Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 77-78
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The Memoirs, Journals, and Civil War Letters of Orlando B. Willcox
This book is one of the most important primary accounts by a high-ranking Union military commander published in a very long time. Held by descendants and unknown to historians until Robert Garth Scott gained the opportunity to serve as editor, the memoirs, journals, and family letters of Gen. Orlando Bolivar Willcox comprise a voluminous and stunningly rich source on the life and times of an army officer who participated directly in many of the crucial events of the antebellum years and the Civil War.
Born in Detroit in 1823, Willcox was a brilliant youth who enjoyed reading literature and history, and he displayed a flair for vivid writing that graced even his earliest journal entries and letters. His testimonies of life as a cadet in the West Point class of 1847 and service as a young officer with Winfield Scott's army in Mexico are some of the most valuable in existence, as are his accounts of his campaigning against Indians on the western plains, his actions as part of the military detail that escorted the renowned fugitive slave Anthony Bums through the abolitionist mob in Boston, and his engagement in the Seminole War of 1856-57. After retiring briefly from the army to try his hand at practicing law in Detroit, Willcox found sudden relief from the "dull cold pall" of civilian life when the Civil War erupted ( 2).
Given command of the First Michigan Infantry, Willcox gained the authority to lead a brigade at First Bull Run, where he fought well but fell captive. He endured more than a year as a prisoner, first in Charleston, then in Columbia, and finally in the vicious confines of Richmond's Libby Prison. Exchanged in August 1862, Willcox received a brigadier's commission from Lincoln himself and took command of the First Division of Ambrose Burnside's Ninth Corps, performing with great effectiveness at [End Page 77] South Mountain and at Antietam. When Burnside took charge of the Army of the Potomac, Willcox became a trusted advisor and led the corps through disaster at Fredericksburg. Accepting much of the blame, he confessed, "I can truly say the failure of our bold, impracticable attempt upon the enemy's fortified lines was not unexpected" (404).
In the spring of 1863 the Ninth Corps was transferred west. Willcox commanded the District of Central Kentucky and soon afterward the Department of Indiana and Michigan, attempting to enforce harsh conscription measures and soothing the anger of Indiana governor Oliver Morton. After helping to thwart the escapades of Rebel raider John Hunt Morgan, Willcox was ordered to Tennessee, where his men sought to protect unionists and supported the defense of Knoxville against the Confederate siege. Early in 1864 Willcox had the opportunity to spend time with his superior, Ulysses S. Grant, "and it was there and then," he recounts, "that I discovered his real greatness--may I say his genius" (498). The several pages that Willcox devotes to describing and explaining Grant's capacities as a military commander are worth the price of the book.
In the spring of 1864 Willcox returned to the East to lead a division in the newly reorganized Ninth Corps, again under his close friend Burnside. Willcox played a stellar role in Grant's campaigns in Virginia during 1864 and 1865, especially the siege of Petersburg, and on several occasions he resumed his place as corps commander, winning promotion to brevet major general. Among the many revelations offered by Willcox, the most important is his description of the repulse of the desperate Confederate attack on Fort Stedman in March 1865, a critical action for which he and his command have received only scant credit in previous accounts of the Petersburg...