The Lightning Brigade, the 92nd, 98th and 123rd Illinois, and 17th and 72nd Indiana, was one of the most potent fighting units in the Civil war, and their audacious and overwhelming early victories sparked the creation of a brand new type of military unit, the mounted infantry. The Lightning Brigade was the creation of John T. Wilder, an imaginative and driven man who, after rising quickly risen to the rank of Lt. Colonel, was determined to build the finest fighting unit in the Union Army.

In early 1863, Wilder’s infantry brigade spent several frustrating months trying vainly to stop Rebel General John Hunt Morgan’s raids on the Yankee supply lines. Federal army didn’t have enough cavalry, and without horses it was an impossible task. Seething with anger, both at the Rebels and at the Union Generals sending him on these fools’ errands, Wilder asked for, and received permission, to mount his infantry. Permission or not, the army still had precious few horses. Attempting a short cut, Wilder procured nearly 1,000 mules from the supply trains and tried to saddle break them. The would-be troopers were nearly always bucked off in short order, much to the amusement of the men from other units who had gathered to watch. Undaunted, and proclaiming his men were operating in a “disloyal” country, Wilder ordered his men to sweep the pastures and plantations for horses. Soon, the majority were mounted smartly on Kentucky Thoroughbreds and Tennessee Walkers.

Wilder also decided the standard issue muzzle loading rifled musket was impossible to use on horseback and set out to find the best weapons available. Many cavalry troopers used breechloading carbines, but Wilder didn’t like them because their long range accuracy was poor.

Christopher Spencer, inventor of the Spencer seven-shot repeating rifle, had been touring the Army trying to promote his new repeating rifle, and Wilder attended a demonstration. Wilder was stunned by the firepower of the weapon – -14-20 rounds per minute compared to 2-3 for muzzleloaders – and decided to equip his brigade with them. Wilder’s men they voted unanimously to purchase the rifle on their own, a big investment since the $35.00 price was roughly equal to three months pay for an enlisted man. Using his hometown Indiana bank, Wilder co-signed bank loans for 1,500 rifles, using his personal wealth as collateral. The seven-shot Spencer would prove to be the most deadly rifle in the Civil War.

In late June, Colonel John T. Wilder’s Brigade” got their baptism of fire in a major campaign when Gen. William Rosecrans decided to use Wilder’s brigade to spearhead the Tullahoma Campaign in Middle Tennessee. On June 24, Wilder’s men pounded into Hoover’s Gap, shocking the Rebel troops with their speed and firepower. Their speed in taking and holding the Gap saved many Union casualties, and broke the back of the Rebel forces. Coming up behind, the rest of the Yankee Army quickly controlled all of Middle Tennessee. After that day, Wilder’s brigade was renamed ‘Wilder’s Lightning Brigade.

Three months later, The Lightning Brigade performed brilliantly again, this time on Snodgrass Hill, during the Battle of Chickamauga, where, vastly outnumbered, they saved the Union Army from complete encirclement and destruction.

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