Reflections on the General

wadscourtw On Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008 I was honored to have the opportunity to give
a speech on the occasion of the dedication of a statue of my
great-great-great grandfather, Civil War Brevet Major General James S. Wadsworth. The new statue which is on the grounds of the Livingston County Court House in Geneseo is a full-size replica of one that stands at the Gettysburg National Military Park. For those who missed the dedication, and for posterity, I thought I would include a slightly revised and extended version of my remarks here:

First I would like to thank the statue committee who worked so long and
hard to make this project a reality. I would like to especially thank Judith
Hunter who had the great idea for the project and I would be remiss if I did
not also thank my girlfriend Amy Carpenter who served on the committee. Finally, I would like to thank all those who contributed so generously to make this project happen.

In the house I now own, Hartford House, which was built by the General, we have a photograph that was taken at the dedication of the original statue in Gettysburg in 1914. In that picture is my grandfather James J. “Jerry” Wadsworth who was 9 years old at the time. I am very honored today, some 95 years later, to be able to represent the family on this great occasion.

In recent years we have heard a lot about the “Greatest Generation” who saved the world for democracy during the Second World War. Perhaps some members of that generation are here today. I hope you won ‘t mind, however, if I suggest that there have been other great generations in our history.

Our first great generation was perhaps the people of 1776 who won our independence and set up the great institutions of our federal government. Four score and seven years after that, however, we needed another great generation to come along and save our country when it was being torn apart in the great battle over slavery. James S. Wadsworth was of that generation, for he was born on October 30, 1807.

In the time alloted here, and considering the weather, I can not begin to tell the full story of all the acts of political courage and feats of personal bravery on the battlefield of this remarkable man. For those who want to know more, the General’s biography written by Henry Greenleaf Pearson and published in 1913 is probably the best source. Pearson was able to interview people, still living at that time, who had served on the battlefield with the General and could give a first-hand account of what they had seen.

For many years that book has been very rare and out-of-print. If you were able to find a copy for sale it would probably cost hundreds of dollars. Recently, however, we learned that the book has been reprinted by Kessenger Publishing as a paperback and it is available online for just $25. I am going to see if we can get our friends at the Sundance Books in Geneseo to stock a few copies.

Another good book on the military history of the General was written recently by Wayne Mahood of Geneseo. Wayne is here today. I am not a military historian, but I would like to mention a few facts about the General’s life that struck me as I re-read the Pearson book over the past few days.

First and foremost James S. Wadsworth was a son of the soil of the Genesee Valley. He was a farmer all his life. Of course, he inherited a great agricultural enterprise from his father, the first James Wadsworth who came with his brother William to Western New York from Connecticut in 1789.

You know the early years were not so easy. Finally after the Erie Canal was built in the 1820s, there was a cost-effective way to market the valley’s farm products and they started to make some money. For a time the Genesee Valley was the Granary of the Nation and they talk about the year that wheat prices went to $3 a bushel! Now $3 was a lot of money in those days, in fact, I don’t think the price got that high again for another 150 years!

They worked hard on the farm. At the age of 12, the General rode his horse all the way to New York City as part of a cattle drive with his Uncle Bill. That indicates the type of physical shape he was in, something that no doubt helped later in life in his military career.

Like other scions of the valley, perhaps, the General was a “high-spirited” youth. He attended both Yale and Harvard but did not graduate from either. He read law in the office of Daniel Webster but never practiced law.

He became involved in politics, but probably to the chagrin of his father, he joined the Democrat party of that time, not the Whigs. Even there, however, he was a radical joining the so-called Barnburner faction of that party. Later his fierce opposition to slavery caused him to join the Free Soil party and finally the new Republican party.

As he matured, he became known for his generosity and his philanthropy. He once sent a whole boatload of grain to Ireland to help with the Great Famine there.

After the election of President Lincoln he was a delegate to the Peace Conference in Washington in early 1861 which was a last ditch attempt to head off the Civil War. When he saw that the South was not willing to compromise he knew that the war must come.

In the first days of the war, the railroad tracks through Maryland were torn up by southern sympathizers and the nation’s capitol was threatened with isolation from the rest of the North. General Wadsworth again chartered a boat and at his own expense filled it with provisions for the Union soldiers and materials to rebuild the railroad. He sent it by sea from New York City to Annapolis.

Because of his political position, he was offered a commission as Major General of the New York State Volunteers. However at age 53, and with absolutely no military experience, he did not think it was appropriate to be a two-star General and he turned it down.

Instead, he volunteered as a civilian aide to General Irwin McDowell. It was in this capacity that he first saw action at the first battle of Bull Run. After that battle, McDowell recommended him for a commission as a Brigadier General, (a one-star general) and this time he accepted. This was the rank he would carry for the remainder of his life.

In 1862 he was appointed Military Governor of Washington, D.C. This was a highly sensitive position and he had to work closely with President Lincoln and became one of the President’s closest advisers. It was also politically sensitive because of the issue of what to do with the escaped slaves from rebel and border states who were flooding into the District.

Under the Fugitive Slave Act that was the law of the land at the time, the slaves could be taken prisoner and possibly returned to their owners. General Wadsworth was not much in favor of that and he did everything he could and even stretched the law a little to try to put a stop to it. In one case, he even ordered his soldiers to break into the federal prison and release some of the slaves being held there, which they did while temporarily taking the prison guards as prisoners.

In the same year he was nominated to run on the Republican ticket for Governor of New York. He had mixed feelings about that. He did not want to give up his important military duties and so he did not return to the state to campaign. Finally at the very end of the campaign he agreed to come to New York City and make one speech at the Cooper Institute on October 30.

Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, but it was still a controversial issue among many Northerners. Wadsworth’s political advisers told him to avoid the issue in his speech and stay on the safer ground of reuniting the Union and support for the President in general, however he could not do that.

The General gave a strong and fiery speech in support of the total abolition of slavery. This statement of principle may have cost him the election which he lost a few days later by just 11,000 votes. He received 49.1 per cent of the vote, losing to Democrat Horatio Seymour 307,063 to 296,492.

In 1863, the General was finally given a field command in charge of the 1st Division of the 1st Army Corp. It was as the leader of this Division that he fought at Gettysburg. In fact, the 1st Division was the first Union infantry unit in the field on the fateful first day of battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

As such, it was their mission to hold back the entire Confederate Army that was advancing from the west and north towards Gettysburg. They took a position on Seminary Ridge west of town and they tried to hold it as long as they could so that the rest of the Union Army could come up behind them and take a strong position east and south of the town. It was a desperate situation as they were greatly outnumbered and eventually outflanked.

For those of you who have never been to Gettysburg (and I urge you to go), let me explain a little bit about the location of the statue. In the original, unlike our version here, the General is facing west. That is because on that day he was facing the Confederate troops advancing from the west on the Chambersburg Pike.

His arm in the original then is pointing to the north. That was because, at a crucial moment of the battle, Confederate troops emerged from the woods on the Union’s north and began to roll up their right flank. This eventually made the 1st Division’s position untenable and they were forced to retreat through the town with the Confederates in hot pursuit.

The losses for the 1st Division on that day were heavy. Of the 3500 men that Wadsworth had under command that morning, barely one third answered the roll call that night. The losses included 331 killed, 1,280 injured and 598 captured. The losses were so heavy for the entire 1st Corp that, after Gettysburg, the Corp was permanently disbanded and the remaining troops were put into other Corps.

Although their losses were great, the 1st Division and the entire 1st Corp had accomplished their mission. Without their heroic sacrifice, the history of Gettysburg and the entire war would have been much different.

After taking some time off for an official mission to inspect the conditions of freed slaves in Mississippi, General Wadsworth returned to action the following year. When Grant reorganized the Army of the Potomac in preparation for the campaign of 1864, he removed a lot of the so-called political generals from field positions. Although Wadsworth was a political general, it is interesting to note that three different Major Generals wanted him to lead one of their divisions and he was eventually given command of the 4th Division of the V Corp.

It is also interesting to note that Wadsworth, then 56, was also the oldest of Grant’s generals at that time by a margin of at least 9 years. On May 6, 1864 Wadsworth was mortally wounded while leading his troops at the battle of The Wilderness. He died two days later in a Confederate field hospital. After his death he was breveted as a Major General effective May 6.

I am very proud of the General’s record and Geneseo should be proud of her native son as well. This is a great day for Geneseo.


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