John Wilder left home, and, at age 19, began work as an apprentice in a foundry in Columbus, Ohio. By 1857, he had started own foundry in Indiana, and soon had a reputation as an expert in the field of hydraulics and inventor of new machinery. He erected several mills in the North and the upper South.
When the Civil War broke out, Wilder enlisted and was almost immediate elected company captain. He had forged two cannons at his Indiana Foundry and brought them along, too. He rose in rank quickly, and after the Battle of Shiloh, Wilder was promoted to Colonel and given command of a brigade.
In September of 1862, Wilder and his 3,000 man brigade were stationed at Munfordville, Kentucky. They were guarding the city’s 1,800-foot-long railroad bridge over the Green River which was a vital military supply route as the 25,000-man Confederate Army of Mississippi approached. On September 13, 1862, Confederate Brigadier General James R. Chalmers demanded the Mumfordville garrison’s surrender. Wilder refused. Over the next few days, the encircled Yankees inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking Rebels, but eventually, Wilder realized no reinforcements were coming. Outnumbered nearly ten-to-one, with 45 cannons surrounding him, Wilder surrendered. Wilder spent the next two months in a Confederate prison, seething at what he considered to be a great humiliation.
After Wilder was exchanged for captured Rebel officers in the spring of 1863, he was given a new infantry brigade. The Federal army didn’t have enough cavalry, so Wilder’s Infantry was given the impossible task of protecting Union supply lines against the quick hitting raids by Col. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry. His unit constantly skirmished with Confederate Cavalry, but the Rebels would vanish before the bulk his brigade could reach the fight. Any pursuit was futile. After months of this futility and frustration, Wilder requested, and received, permission to refit his unit as Mounted Infantry, the first such unit in the Civil War. When the army didn’t have enough horses to go around, so Wilder’s men tried to saddle break harness mules procured from the supply trains. This provided many hours of entertainment for other units who gathered to watch. Finally, Wilder, stating he was in ‘disloyal’ country, ordered his men confiscate hundreds of Kentucky Thoroughbreds and Tennessee Walkers.
Wilder also decided the standard Army rifle, a single shot, muzzle-loading Springfield or Enfield, was not practical on horseback. After a demonstration of its power, he got permission, with the personal intervention of President Abraham Lincoln, to arm his brigade with breechloading Spencer 7-shot rifles. The Spencers were shorter, lighter, much easier to load, and had a rate of fire of 14-20 rounds per minute, compared to 2-3 for a muzzleloader.
Once again disgusted by the ponderous Union bureaucracy’s lackluster effort in obtaining the rifles, Wilder came up with a creative solution to that problem also. After he had put it to a vote, his 1,500 man brigade voted unanimously to privately purchase and adopt the Spencer seven-shot repeating rifles. Wilder negotiated a private contract with Christopher Spencer, the rifle’s inventor, for 1,400 rifles at a cost of $35.00 apiece. Then, using his own wealth and property as collateral, secured a personal loan for each soldier through a hometown bank in Greensburg, Indiana. The $35 cost was a substantial commitment for each soldier, whose monthly salary was $13.
Wilder’s Lightning Brigade delivered brilliant performances at the battle of Hoover’s Gap, during the June 1863 Tullahoma campaign, and saved the shattered Union Army from complete destruction at Snodgrass Hill during the Battle of Chickamauga.
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