Inspiring Lives: James Samuel Wadsworth

Wadsworth, James Samuel (30 Oct. 1807-8 May 1864), politician and soldier, was born at Geneseo, New York, the son of James Wadsworth and Naomi Wolcott. By the time of Wadsworth's birth, his father was the wealthiest land proprietor in New York State. Wadsworth attended Harvard for two years in the class of 1828, but he failed to secure a degree. He then read law under Daniel Webster, attended Yale Law School for a year, and followed with study in an Albany law office. He was admitted to the bar in 1833, but his heart was not in law, and he never practiced. In 1834 he married Mary Craig Wharton, whom the historian and diplomat John Lothrop Motley considered "the most beautiful woman in the country." The couple had six children. Following his father's death in 1844, Wadsworth inherited his family's great landholdings and wealth. Like his father, Wadsworth was a generous man who acquired a reputation as a well-known philanthropist. Although he did not seek public office, his standing in the community of Geneseo and Livingston County and his sense of noblesse oblige led Wadsworth into politics. Originally a staunch Democrat, his antislavery views caused him to break with the party and help form the Free Soil party. By the 1856 presidential campaign, Free Soilers had found their way into the Republican party. Wadsworth was a presidential elector in both the 1856 and 1860 presidential elections. When war threatened after Abraham Lincoln's election, Wadsworth served as a delegate to the unofficial "peace conference" in Washington in February 1861, which unsuccessfully attempted to provide a constitutional amendment that might avert war.

When the war began, Wadsworth, who was fifty-three, was appointed major general of New York troops by the governor. The appointment was political, owing in part to Wadsworth's prominent position in the state and his relationship with General Winfield Scott. However, when Wadsworth learned that all generals should be designated only by the president, he immediately resigned and offered his services as a volunteer aide to General Irvin McDowell. In the battle of Manassas (Bull Run) Wadsworth displayed great courage under fire and indefatigable energy. McDowell recommended his promotion to brigadier general of volunteers. Commissioned on 9 August 1861, Wadsworth commanded a brigade in the defenses of Washington until March 1862, when he was placed in command of the defenses. He caused alarm in Washington when he insisted that George B. McClellan (1826-1885) had not left sufficient forces behind to defend the capital. Consequently, Lincoln withheld McDowell's corps from McClellan's Virginia Peninsula campaigns. McClellan never forgave Wadsworth, writing in October 1862, "I have so thorough contempt for the man & regard him as such a vile traitorous miscreant."

With McClellan as an enemy, Wadsworth was unable to get service in the field. He reluctantly accepted the Republican nomination for governor of New York but was defeated in the election by Democrat Horatio Seymour. Following McClellan's removal from command of the Army of the Potomac, the way was open for Wadsworth to obtain a field command. On 22 December 1862 he was placed in command of the First Division, First Army Corps. Assuming his duties on 27 December, he applied himself to this responsible position with the same zeal and energy that was characteristic of his business career. Charles Wainwright, the corps chief of artillery, wrote on 12 March, "Wadsworth is active, always busy at something, and with a good allowance of common sense, but knows nothing of military matters." His division saw only limited action at Chancellorsville, but at Gettysburg, on 1 July 1863, it was the first infantry division to reach the field. Wadsworth's command suffered dreadful losses but distinguished itself in the battle by checking the advance of Henry Heth's division and buying time until the rest of the corps arrived. Wadsworth was typically brave and active but displayed inexperience as a field commander, particularly in the use of field artillery. Disappointed with the outcome of the Gettysburg campaign and with the reduced condition of his command, he asked to be relieved, and his request was granted. He was assigned to the Mississippi Valley to examine and report upon the conditions of the black troops being raised and subsequently served on a military court.

When Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Union armies, he reassigned Wadsworth to command of the Fourth Division, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac. Wadsworth led his division into some of the fiercest fighting of the battle of the Wilderness on the fifth and sixth of May. His bravery was conspicuous, and he had two horses shot from beneath him on the sixth. Finally, in the afternoon fighting, his division was outflanked and forced to retire. Wadsworth rode in front of his line to attempt to rally his soldiers but lost control of his horse, which carried him to within twenty to thirty feet of the enemy. As he turned to escape, he was shot in the back of the head and fell mortally wounded. He was carried to a Confederate hospital on the Plank Road, where he died two days later. A Confederate soldier, whom Wadsworth had treated kindly earlier in the war while a prisoner, had the general given a proper burial and wrote his wife to inform her of his death and where she might retrieve the body. His body was removed on 17 May under a flag of truce for reburial in Geneseo.

Although his ability as a general was modest, Wadsworth was a brave, selfless public servant and soldier. As one veteran wrote of him, "Wadsworth was not a holiday soldier. From the first clash of arms to the day he died he rendered constant, active and arduous service in the field."

Wadsworth's family papers, consisting of 7,000 items, are located in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Wadsworth's official reports and some correspondence are in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 vols., 1880-1901). The only biography of Wadsworth is Henry G. Pearson, James S. Wadsworth of Geneseo (1913), which is adequate. Additional biographical information can be found in In Memorium James Samuel Wadsworth 1807-1864 (1916); "General James S. Wadsworth," United States Service Magazine 4 (1865): 341-64; and Lewis Falley Allen, Memorial of the Late Gen. James S. Wadsworth Delivered before the New York State Agricultural Society (1865). For observations of Wadsworth while he served with the Union First Corps, see A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Col. Charles S. Wainwright 1861-1865, ed. Allan Nevins (1962). For background on Wadsworth's death at the Wilderness, see Edwin Steere, The Wilderness Campaign (1960), and Robert G. Scott, Into the Wilderness with the Army of the Potomac (1985). An obituary is in the New York Times, 11 May 1864.

Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press.

D. Scott Hartwig. "Wadsworth, James Samuel";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Access Date: Sun Oct 30 12:07:09 EDT 2011
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