Hodges: John Thomas Wilder: From invader to industrial innovator

Hodges: John Thomas Wilder: From invader to industrial innovator

April 6th, 2014 by By Anthony Hodges in Opinion Columns

Nearly every visitor to Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park remembers the 85-foot-high limestone tower. It has become the iconic symbol of the battlefield. Many traverse the steps to the top for the view. Others take time to learn of the "Lightning Brigade," whose position and valor the tower commemorates.

Few, however, learn the story of the Union officer who led the brigade as an "invader" but returned afterward to become a leading citizen and an architect of the industrial rebirth of Chattanooga in the postwar years.

John Thomas Wilder was born of Revolutionary stock in New York in 1830. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 found him in Indiana, where he had established foundries, mills and hydraulic establishments. The father of two daughters had patented turbine wheels and was one of the country's leading experts on hydraulics. Wilder decided to cast cannons in his foundry and raise an artillery battery for the Union, but that did not fit the high command's plans, and Wilder's men were mustered into the 17th Indiana Infantry.

As 1862 faded into 1863, Wilder was a frustrated man. He commanded a brigade chasing the horse-borne forces of Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan across Middle Tennessee. Wilder's foot-weary infantryman, even when crammed into wagons, had no hope of catching the fast horses carring Morgan's men. Wilder approached his commander, Gen. Rosecrans, and suggested he be allowed to mount his men on horses and mules "impressed" from the residents of Middle Tennessee.

In addition to mobility, Wilder wanted to add more firepower to his brigade. Rather than the muzzle-loading muskets used by most soldiers, which could be fired only twice a minute, Wilder wanted the Spencer rifle, a seven-shot repeater that used a metallic-primed cartridge in a tubular self-feeding magazine.

When the U.S. government would not pay for these improved weapons, Wilder took out a loan from his hometown bankers in Indiana, and his men each donated from their service pay to offset his expense. Eventually, the U.S. Government saw the benefits of Wilder's idea, and he and the men were reimbursed for their rifles.

At the Battle of Hoover's Gap in June 1863, Wilder's mounted infantry proved the value of mobility and firepower by quickly securing a vital position before the Confederates could react then held it against repeated assaults, inflicting much heavier casualties than they suffered.

The fame of Wilder and his brigade grew within the Army, and they received the sobriquet, "Wilder's Lightning Brigade." Again at Chickamauga, even in defeat, the Lightning Brigade's performance added more luster to the reputation of Wilder and his men. While the Lightning Brigade served honorably throughout the war, Wilder was forced to resign due to ill health in 1864 and return to Indiana. He was not done with Chattanooga and environs, however.

Wilder noted the natural geological resources of East Tennessee during the war, and, in 1866, needing a milder climate for his health, he returned as industrial innovator rather than armed invader.

Establishing a residence in Chattanooga, he worked with Hiram Chamberlain and W.A. Rockwood to organize the Roane Iron Works and the town of Rockwood in 1867. Next came the Roane Rolling Mills in Chattanooga, the two utilizing the Tennessee River to transport material between them.

Then followed: Wilder Machine Works, where he made his patented turbine wheel; Southern Car and Foundry; Durham Coal Co.; and Dayton Coal and Iron Co. One observer noted, "These ... enterprises projected by Gen. Wilder went far toward fixing the fate of Chattanooga as the industrial center of the Central South."

Wilder was active in Chattanooga's civic affairs as well, serving eight months as mayor and later a term as the city's postmaster. Perhaps his most lasting contribution came as chairman of the Chickamauga National Park Commission, where he was a prime mover in establishing the first national military park in 1895.

Wilder died Oct. 20, 1917, and is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery. An ex-Confederate Chattanooga citizen wrote of him: "... no man did more ... in bringing order out of chaos." The Chattanooga Times said, "He has been the true-tried, never-flinching friend of Chattanooga in sunshine, stormy adversity, and prosperity. He cannot be forgotten or neglected but by the ungrateful."

Anthony Hodges, D.D.S., is incoming president of the Friends of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call Lavonne Jolley 423-886-2090.