Book Review: Forging a New South: The Life of General John T. Wilder

Forging a New South: The Life of General John T. Wilder. By Maury Nicely. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2023. Hardcover, 520pp. $55.00.

Reviewed by Brian Steel Wills

During the American Civil War, John T. Wilder secured for himself and his specialized mounted infantry command a reputation for effectiveness and aggressiveness in the field. Wilder recognized the necessity of adapting new tactics by securing mounts for his men and arming the command with seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles that he enabled his men to acquire through their own resources. As a result, he prepared his “Lightning Brigade” to render valuable service in the field for the Union.

Even so, Wilder’s efforts were not without difficulties. He suffered an early setback when compelled to surrender his post at Munfordville, Kentucky to Braxton Bragg’s 1862 advance into the Bluegrass State, but the Union officer suffered no irreparable damage to his reputation.  Following his exchange from captivity, Wilder also experienced the problems associated with pursuing the mounted raiders of John Hunt Morgan with infantry. Yet, the command’s subsequent performance in William Rosecrans’s Tullahoma Campaign, particularly at Hoover’s Gap, and in feinting a threat toward Chattanooga, brought Wilder and his men a new level of confidence and renown. During hard fighting at Chickamauga, the unit won additional notoriety for firepower and tenacity that often proved overwhelming to their more numerous opponents. Despite such hard won plaudits, Wilder’s poor health cut short his active career. However, at the close of the war and throughout his long life, he achieved successes as a civilian entrepreneur, helping to revitalize the regions of East Tennessee and Chattanooga through resource development and promotion.

In Forging a New South, author Maury Nicely follows New York-born Wilder from his early life in Ohio and Indiana, before tackling his wartime contributions. However, as the title suggests, the author spends considerable energy on the former soldier’s postwar activities and the ways in which he became a leading figure in developing regional resources. Along the way, what emerges is a portrait of an independent and energetic personality who met numerous challenges, more often successfully than not.

For those interested in focusing on Wilder’s wartime experiences, the work proceeds more episodically than analytically. For instance, there is little depth to the Wilder-George Thomas relationship, and the characterization of an “acquiescent” Thomas (50) demonstrates little more than a surface understanding of the circumstances and Thomas’s reactions to them when the relief of Don Carlos Buell turned command over to Rosecrans rather than the loyal Virginian.

The postwar “Part 2: Old South to New South” understandably focuses on Wilder’s role in bringing change to the economic underpinnings of the part of the South that he comes to call home. Much of this becomes a meticulous description of business relationships and enterprises. Even Wilder’s failed foray into politics (other than a very short-term stint as mayor of Chattanooga) when he canvasses as a Republican candidate for Congress in 1886 rests mostly on newspaper accounts rather than offering an understanding of regional politics and alliances. Wilder is disappointed that the Democrats that he had counted on for support did not rally to his cause or that the people of his beloved Chattanooga remained largely quiet in answering the devastating and detracting attacks made against him, but readers will still be left to understand why that was the case. “It was the first time Wilder’s brigade was ever beaten (320),” the former soldier lamented, but there is little beyond that admission to provide an assessment or analysis.

Wilder could be brash, as he demonstrated in a response he made to the Duke of Marlborough’s query concerning the extent of his mining operations in which he imagined that “the Devil is making iron from the bottom of it” (p. 286). Ironically, the most fascinating insight into Wilder’s personality at this stage in his life is the damning “Gen. John T. Wilder’s Soliloquy,” printed in an opposing newspaper that the author dismisses as “a sarcastic verse . . . attacking Wilder’s character and portraying him as a petty, loudmouthed braggart.” (315-16)

Certainly, John Wilder was an enigmatic personality, whose lengthy lifespan allowed him to become as much a factor in postwar development as he had been in helping the Union forces achieve success in the Western Theater. Forging a New South captures the degree to which a soldier who had experienced success in the war that engulfed the nation could also work diligently and effectively to help rebuild the economy and enhance the prospects of the defeated South. Wilder may have said it best when he explained that the same individual who had once shelled Chattanooga during the war was now a proud and productive citizen of the city.


Brian Steel Wills is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA. In addition to leading tours, offering lectures, and conducting programs, Dr. Wills is the award-winning author of many books relating to the Civil War, including biographies of Confederate generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and William Dorsey Pender, and Union general George Henry Thomas. Brian has also written about the Civil War in the movies and recently published a study on noncombat deaths in the Civil War. He is a graduate of the University of Richmond, Virginia, and the University of Georgia. He spends time on his farm in Virginia when not teaching and working in Kennesaw.

2 Responses to Book Review: Forging a New South: The Life of General John T. Wilder

    1. I read this biography and thoroughly enjoyed it. Wilder explored the mountain regions of the south during his wartime service and even collected minerals in his “spare time.” He saw business opportunities there but also was genuinely interested in bringing about sectional reconciliation. A disinformation campaign against Wilder when he ran for mayor shows the power of such efforts in confusing and alienating certain voters.

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