Orlando Willcox was a career soldier in the United States Army and Medal of Honor recipient who fought in the Civil War.
Orlando Bolivar Willcox was born in Detroit, Michigan Territory, on April 16, 1823, the son of Charles and Almira Willcox. In 1843 he entered the United States Military Academy, graduating with the West Point Class of 1847. Some of his fellow classmates included Romeyn Ayers, Ambrose Burnside, John Gibbon, Charles Griffin, Henry Heth and A. P. Hill.
Pre Civil-War Army Career
After graduation Willcox was commissioned as a Brevet Second Lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery on July 1, 1847. He joined his regiment in time for the last part of the Mexican War, serving at Mexico City and Cuernavaca. He was in Florida from 1848-1849 assigned to Fort McRee. In 1849 he was assigned to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and then to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
On April 30, 1850 Orlando was promoted to First Lieutenant in the 4th Artillery. He was assigned to Fort Washington, Maryland, moving in 1852 to Fort Ontario, New York, and in 1853 Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania and Fort Independence, Massacusetts. He escorted troops to Texas in 1855, afterwards rejoining the garrison at Fort Independence. In 1856-57 he returned to Florida to take part in the Third Seminole War.
Willcox resigned his commission on September 10, 1857. He returned to Detroit and began a career as Couselor at Law. During this time he wrote two books that were published in 1856 and 1857.
He married Maria Farnsworth Willcox in 1852, by whom he had a son, Elon Farnsworth Willcox, in 1855.
Early Civil War years
Orlando Willcox’s time as a civilian was short. With the outbreak of the Civil War he took a leading role in May of 1861 raising the 1st Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was appointed its Colonel. The regiment was formed for three months service, the only three-months regiment from Michigan. It arrived in Washington two weeks later, the first regiment from the western part of the country to arrive, prompting President Lincoln to exclaim, “Thank God for Michigan!”
On May 24 the 1st Michigan crossed the Potomac and occupied Alexandria, Virginia. On June 1 the regiment was assigned to the Second Brigade of Heintzelman’s Third Division of the Department of Northeastern Virginia. Colonel Willcox commanded the Second Brigade as senior officer, leaving Major A. F. Bidwell to command the First Michigan.
First Battle of Bull Run
Willcox’s Brigade played a central role in the First Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas. One of three brigades that were pushed forward into the center of the battle, the brigade had to cross an open field to reach high ground that would command the Confederate lines. But crossing the field was deadly. Willcox related, “The whole regiment was swept back as by a tornado.” Picking up reinforcements, it was finally able to advance into the Confederate position, only to find itself surround by Confederates on two sides.
Orlando Willcox would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle, in which he displayed “most distinguished gallantry” while he led repeated charges until he was wounded and taken prisoner. Willcox’s horse was shot in the neck and Willcox was shot in the right forearm. He was taken as a prisoner of war. One of his captors reportedly remembered him from his good treatment at Alexandria and made sure Willcox received prompt and good care.
For over a year Willcox would remain a prisoner of the Confederacy. He spent time in Richmond and Charleston, enduring scarce food, hard bread and rotting meat. But he did find out that his wounded horse had survived, and the official report stated that he “Deserves the credit of advancing farther into enemy lines than any other of our troops, as their dead on the field proved.”
Return to Duty
Willcox was finally exchanged on August 18, 1862. He was promoted to brigadier general backdated to July 21, the day he was wounded at Bull Run. He rejoined the Army of the Potomac on September 8, 1862, having been given command of the First Division of the Ninth Corps. at the commencement of the Maryland Campaign.
Battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862
From April 10 until June 9, 1863 Willcox was in temporary command of the Ninth Corps and the District of Central Kentucky. Then on June 10 he took command of the District of Indiana and Michigan during the draft riots in Indiana.
He took command of operations in East Tennessee on September 17, 1863:
Combat of Blue Springs, Oct. 10, 1863
Retreat from Bull’s to Cumberland Gap, Nov., 1863
Action of Walker’s Ford, Clinch River, Dec. 2, 1863
Skirmishes at Strawberry Plains, and near Knoxville, on the retreat from Dandridge, Jan. 21‑22, 1864
Operations against Longstreet, Jan. 26 to Mar. 16, 1864
In May of 1864 Orlando Willcox was given command of the Third Division of the Ninth Corps when it joined the Army of the Potomac for the Overland Campaign.
Battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864
Battle of Ny River, May 9, 1864
Battle of Spottsylvania, May 12, 1864
Skirmishes on the Tolopotomy, May 31 and June 1, 1864
Battle of Bethesda Church, June 3, 1864
Actions before Petersburg, June 17 and 18 and July 30, 1864
On August 1, 1864 Willcox was promoted to Brevet Major General, United States Volunteers for “Distinguished and Gallant Services” in the actions since the crossing of Rapidan River.
Actions on Weldon Railroad, Aug. 19, 21, and 25, 1864
Action at Pegram House, Sep. 30, 1864
Skirmish near Pegram House, Oct. 2
Hatcher’s Run, Oct. 27, 1864
Siege of and Operations about Petersburg, Va., to Apr. 26, 1865
In command of District of Washington, N. C., Apr. 26 to July 28, 1865
In command of District of Michigan, Aug. 7, 1865, to Jan. 15, 1866
Return to the Regular Army
Orlando Willcox mustered out of the Volunteer Service on January 15, 1866. He briefly returned to civilian life as a Counselor at Law in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, and as U. S. Assessor of Internal Revenue. But on July 28, 1866 he was reappointed to the Regular Army with the rank of Colonel, commanding the 29th Infantry Regiment.
He served in command of the District of Lynchburg, Virginia starting Nov. 30, 1866 and continuing until March 17. 1869.
On March 2, 1867, Willcox was awarded two brevets: Brevet Brigadier General, U. S. Army, Mar. 2, 1867, for Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Spottsylvania Court House, Va., and Brevet Major General, U. S. Army, Mar. 2, 1867, for Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Capture of Petersburg, Va.
Willcox was transferred to the 12th U.S. Infantry Regiment on Mar. 15, 1869 and served at San Francisco.
His first wife, Maria, died in 1873. Willcox took a leave of absence on April 19, 1873. On August 28 he was made Superintendent of General Recruiting Service at New York City.
On November 12, 1874 he returned to the San Francisco area when he was given command of the regiment and post of Angel Island, California. He then was moved to the Department of Arizona on Mar. 5, 1878, fighting the Apache. In 1881 he married his second wife, Julia Elizabeth McReynolds Willcox. He remained in Arizona until September 4, 1882, when he was assigned to Madison Barracks, New York.
On October 13, 1886 Willcox was promoted to full Brigadier General, U.S. Army, and given command of the of the Department of the Missouri.
Willcox turned 64 years old on Apr. 16, 1887, and was required to retire from active service. He became Governor of the Soldiers’ Home near Washington, D. C. on February 27, 1889 to July 8, 1892.
Civilian honors and authorships:
- President Michigan Association of Washington, 1896‑97.
- President District of Columbia Commandery Sons American Revolution, 1897.
- Member of the District of Columbia Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
- President Willcox Division Society 9th Corps, 1896‑97.
- Author Morgan’s Raid, Century Magazine
- Author Siege of Detroit by Pontiac
In 1905 Willcox moved to Coburg, Ontario.
Orlando Willcox died at age 84 of acute bronchitis on May 11, 1907 in Cobourg, Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia in Section 1, Site 18.
The city of Willcox, Arizona is named after him. The legend has it that the first Southern Pacific train reached Maley, Arizona, from the west in 1880. General Willcox was on board and was received with acclamation. As a consequence town was renamed Wilcox. The proper spelling, with a second “l,” was fixed in 1889; the town has the correct speling today.