Saturday, February 4, 2023

Booknotes: John T. Wilder

New Arrival:
John T. Wilder: Union General, Southern Industrialist by Steven Cox (Mercer UP, 2023).

According to author Steven Cox, his book John T. Wilder: Union General, Southern Industrialist is the first Wilder biography to appear in print since 1936. That now much-outdated earlier work, General John T. Wilder by Samuel Cole Williams, was published by Indiana University Press, and its very slim narrative (the main text being only fifty pages in length) is dominated by the subject's famous Civil War exploits.

Seeking to offer a much fuller and more modern biographical treatment, Cox's study reintroduces Wilder as an important figure in western economic development. From the description: Before the Civil War, Wilder "was an influential nineteenth-century American industrialist, and a successful foundry owner at Greensburg, Indiana." Though history ties Wilder most closely to the state of Indiana, his role as New South industrialist dominated his postwar life and career. "After the war, Wilder answered the call Chattanooga, Tennessee, issued for northern investors to relocate. Wilder developed mines across eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, and dabbled in the hotel and railroad business, as well as politics." Interestingly, though the description claims that Wilder "was heavily involved with getting the Chickamauga Battlefield established as the first National Military Park in the United States," the author's preface notes that Wilder's actual involvement "seems to have been limited, relying mostly on the use of his name as an endorsement" (pg. x).

Of course, Civil War readers are most familiar with Wilder's exploits during the Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns of 1863. Surviving the military career path embarrassment of surrendering the garrison of Munfordville, Kentucky to Bragg's forces in September 1862, Wilder redeemed himself the following year as the commander of a brigade of mounted infantry armed with repeating rifles, the celebrated "Lightning Brigade" of the Army of the Cumberland. Wilder's Civil War service occupies just over half of this book's 185-page main narrative.

With its wide margins, footnotes taking up page-bottom space, and large-ish print, this volume looks to be a brisk read. In yet another one of those inexplicable yet oddly frequent recurrences, after a nearly ninety-year gap there are actually two Wilder biographies slated for publication this year, this one and Maury Nicely's Forging a New South: The Life of General John T. Wilder (UT Press). Wilder's postwar business and political activities appear to be a major emphasis of both works.

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