Horatio Wright was a career army officer, engineer, and general in the American Civil War.
Horatio Gouverneur Wright was born on March 6, 1820 in Clinton, Connecticut, the son of Edward and Nancy Wright. At the age of 14 he began studying at Alden Partidge’s Military Academy in Northfield, Vermont, which would later become Norwich University. At the age of 17 in 1837 Wright entered the United States Military Academy, becoming part of the West Point Class of 1841. He graduated number two in his class of 52 cadets, which included Don Carlos Buell, Abraham Buford, Richard Brooke Garnett, Robert Garnett, Schyler Hamilton, Albion Howe, John M. Jones, John Fulton Reynolds, Israel B. Richardson, Alfred Sully, James Totten, Zealous Tower, and Amiel Whipple, all of whom became generals in the Civil War.
Early military career
Wright’s high standing in his class allowed him to join the coveted Corps of Engineers as a Second Lieutenant on July 1, 1841. He stayed on at West Point until 1844 as Assistant to the Board of Engineers, Assistant Teacher of French and Assistant Professor of Engineering.
In 1846 Wright went to Florida as Superintending Engineer of the construction of Fort Jefferson in the Tortugas and working on projects such as repairs to the St. Augustine seawall, and improvements to the St. John’s River. On February 28, 1848 Wright was promoted to First Lieutenant n the Engineers. He became Superintending Engineer building Fort Taylor and the Navy Coal Depot at Key West in 1854-55.
On July 1, 1855 Wright was promoted to Captain in the Engineers for 14 years of service. He moved to Washington, D.C. and became Assistant to the Chief Engineer. He served as a Member of the Board for arranging details of Iron Carriages and Platforms for Sea-coast Guns in 1860, He was also part of a Board for testing and reporting on the qualities of the 15‑inch gun.
Early Civil War
When Virginia seceeded from the Union in April of 1861 Wright became Chief Engineer of the Expedition that was sent to destroy the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk. He was briefly captured, but released four days later since Virginia had not yet joined the Confederacy. Afterwards he turned down the offer of promotion to Major in the newly created 13th United States Infantry Regiment. He chose instead to become a volunteer aide to Brigadier General Heintzelman on May 24, 1861 when he led troops across the Potomac to occupy the Virginia heights overlooking Washington.
From May 25 to July 15 Wright constructed Fort Ellsworth and other fortifications in the Washington Defences. He took part in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, 1861 as Chief Engineer of Heintzelman’s Division.
Florida, South Carolina, Ohio and Kentucky
Wright returned from the defeat at Bull Run to be attached to the Port Royal, South Carolina Expedition as Chief Engineer. On August 6, 1861, he was promoted to Major in the Corps of Engineers, and on September 4, 1861 to Brigadier General in the United States Volunteers., and was given command of a brigade. He made a personal reconnaisance of the Confederate positions at Port Royal on November 5, and took part in the capture of Hilton Head on November 7, 1861.
From February 28 until June 2, 1862 Wright was given command of the land forces in the Florida Expedition. His men captured Fernandina, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, Florida. On June 16, 1862 they attacked Secessionville on James’ Island, South Carolina.
On July 18, 1862 Wright was promoted to Major General of Volunteers. He was given command of the Department of the Ohio on August 19, 1862, and played a major logistical role in stopping Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky. But Wright’s appointment to major general was not approved by the Senate and was revoked in March 1863. This prevented him from commanding the Army of the Ohio. On March 26, 1863 he was briefly assigned to command of the District of Louisville, Kentucky.
Army of the Potomac
In May of 1863 Horatio Wright was transferred to the Army of the Potomac and was given command of the First Division in the Sixth Corps. During the Gettysburg Campaign he led his division on a 35 mile forced march to reach the battlefield on the second day of the battle. Wright’s division was kept in reserve and suffered almost no casualties, but was a welcome support for the badly pressed Union flank.
Wright led his division in the pursuit of Lee’s army to Warrenton, Virginia, and in the Rapidan Campaign. He temporarily commanded the Sixth Corps during the successful night attack and capture of the Convederate position at Rappahannock Station, Virginia, on November 8, 1864, while Sedgwick had overall command of the attack force. For his “Gallant and Meritorious Service” at the Battle of Rappahannock Station he was promoted to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel in the Regular Army.
He led his division through the Mine Run Campaign at the end of 1863 and at the beginning of the Overland Campaign in May of 1864.
Command of the Sixth Corps
Wright took over the Sixth Corps after the death of John Sedgwick at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 12, 1864. He was promoted for the second time to Major General of Volunteers (confirmed this time by the Senate) and was promoted to Brevet Colonel in the Regular Army for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Spottsylvania.” He continued to command thr Sixth Corps through the advance of Richmond and into the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign.
When a Confederate army under Jubal Early threated Washington D.C. in July of 1864 the Sixth Corps was urgently shipped north from Petersburg. Part of it provided a dependable core of veterans at the Battle of Monocacy, which delayed the Confederate advance by one vital day. More Sixth Corps veterans manned the Washington defences. Early’s men were turned away at the very edge of the city in a battle where Wright stood under fire on the parapet of Fort Stevens next to Abraham Lincoln.
Wright’s Sixth Corps pursued Early’s Confederates back to the Shenandoah Valley, fighting at Snicker’s Gap on July 18, 1864 before returning to Washington in preparation for being shipped south to the Petersburg front.
Sheridan’s Valley Campaign
But it was decided that Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley needed to be hunted down and eliminated. The Sixth Corps became part of Sheridan’s Army of the Valley, veteran troops and officers that Sheridan came to depend on. The campaign started out slowly, with a a great deal of manuevering punctuated by a fight at Charlestown, Virginia on August 21, 1864.
Sheridan finally launched his offensive with the Third Battle of Winchester (Battle of Opequan) on September 19, 1864. The Sixth Corps was on the left flank of Sheridan’s army, driving down the main road to Winchester. They took heavy casualties, including the death of the commander of the First Division, Brigadier General David A. Russell. But After a hard all-day battle Early’s line collapsed and Wright’s men were treated to the rare sight of a Confederate army streaming off a battlefield in disorder.
Exhaustion and nightfall limited pursuit and Early was able to reform his men twenty miles south at the excellent defensive position of Fisher’s Hill. But at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill on September 22, 1864, Sheridan was able to manuever Early out of his defenses with minimal casualties. Once again the Confederates left the field in disorder, and it was hoped that Early’s army was finally finished.
But Jubal Early had one more trick up his sleeve with the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. Sheridan’s army was dispersed in camps planned more for access to water rather than defence, comfortable that there was no threat. Sheridan was away, returning from a meeting in Washington, leaving Wright in temporary command. Early’s men came out of the predawn gloom in a dense fog, overrunning the first Union positions before they knew they were in danger.
While the rest of the Union infantry fled the battlefield, Wright right led the Sixth Corps in a fighting withdrawl that, combined with Confederate exhaustion and some looting, slowed and eventually halted the Confederate advance. When Sheridan arrived on the field after his epic ride from Winchester he found the Sixth Corps drawn up in line of battle with Wright in command, head wrapped in a bloody bandage. Sheridan reformed the army around Wright’s men, leading it in the counterattack that swept the Early’s Confederate threat from the Shenandoah Valley for good.
Return to Petersburg and Road to Appomattox
The Sixth Corps returned to the Petersburg front by December. On Wright received two promotions backdated to March 13, the first to Brevet Brigadier General in the Regular Army for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Cold Harbor,” and the second to Brevet Major General in the Regular Army for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Capture of Petersburg” (which didn’t occur until April.)
When Grant launched the final assault on the Petersburg lines on April 2, 1865, the Sixth Corps was the first to break through the Confederate line. During the pursuit of Lee’s men to Appomattox the Sixth Corps took thousands of prisoners at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. Wright and his Sixth Corps followed Lee’s men to Appomattox Court House and were part of the surrounding forces that forced his surrender.
The Sixth Corps headed towards North Carolina to take on the last Confederate army in the east under Johnson. But he surrendered before they could join Sherman, and they returned to Washington in the last two weeks of May. On June 2 the Sixth Corps was mustered out of existence.
Wright was given command of a provisional corps which he organized in June and July. He was assigned command of the Department of Texas on July 20, 1865. On November 23, 1865 Wright was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Corps of Engineers. He was assigned to command the District of Texas from August 18-28, 1866, and on September 1, 1866 mustered out of volunteer service, reverting to his substantive rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
After the war Wright returned to engineering, working on a large number of projects:
Sepember 11, 1866, to May 18, 1867 – Member of Board to conduct Experiments on the use of Iron in Permanent Defenses.
October 2 to November 24, 1866 – Board of Engineers to carry out in detail the Modification of the defenses in the vicinity of New York.
November 6‑28, 1866 – Board to prepare Engineer Regulations
November 8, 1866, to May 18, 1867 – Assistant to the Chief of Engineers in charge of the Third Division of the Engineer Department at Washington, D. C.
January 18 to February 6, 1867 – Member of Board for the Armament of Fortifications
May 18, 1867 -to June 30, 1879 – Board of Engineers for Fortifications and Harbor and River Obstructions, required for the Defense of the Territory of the United States.
March 28 to November 12, 1873 – Leave of absence in Europe
February, 1868 — Board on Block Island Breakwater, Rhode Island
August, 1868 – Board to test Beaupré’s system of constructing cannon
March to May, 1869 – Commission on East River Bridge, from New York to Brooklyn
June 29 to November 22, 1870 – Commission to Europe to collect information upon the fabrication of Iron for Defensive purposes
April to December, 1871 – Commission upon the Sutro Tunnel in the State of Nevada
November 8, 1871, to August 29, 1872 – Board on Delaware Breakwater Harbor of Refuge
February 3‑14, 1872, and Dec.ember 1873 – Board on Improvement of Mobile Harbor, Alabama
January to December, 1872 – Board on Cape Fear River improvement, North Carolina
June 20 to Sepember 6, 1872, and December 18, 1875
June 20 to September 6, 1872, and December 18, 1875 – Boards for the examination of Officers of the Corps of Engineers for promotion
June‑July, 1872 – Board on models of Heavy Ordnance
1871-1872 – Published Report on the “Fabrication of Iron for Defenses” in cooperation with General John G. Barnard and Colonel Peter S. Mitchie
January ‑ February, 1873 – Board to examine devices for Depressed Gun-carriages
April ‑May, 1873 – Board on the Improvement of Delaware River at Horse-shoe Shoals
January‑February 1874, December 1875, and Sepember, 1877 – Boards on Improvement of Galveston Harbor Entrance, Texas
July 1874, to Febuary 1875 – Board to determine the best method for improving the mouth of the Mississippi River
August to November 1874 – Absent in Europe inspecting River Improvements
April 14‑19, 1875 – Board to locate Movable Dams in Ohio River
April 26, 1875, to January 1876 – Board on Improvement of Channel between Staten Island and New Jersey
May 7‑25, 1875 – Board on the Improvement of the Great Kanawha River
June 8‑12, 1875 – Board on the Improvement of Savannah River and Harbor, Georgia
June 22 to July 3, 1875 – Board on the Improvement of Stonington Harbor, Connecticut
July 28, 1876, to October, 1880 – Commission to pave Pennsylvania Avenue of Washington City
November ‑ December 1876, and December 1877, to Janury 1878 – Commissions to report upon Improvement of the South Pass of the Mississippi River
February ‑March, 1877 – Board on the Improvement of the Navigation of the Ohio River
March to December, 1877 – Commission to examine Moline Water Power contracts,
January 24‑30, 1878 – Board on substitution of Lock and Gate for first Movable Dam on the Ohio River
March 1878 – Board on Improvement of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina
July 1878 – Board on Improvement of Low-water Navigation of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers
October‑November, 1878 – Board to examine and report progress of works at the South Pass of the Mississippi River
July 13‑19, 1878 – Assistant to the Chief of Engineers
July 29 to November 9, and December 16‑22, 1878 – Acting Chief of Engineers
August 12, 1878 – Supervised matters connected with construction of Jetties and other works at South Pass, Mississippi River.
On March 4, 1879 Wright was promoted to Colonel in the Corps of Engineers. On June 30 of the same year he was promoted to Brigadier General and Chief of Engineers of the United States Army, commanding the Corps of Engineers.
He was placed in chrge of the Engineer Bureau at Washington, D. C., from July 3, 1879, to Mar. 6, 1884, and was made a Member of the Joint Commission to supervise the construction of the Washington Monument from June 30, 1879, to March 6, 1884. Finally, he became part of the Light-house Board from November 4, 1879, to Marc 6, 1884.
Retirement and Death
Wright retired from the United States Army on March 6, 1884, at the age of 64. In 1897 Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, the successor of the military where he began his studies at the age of 14, conferred on him a Doctor of Laws degree.
Horatio Gouverneur Wright died on July 2, 1899 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 79. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.