General James Wilson and the Civil War by Geoffrey Gomes
Civil War, see Gavea journal volume XXII-XXIII 2001-2002
James Wilson: A Portuguese American in the Civil War
Geoffrey L. Gomes
California State University, Hayward
James C. Wilson was born on the island of São Miguel, in the Azores, in early 1820. His father, also named James Wilson, was a British merchant, probably resident in Ponta Delgada. The elder Wilson had married a local Azorean woman, a native of the island, of honorable Portuguese parentage, whose name, unfortunately, is unknown. Young James lived with his parents in São Miguel until 1832, when at the age of twelve he was sent to Bath, Maine, for his education. In 1836 he moved to New York City, where he was engaged in business for a number of years. There, in 1843, he married Catherine Clarissa Church (1821-1907), of Brooklyn, the daughter of a judge.
In the spring of 1855 Wilson and his wife, with children in tow, joined the westward movement. They traveled by train as far as Rock Island, Illinois, on the Mississippi. From there they proceeded in a covered wagon across 150 miles of prairie before arriving sometime that summer in Jasper County, Iowa, then on the fringes of the frontier. There the Wilsons established a farm five miles east of the small community of Newton. Despite his urban background, Wilson prospered as an agriculturist; but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 drastically altered the course of his life. Although now over forty years old, he responded to the call for volunteers and helped organize a company, of which he was elected first lieutenant. In October 1861 the company was incorporated into the Thirteenth Iowa Infantry Regiment (U.S. Volunteers), which together with three other regiments formed the Iowa Brigade (later known as Crockers Brigade, after its commander), part of the Army of the Tennessee. Wilson participated in numerous campaigns, including the battle of Shiloh, the siege of Vicksburg, and the capture of Atlanta. Steadily promoted, he attaining the rank of colonel in November 1864. Near the end of the war, in March 1865, he was brevetted a brigadier general, the rank he held when his regiment was mustered out of service at Davenport, Iowa, in late July. (Brevet promotions were honorary, awarded for meritorious service, and did not normally carry the authority associated with the rank. Note that in the narrative, in references to his civilian life as well as his military service, the subject is referred to as Gen. Wilson, a customary honorific.)
The war over, Wilson returned to Iowa to resume farming. His wife had had to sell their farm during his absence, but he bought another. In 1869 he cofounded the Jasper County Bank in Newton, became its president, and left farming for life in town. Wilson became a prominent member of the communitynot surprising for an enterprising banker with a brilliant military record in the recent war. He became city treasurer and a warden of the Episcopal Church. He was also an active member of Post 16 of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the principal Union veterans organization of the day.
Following the move to town, the family occupied one of the most stylish houses in Newton, on Fourth Street, where Wilson lived until his death, after a long illness, on January 8, 1888. He was survived by his wife and five of his children. (Nine had been born to the couple altogether.) The Newton Journal eulogized him as one of the best and purest men that ever lived in Jasper county and as one who never deviated from the path of strict integrity.
The following is a verbatim transcription of a biographical sketch, author anonymous, that appeared in the July 1887 issue of the Iowa Historical Record, a long-defunct journal of the State Historical Society of Iowa. The Society has graciously consented to its republication.
IOWA HISTORICAL RECORD
Vol. III. July, 1887. No. 3.
GEN. JAMES WILSON
Late Provost Marshal, Army of the Tennessee
Nearly midway between the coasts of Europe and America, on the direct track of inter-continental navigation, lies one of the colonial possessions of Portugal, the beautiful series of nine islands called the Azores. Discovered in 1432, as the first fruits of the awakened spirit of exploration which distinguished the fifteenth century, their espial stimulated still further that ambition for discovery which finally led to the knowledge of America. There is said to be on the westerly coast of the island of Corvo, one of this group, in a wave-beaten rock, the rude figure of a gigantic man, with outstretched arm pointing to the west, which is credited in the traditions of the sailors with the suggestion which inspired Columbus to push his way across the Atlantic.
On one of these islands, the island of St. Michael, James Wilson, the subject of this sketch, was born in 1820. On his fathers side he is of Scotch and English descent; on the part of his mother, of Portuguese origin. His father, James Wilson, while quite a young man, left England and established himself in business in St. Michael. Soon after taking up his residence at St. Michael, while at divine service one day, he caught a glimpse, through the grating which separated the church from a convent, of a young nun who was singing in the mass, and was so charmed by the beauty of her face and the sweetness of her voice that he fell violently in love with her at first sight. She proved on inquiry to be a native of the island, of honorable Portuguese parentage, still a novice of her order, having taken only the white veil. After many difficulties he finally succeeded, by the aid of her brother, in effecting her release from the convent, and in a short time afterwards they were happily married.
These were the parents of James Wilson, our hero, for he proved himself in after life, in deed and in fact, a true heroin march, in siege, in battle, with flashing sword, a knightly figure at the front, when those behind found no dishonor even at the rear. Inheriting from his paternal parent those sturdy physical qualities which characterize the races from which his father sprung, and from his mother the sprightly and polite manners of her country, he proved well fitted to endure the hardships of war and brighten the camp.
His father, having close business relations with a firm of ship owners in Bath, Maine, who carried on a brisk trade with the island, when the son was nearly twelve years old, realizing the utter absence of all educational facilities in St. Michael, decided to send him to the United States to be educated. He sailed under the care of the captain of the brig James Wilson (named after his father), arriving, after a passage of forty days, at his destination in Bath. He there went to the academy for a year or two, the Rev. Dr. Magoun, late president of Iowa College, being at the time also a pupil.
The friends in whose care he had been placed, having decided to leave Bath and commence a business in the city of New York, he gave up his original intention of preparing himself for a profession, and removed with them, arriving in New York in the spring of 1836.