs and hoodlums with rural regiments composed of farm boys led by attorneys and merchants. As a biography, however, the book has grave limitations given the absence of Billy’s voice in the narrative. But Cray did the most he could have done with extant sources. The result is an interesting story told chiefly from the perspective of press reports, which, after all, gave most nineteenth century people outside of New York City their only impression of this unusual man and his scrappy existence.
David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).