John T. Wilder: Union General, Southern Industrialist. By Steven Cox. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2023. Hardcover, 203 pp. $35.00.
Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick
John T. Wilder is on the short list of Union officers who commanded a brigade but never achieved the rank of general. Although brevetted, he certainly deserved the formal commission. Wilder had a successful army career. For example, he managed to hold the Munfordville defenses longer than expected during Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Kentucky Campaign, and afterwards he led a brigade of mounted infantry to glory in 1863, despite the loud skepticism of Henry Halleck and David Stanley, who both had no faith in that method of fighting. In addition, Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade” won applause at Hoover’s Gap and then raided Braxton Bragg’s rear, contributing to Bragg’s decision to abandon Tullahoma. With their mounts and Spencer rifles, Wilder and his brigade also fought at Chickamauga to acclaim. However, partly due to poor health and his association with William Rosecrans, and despite the advocacy of Oliver Morton, Indiana’s powerful governor, Wilder still never made general.
In John T. Wilder: Union General, Southern Industrialist, Steven Cox offers a straightforward biography of Wilder. He argues that Wilder was a man of flexibility and intelligence, which helped make him successful in war in an unorthodox way and as a post-war businessman in East Tennessee. Cox succeeds in making his point about what made Wilder successful. In doing so, Cox offers a well-argued thesis.
One of the challenges of writing about any Civil War commander is gathering pertinent first-hand primary source material. John T. Wilder certainly left some behind, and as such, Cox has an easier time of it than he would writing about a personality who did not produce as much writing. However, Wilder’s army experience does pose a bit of a challenge. He fought in only one major battle and two small ones. Wilder’s Civil War service was not as wide as many who still go unexamined and therefore offers somewhat limited opportunities to discuss his military leadership abilities. In addition, the section of the book covering Wilder’s military career is limited in offering new scholarship.
The sources that Cox chose to use are somewhat thin, thus the bibliography and footnotes are fairly sparse. The focus on Wilder is rather narrow, so in turn the wider contexts of the war and its aftermath partly go under examined, such as exactly why Wilder never received his general’s promotion. Another opportunity that Cox perhaps misses is adding to the existing scholarship about the performance of Wilder and his brigade during the Tullahoma Campaign.
Cox devotes a significant amount of the book to Wilder’s post war life. This particular discussion has the potential to enhance the reader’s understanding of Wilder’s experiences after the army and shed light on his business and family relationships. However, due partly to Wilder’s rather sedate existence following the war, Cox’s portrait of Wilder leaves the reader wanting more of the man. Again, some of this is simply the subject matter. G. K. Chesterton once observed that Charles Dickens wrote about many memorable characters but the ones that we all remember the best are those with personal foibles or low morals, such as the Artful Dodger, Jack Dawkins, and Ebenezer Scrooge. Those who lived good and honorable lives such as Lucie Manette and Joe Gargery are more often forgotten. Wilder falls largely into the latter category, but a deeper exploration into his expectations and challenges during this part of his life would help us know him better.
Biographies are challenging to write. Striking a fair and solid balance between praising a person too much or picking them apart can be difficult. One of the objectives of biography is to bring the person under study to life for the reader. John T. Wilder Union General, Southern Industrialist is a useful resource with important information about Wilder, but it also leaves us wanting a bit more of the flesh and blood man who took part in significant historical events and lived during an era of tremendous change.