James Wadsworth was a trim, vigorous fifty-six years old at the time of Gettysburg. Topped by snow-white hair, with striking white mutton-chop sideburns, he led his division with a Revolutionary War saber in his hand.
Wadsworth, however, was not a military man at all. His father had been one of the largest landowners in New York state, and raised young James with the expectation of inheriting public responsibilities. He spent two years at Harvard, and studied law, though with no intention of actually practicing. By the Civil War, James had taken his father's place at the head of the wealthy family estate, and, out of a well-developed sense of noblesse oblige, had in addition become a philanthropist and Republican politician. In this same spirit of public service he volunteered for duty immediately when Fort Sumter fell. Having no illusions about his military acumen, he first served as a volunteer aide on the staff of Union army commander Irvin McDowell, and was present at First Bull Run. McDowell recommended him for command, and even in the unabashed political free-for-all of the early-war army it must have raised a few eyebrows when he was jumped in rank all the way from volunteer aide-de-camp to brigadier general in August 1861. Wadsworth was given a brigade in McDowell's corps, and then in March 1862--before the end of his first year in uniform--he was made commander of the Washington defenses.
This last responsibility was too much too soon for the inexperienced Wadsworth, and the Union war effort suffered the consequences: it was Wadsworth who complained to Lincoln during the Peninsula campaign that the capital had been left unprotected by McClellan, resulting in Lincoln's fateful decision to withhold the entire First Corps from joining McClellan in his drive on Richmond. This made a bitter enemy of McClellan, and in the fall of 1862, seeing no prospect of serving in McClellan's army, Wadsworth allowed his supporters to run him for governor of New York against the anti-war Democrat Horatio Seymour. He was so intent on being a good soldier, however, that he declined to leave the army to campaign. As a result, he lost the election. He didn't seem to mind, enjoying the excitement and satisfaction of being with the troops in the field.
In late December 1862, after McClellan had departed army command for the last time, Wadsworth joined the Army of the Potomac as commander of the First Division, First Corps, when a vacancy among its division commanders was created by the promotion of General George Meade to the head of the Fifth Corps. He became much admired and liked by his new division, who were impressed by a man so devoted to the Union cause that he had given up a comfortable life and was serving without pay. The men were also won over by his attention to their well-being. Wadsworth was a stickler about things like adequate rations and decent housing, and in winter quarters the men found it not unusual to wake up before dawn on cold mornings and see the old man poking his nose inside to find out for himself whether the huts were warm and decently ventilated. (On the weary march to Gettysburg, he would seize civilians who stood cheering by the roadside and take their shoes for his own men to wear.)
Wadsworth's first battle with his division was Chancellorsville, and his inexperience showed when he was ordered to cross the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg. He waffled, first ordering the Iron Brigade down to the river in boats, then giving it up when they were fired on by Rebel marksmen on the opposite bank, then finally deciding to go ahead. The Westerners rowed across with only light casualties, Wadsworth himself swimming across on his horse just behind. Eventually, Hooker pulled the division back across the river, and the entire division was held uselessly out of the remainder of the battle.
Wadsworth had been at the head of the division for about six months, and had only been lightly engaged--at Chancellorsville--in that span. He was a stout fighter, however, and was developing into a good general, evidenced by the fact that he was one of the few non-West Point division commanders retained when the army reorganized the next year.
| Wadsworth's Division was in the vanguard of Reynolds's First Corps as
it marched toward Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, and was the first Union
infantry to reach the field. Between 11 o'clock in the morning until the
fallback at 4 that afternoon, Wadsworth's men did some of the bloodiest, most
heroic defensive fighting of the war on the ridges to the west of the
Attacked on McPherson's Ridge by Heth's Division as his men arrived, Wadsworth showed his inexperience in the first few moments when he withdrew part of Cutler's brigade and left Hall's Battery exposed, which made Hall pull his six guns out in such a hurry that a gun was lost; Hall was furious with Wadsworth. Artillery chief Wainright had spoken of trouble like this before, trouble that stemmed from Wadsworth's ignorance of the proper use and defense of artillery. Once the shouting stopped, however, Wadsworth did a good job, swinging the right of his line back when Rodes's Division attacked from the north, then pulling back in good order to new positions on Seminary Ridge when the McPherson's Ridge line was overlapped by the teeming enemy. Wadsworth saw over half his entire division disappear--either left crumpled on the field or trudging sullenly toward enemy prison camps--buying the time it took to gather the rest of the army in the formidable hills to the southeast. When the entire corps gave way that afternoon, Wadsworth and the remaining men of his two brigades withdrew to the north face of Culp's Hill, where, mangled and disorganized as they were, they were enough to intimidate Ewell and his lieutenants into calling off their attack at the bottom of the hill.
An image which shows how completely Wadsworth identified with his men was provided by a messenger who rode by Wadsworth on the evening of this first day at Gettysburg: "We found General Wadsworth sitting on a stone fence by the roadside, his head bowed in grief, the most dejected woe-begone person one would likely find on a world-around voyage--a live picture of Despair: General Reynolds killed, the first corps decimated a full half, and its first division almost wiped out of existence. The General greeted us warmly, adding, 'I am glad you were not with us this afternoon.'"
On evening of July 2, just as the defenses of Culp's Hill were being stripped to provide reinforcements for the embattled Federal left, Wadsworth's remnants were closest at hand when Ed Johnson's Stonewall Division came rushing up the hill toward "Old Pop" Greene's lone Twelfth Corps brigade on the right. Wadsworth, though under attack himself, was able to send two regiments to Greene, and the thin Union force was able to hang onto the hill through the night. A massive counterattack drove the Rebels off the hill the next morning.
Wadsworth left the army on July 15, less than two weeks after Gettysburg. After eight months' absence, he returned in March 1864, again to command a division in the Army of the Potomac--until he was shot in the forehead and killed in the battle of the Wilderness on May 8, 1864.
For further reading:
Allen, Louis F. Memorial of the Late Gen. James S. Wadsworth. . . . Buffalo, 1864
Pearson, Henry G. James S. Wadsworth of Geneseo: Brevet Major-General of United States Volunteers. New York, 1913