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Forgotten Leaders of the American Civil War – Horatio Wright, Hero of Cedar Creek

Horatio Gouverneur Wright was born in Connecticut in 1820. At the age of 14, he entered a military academy that would later become Norwich University. He entered West Point in 1837, graduating in 1841; his classmates included Josiah Gorgas, future Confederate ordnance chief, John F. Reynolds, Nathaniel Lyon, Don Carlos Buell, Israel B. Richardson, Abraham Buford (Cousin of John Buford who fought for the Confederacy) and Richard S. Garnett. He graduated second in this distinguished class.

Not surprisingly, given his high class rank, Wright entered the Corps of Engineers, and for years worked on coastal fortifications in Florida after a stint teaching mathematics and French at West Point. He missed out on the Mexican War. He eventually was appointed to be the assistant of the Chief of Engineers, and served in this post until the beginning of the Civil War.

Wright’s first assignment in the war was to oversee the destruction of the Gosport (Norfolk) Naval Yard. He succeeded in this task, lighting the fuses himself, but was captured by Confederate troops. Fortunately for him, he was promptly exchanged. Wright worked on the fortifications around Washington D.C. before being assigned as the chief engineer for the division of Samuel Heintzelman. He served in this capacity at the Battle of First Manassas. Promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in September of 1861, he served as chief engineer for Thomas W. Sherman’s Port Royal expedition, and later obtained a combat brigade, serving in coastal operations against the Confederacy, particularly the Battle of Secessionville and operations against Jacksonville and other Florida targets.

Wright was promoted to major general of volunteers in August 1862, and he took command of the Department of the Ohio in time to play a important support role in repulsing Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky. He funneled troops to reinforce Don Carlos Buell, as well as Bull Nelson’s short-lived command, and organized defenses for Cincinnati. Here Wright had his first contact with Philip Sheridan, asking that Sheridan be assigned as a cavalry commander to him; instead, Sheridan ended up as an infantry division leader who won glory at Perryville.

Wright’s administration of his department lead to controversy in Congress. Some Kentucky Unionists complained about him revoking harsh decrees Buell had made against anyone who aided the Rebel invasion of Kentucky; Wright pointed out that these decrees were inherently impossible to enforce. The Senate however, got rid of him by refusing to confirm his appointment as major general; Ambrose Burnside was sent to take command of the department.

Wright transferred to the Army of the Potomac as a division commander in one of it’s finest units, the Sixth Corps under “Uncle John” Sedgwick. Wright served as commander of the First Division, and led it during the Gettysburg Campaign, seeing no action during the battle itself, but spearheading Meade’s pursuit of Lee. A small force of Wright’s men particularly distinguished themselves when they launched a late-day surprise attack on a Confederate bridgehead at the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station, seizing the position and practically annihilating the Confederate force occupying it. It was the first instance of Union troops successfully seizing Confederate earthworks in one attack; the small Union force that launched the actual attack annihilated two distinguished Confederate brigades. This often-overlooked engagement was considered a calamity by the Army of Northern Virginia.

After some hard marching in the Mine Run Campaign, Wright saw his first full-scale engagement with the corps in the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. Wright’s men fought along with the rest of the Sixth Corps before the battle shifted south, towards Spotsylvania Court House. After initial failed assaults against Confederates on Laurel Hill, temporary trench warfare ensued as Grant sought a means to strike a telling blow at Lee. During this period, Sixth Corps commander John Sedgwick was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter. James Ricketts was the senior division commander at this time, but Sedgwick at some point had made his preference for Wright as a potential successor clear, and Wright took command, getting a quick confirmation from the Senate as major general this time. Wright initially fumbled at Spotsylvania Court House, but quickly grew into his role. By the time of Cold Harbor, he was moving the Sixth Corps with commendable promptness.

After fighting in the initial Petersburg operations, Wright and the Sixth Corps were sent to Washington to defend it against Jubal Early’s raiders. Upon the arrival of Wright’s men, realizing he was fighting the Army of the Potomac, Early quickly backed away. During Early’s attempt to seize Fort Stevens, Wright, by his own account, thoughtlessly invited President Lincoln to observe the battle with him from the battlements, and Lincoln accepted, much to Wright’s mortification. Wright’s pursuit of Early was deemed cautious by Lincoln, although Wright was likely suffering from real transportation issues at this time, and after discussion with Grant, Philip Sheridan was put in charge of operations in the Valley District. Wright’s Sixth Corps formed the backbone of his infantry force. Wright’s men spearheaded infantry attacks against Early at Third Winchester, pressuring Early from the front while Crook’s VIII Corps and Merritt and Averell’s cavalry crushed the Confederate flank. The Sixth Corps also participated with distinction at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill.

It was at Cedar Creek that Wright gave his best service of the campaign. Early launched a surprise attack on Sheridan’s spread-out camps while Little Phil was away, leaving Wright in charge. Wright quickly took charge, and leading from the front, fought hard against Early’s men throughout the day, suffering light injuries while furiously rallying and reorganizing his troops. Wright had solidified his position by the time Sheridan returned; the charismatic Sheridan launched the counterattack, which Wright later remarked he would have attempted himself if Sheridan hadn’t returned. The Union VI Corps, the heart of the resistance throughout the morning, crashed head-on into the Confederate army while Emory’s XIX Corps struck from the flank, and Early’s army was routed off the field. Wright had had quite a hand in this victory, and some of the Sixth Corps veterans noted it, as well as his gallant conduct on the field that day. The modest, courtly Wright, and the boastful, fiery Sheridan had one thing in common; gallant front-line leadership.

Wright’s VI Corps soon returned to the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. Wright, who initially could have been categorized as a typical, cautious but able Army of the Potomac officer, had become more aggressive by 1865, even impressing Ulysses S. Grant with his demeanor shortly before the final struggle for Petersburg. For the Five Forks operation, Sheridan wished to have Wright and his reliable VI Corps, but was given the more conveniently positioned V Corps instead. On April 2nd, Wright’s men spearheaded the Union assault against Petersburg, breaking through the formidable Boydton Line in twenty minutes and opening a fatal breach in the Confederate defenses for the XXIV Corps to exploit. After the fall of Petersburg, Wright’s VI Corps played a lead role in the pursuit of Lee’s army, and along with Sheridan’s cavalry and II Corps elements, dealt a deathblow to Lee’s army at Sayler’s Creek, crushing a fourth of Lee’s remaining forces. Wright received a brevet to major general in the regular army for his actions at Petersburg. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Wright took the VI Corps on a gruelling 25-mile per day in summer heat forced march to Danville, southern Virginia, in case Sherman needed support in North Carolina.

After the war, Wright commanded the Department of Texas for about a year until he resigned his volunteer commission and returned to duty as a lieutenant colonel of engineers. He worked on a number of engineering projects, including the Brooklyn Bridge and most famously of all, the Washington Monument. He became the army’s chief engineer in 1879, getting a promotion to brigadier general. Wright retired in 1884, and spent his last years in Washington D.C. He died in 1899, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Some more needs to be said about this very unknown but very worthy officer. Wright had no political connections and was a very modest man uninterested in self-promotion, leading to his relative lack of fame. He was admired by his contemporaries however. Upon Wright taking command of VI Corps, the rapidity with which he grew into the role was noted by Grant. Meade, a man who was very sparing with praise, had a strong respect for Wright, and he was well-liked by his soldiers. Few descriptions of him survive, but it’s clear he possessed immense personal bravery and ability on the battlefield which was noted by his men. Wright even accomplished the rare feat of winning the respect of Philip Sheridan, who later requested Wright and his VI Corps for his offensive movements in the closing days of the war. Wright also became more aggressive over time, perhaps reflecting the influence of serving under Philip Sheridan, and the success of Ulysses S. Grant’s attempts to impose his will upon the Army of the Potomac. Grant even remarked shortly before Third Petersburg that he liked the way Wright talked. Wright served in many capacities throughout the war, and possessed a vast amount of experience by the end. Wright possesses a prominent monument in Arlington, erected in his honor by VI Corps veterans for their former commander. Most who go to Arlington visit or pass by the grave of John F. Kennedy below the Arlington House. Clearly visible directly beneath the portico of the house are two large Civil War monuments; one belongs to Philip Sheridan, and the other, fittingly, belongs to Horatio Wright.

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