On the march to Gettysburg, Cadmus Wilcox was the most disgruntled brigadier in Lee's army. He was too much of a gentleman, however, too genial and good-natured, too averse to controversy to agitate for the major generalcy he knew he deserved. At the age of thirty-nine, he was older than most of the other professional soldiers who commanded brigades. At West Point, he had been in the Class of 1846 with George McClellan, Stonewall Jackson, and George Pickett; in the next class had been Powell Hill, Hood had been even later. All those men had risen higher. Wilcox had just saved the entire army with his delaying action at Salem Church during the Battle of Chancellorsville, and still he had not been promoted. Wilcox was ready to leave Lee's army for greener pastures.
In an army of bearded men, Wilcox's strong jaw was clean-shaven; he was six feet tall, with high cheekbones and a well-tended mustache, and no hint of gray in his short, dark hair. His careful barbering bespoke his "no nonsense" approach to soldiering. But beside this habit of being "precise and insistent on precision," with a military exactness in his speech and manner while on duty, he was amiable in camp, generous, friendly, and informal, with the ability to laugh at himself. He was known for his non-regulation attire--a short round jacket and a battered straw hat. His men called him "Old Billy Fixin."
Cadmus Wilcox had been born to a Connecticut Yankee father in the mountains of North Carolina and raised in Tennessee, where he attended the University of Nashville before receiving his appointment to West Point. After graduating near the bottom of his class at the young age of eighteen, he served as an aide in the Mexican War, seeing enough action to bring home tales of harrowing exploits at Chapultapec and Mexico City. In the thirteen years between wars, while most career soldiers were fighting dust, flies, boredom, and occasionally Indians in dreary frontier outposts, Wilcox took the scholarly route, teaching tactics for five years at West Point, then studying for two more years in Europe. He wrote a manual, Rifle and Infantry Tactics, and translated an Austrian manual on infantry tactics.
When the Civil War came, Wilcox quit the U.S. Army and entered the Confederate service as colonel of the 9th Alabama regiment. At the early date of October 1861 he was promoted to brigadier general, and was already commanding a brigade when the fighting started in earnest on the Peninsula the next spring. There, he led his brigade at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and the Seven Days' Battles. In the latter week of fighting he lost more than a thousand men, the largest loss of any brigade in the Confederate army. Wilcox himself was never wounded, though he received six bullets through his clothing in ferocious fighting at Frayser's Farm. His performances were marked by reliability and professionalism, but lacked any moment of brilliance.
Maj. Gen. James Longstreet had enough confidence in Wilcox that he put him in command of a three-brigade division at Second Manassas in August. There, Wilcox's performance was spotty. At one crucial moment, when a counterattack was ordered, he could not get one of his brigades moving. Later in the day, he misunderstood an order and brought only his own brigade forward when Longstreet wanted all three. Perhaps that experience confirmed Longstreet in the belief that Wilcox could only command one brigade at a time, or perhaps it was just Longstreet's long affection for George Pickett, but later that fall Longstreet chose Pickett, Wilcox's junior in rank, to head a new division. Thus passed over for promotion, Wilcox was justifiably disgusted. In November he informed Lee that he wished to leave the Army of Northern Virginia in the belief that he would have better prospects elsewhere. Lee, not wanting to lose a good soldier, refused to transfer him.
Between Second Manassas and Chancellorsville in May 1863, Wilcox did not play a conspicuous part in the army's success. At the time of the Maryland Campaign he was absent, sick. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, he was unengaged and able to do little. At Chancellorsville, however, Wilcox had his greatest day. There, stationed to guard a ford while the rest of the army was fighting a few miles away, Wilcox noticed one morning that the Federal pickets on the opposite bank were fewer in number. Bringing up his binoculars to have a better look, he noticed that the remaining pickets were wearing their haversacks, as if getting ready to do some sustained marching. Wilcox deduced that the enemy force at the ford did not intend to force a crossing there. He immediately left a small force to watch the ford and headed to join the main army with the rest of his brigade. As it turned out, the army was in peril. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick and his 23,000-strong Union Sixth Corps had broken through a token Rebel force left at Fredericksburg and were descending on Lee's rear. At Salem Church Wilcox found the best ground he could in front of the advancing Federal column and carried out a classic delaying action with his lone brigade, forcing Sedgwick's corps to deploy repeatedly, giving time for Confederate reinforcements to arrive from Chancellorsville and saving Lee's army.
At the time of the Gettysburg Campaign a few weeks after Chancellorsville, Wilcox had been in the military service for twenty-one years as cadet and as officer in the United States and Confederate armies. He was a bachelor--married to the army--without a break in the routine of duty since he was eighteen. Yet as a North Carolinian he was victim of the pro-Virginian slant of Lee's army. With his brilliant chapter at Salem Church now on the record, he was justifiably expectant of promotion. Yet still he waited.
| Wilcox's brigade led Anderson's division's stop-and-start march from
Fayetteville on July 1. When the division went into bivouac on Herr Ridge in
the late afternoon, they were posted farthest to the right, one mile south of
Chambersburg Pike near Black Horse Tavern. That night, Humphreys's Union
division took a wrong road as it approached the battlefield and almost bumped
into Wilcox's men in their camps.|
At 7 o'clock the next morning, Wilcox filed back onto the Pike and advanced to Seminary Ridge and then south along the ridge to Pitzer's Woods, where Anderson again placed Wilcox's Alabamians farthest right in his division's front, bending back their line to guard what was at that time the Army of Northern Virginia's right flank. Almost as soon as they deployed, about noon, they were involved in a short, sharp exchange with a 300-man Yankee force, sent forward to reconnoiter by Union Third Corps commander Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles. This clash with Wilcox's brigade was the first fighting on the sanguinary day of July 2. Shortly thereafter, Wilcox's men watched Longstreet's two divisions file south past their rear on the way to their jump-off positions for a late-afternoon attack on the Union left. Wilcox belatedly learned that he would take part in the day's assault--he would advance when Longstreet's men moved forward on his right.
About 6:00 P.M., when Longstreet's assault reached Wilcox's brigade, Humphreys's Federals in the Alabamians' front were already under heavy pressure from Barksdale on Wilcox's right. Wilcox's brigade crashed into Humphreys's line and drove them back in the gathering dusk, finally stopping to reorganize at Plum Run. There Wilcox sent back to Anderson three times for reinforcements to support the final assault on his target--Cemetery Ridge. None came. Wilcox ever after believed Anderson had been negligent on this day, but it is hard to see where the reinforcements would have come from, since the division had been formed in one long, thin line. Soon Wilcox was counter-attacked, notably by the valiant 1st Minnesota regiment. Seeing no one coming to his support, and seeing no hope of going forward or even staying where he was, Wilcox ordered his men back in the gloaming. His brigade left 3 of its 4 regimental commanders and 577 men--a full third of its strength--lying on the field.
On July 3, Wilcox was moved back up to within 200 yards of the Emmitsburg Road to support the Rebel guns which battered the enemy in preparation for Pickett's Charge, which went forward on Wilcox's left. After Pickett's men struck the Union line between 3 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon, Wilcox received no less than three orders to advance, and did so--about twenty minutes too late. By the time they reached Plum Run, Wilcox realized that Pickett had been repulsed ("Not a man of the Division that I was ordered to support could I see," Wilcox reported in disgust), and he retired before making contact with the enemy line, but after suffering 204 casualties from heavy artillery fire. Wilcox was in tears after this futile bloodletting. The Battle of Gettysburg was over.
Although no commendations were given by Anderson or Hill after the division's lack of success at Gettysburg, Wilcox's star was not dimmed. On August 1, two weeks after the death of division commander Dorsey Pender from his Gettysburg wound, Lee recommended Wilcox as the best man available to fill the vacancy. President Davis's acceptance of the recommendation was immediate, and on August 3 Wilcox was made major general at last. The choice was popular, especially with those who knew Wilcox. He served the rest of the war as a division chief, performing as he had as a brigadier: not brilliantly, but steadily.
For further reading:
Bolte, Philip. "Lonely Command: Isolated with his Brigade at Chancellorsville, General Cadmus Wilcox was Repeeatedly Challenged with Tough Choices Where the Wrong Decision Could Mean Disaster." Civil War 61, Apr 1997
Evans, Clement A., ed., Confederate Military History. Vol. 8, New York, 1962
Wilcox, Cadmus M. "'Four Years With General Lee'- A Review by C.M. Wilcox." Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 6, Richmond, 1878
_____. "General C.M. Wilcox on the Battle of Gettysburg." Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 6, 1878
_____. History of the Mexican War. Washington, DC, 1892
_____. Rifles and Rifle Practice. New York, 1859