Henry Wilson: Patriot and Politician
Robert Slawson, MD, FACR
Originally published in Special Edition 2016 in the Surgeon’s Call
One of the most significant figures in the United States during the Civil War is almost unknown to most Americans. Jeremiah Jones Colblath was born February 16, 1812 in Farmington, NH1-4. The family was very poor and his father was an alcoholic. Because of difficulties supporting their children, the father arranged for the then ten-year-old Jeremiah to work for a neighboring farmer; at age 16 the father signed indenture papers to last to the lad’s twenty-first birthday. The labor was intense but there was no physical abuse and he was well fed.
At age twenty-one, two things happened to Jeremiah. First, he received his freedom as well as a team of oxen and six sheep. He promptly sold the animals and looked for a job. The second is that Jeremiah officially changed his name to Henry Wilson.2,3 There are several different stories about the origin of the name but they are all conjecture. Some accounts state that he was estranged from his family; but there is no evidence of this, since he was always on good terms with them and, later, supported them for many years.
In December 1833,2 unable to find suitable work, Wilson walked to Boston, MA. The small town of Natick, near Boston, was a center of shoe manufacturing and he decided to learn to make shoes. In 1836 he took a trip to Washington, D.C. In Maryland he saw slaves at work and saw the slave pens, leading him to become an abolitionist. This would become the central policy of his life.1-3On returning home he decided to pursue his education while continuing in his trade. As his business improved, he hired additional help. In 1838 his 18 employees had turned out 18,000 pairs of shoes.
In1837 Wilson was an unsuccessful candidate for the General Court of Massachusetts.1 About this time his life changed. His friend, Erasmus Moore, organized a debating society in 1839. In the spring of 1840, Wilson had his first public politic debate on national issues. In October 1840, he married Harriet Melvina Howe, who was then sixteen years old to his twenty-eight years.1-3 That same year he was elected to the General Court of Massachusetts (the lower house of the legislature) and obtained a front row seat so he would be noticed. Although he was an avowed abolitionist, such a position was not popular at that time. He was re-elected in 1842, and developed close relationships with reporters, newspapermen, and editors that would serve him well. Throughout his political career, Wilson was an active campaigner who traveled widely and met with many people in order to assess public opinion. It was stated by some that he spoke to more people from all levels than anyone else in the country.
Wilson decided to join the local militia and was elected major in the First Regiment of Artillery of the Third Brigade of the Massachusetts Volunteer Artillery.1-3 The following year he was elected Brigadier General of the Third Brigade, a post he held for five years. In 1844 he was elected to the State Senate of Massachusetts and became part of a group of young Whigs that included Charles Sumner, Charles Allen, Stephen C. Phillips, John Palfrey, and Charles Francis Adams. Although these men were from a far more affluent class than him, he related well to them because of his policies. In 1845 he became Chairman of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Militia3.
Wilson was an active opponent of the war with Mexico, which he viewed as a move to expand the slave-holding regions in the United States. Again change came: in November 1846, his wife gave birth to a son, Henry Hamilton Wilson, who would be their only child.4 Wilson joined the “Free Soil” party because of unhappiness with the Whigs.1 In September 1848 he set up as editor of the short-lived newspaper, The Republican, which closed in 1851. In 1850 he was a strong promoter of a coalition between the Free-Soilers and the Democrats in an attempt to get the Whigs out of office. That same year his friend, Charles Sumner, was elected to the United States Senate.
In 1854 Wilson joined the Know Nothing Party and in 1855 was their candidate for the United States Senate.1 He won the election, thus joining his friend Sumner. He was present when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks made the famous attack on Sumner in the Senate chambers.
Wilson was a staunch supporter of Kansas as a free state. He actually visited Kansas in 1857 to assess the situation himself. He traveled extensively and urged voters to move to protect Kansas. He set out to raise some $3,000 dollars to support the campaign.
In 1859 Wilson was named a member of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.1,2 The committee chairman was Jefferson Davis. Although Wilson was an avid abolitionist, he was not a radical and believed in using the legal system to remove slavery. Wilson was very much opposed to the activities of John Brown and Brown’s principle supporters, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.
Initially Wilson refused to believe that war would come. After Fort Sumter, excitement was high and Senator Stephen Douglas immediately issued a statement of support for the national government. Wilson asserted that the war would not be over quickly and congressional action should not be based on such an assumption.1,2
With the departure of Jefferson Davis from Washington in 1861, Wilson became the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. Within four months the Army would increase 27 times, to 485,640 men under arms. He actively urged Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to have Massachusetts banks provide five million dollars of the loans the President was requesting and actively supported Lincoln’s efforts to increase the Army.
In May 1861, Wilson met Clara Barton for the first time and a friendship blossomed.2,5 As fellow New Englanders, they had much in common; and he helped her with obtaining supplies and transportation. He endorsed the appointment of her brother, David Barton, as an assistant quartermaster to help her obtain supplies and shipments. Rumors also arose about an affair between Wilson and Barton that was felt by some to have continued after the death of his wife in 1870. It is true that they were friends, but there is no evidence that Wilson was ever untrue to his wife, whom he professed to love very much and who often spent time in Washington. Wilson’s wife was unwell for some time before her death and this probably added to the rumors. Barton is known to have approached Wilson for help with some of her projects. Republicans in Washington had been urging Massachusetts Governor John Andrew to prepare for war. Andrew asked Wilson to confer with General Scott as to what was necessary. Wilson asked the state to send its militia for quick service and to be prepared to bear much of the financial burden of the war.
Lincoln’s authority to gather troops derived from a law passed in 1795 and limited service to three months. Wilson urged Lincoln to call for 300,000 men. Lincoln and Secretary of War Cameron refused. Wilson sent a telegraph to Massachusetts to send two regiments of troops on April 15. Benjamin Butler wired Wilson stating that a brigade had been requested but no brigadier had yet been named. Wilson convinced Secretary Cameron while Butler convinced Andrew, and Butler was commissioned a Brigadier. On April 12, two regiments under Butler left Massachusetts for Washington. Two more regiments left on April 20.
Wilson was an insightful Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. His previous militia experience was useful in understanding the needs. The burden fell on Wilson to prepare and introduce bills for Congressional approval. He was willing to listen to the needs of the Army and give them what they wanted. He had a friendly relationship with Secretary of War Cameron and would subsequently enjoy a good relationship with his successor, Edwin Stanton. He was neither afraid to act nor to accept responsibility. Wilson could be counted on to take the pressure and to avoid the temptations of corruption. It is significant that Wilson never directly criticized the military actions of any general. He stated that the actual conduct of the men in the field was the responsibility of the Army and the Secretary of War.
Wilson turned down an offer of a commission as a Brigadier General from the President. He did for a short time serve as a Colonel on General McClellan’s staff, but decided this was not the best way for him to serve his country. In the summer of 1861, Wilson returned to Massachusetts, traveling at his own expense, and in thirty days raised nineteen companies of infantry, two batteries of artillery, and one company of sharpshooters–about 2300 men. This would constitute the 22nd Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers with Wilson as their Colonel. The Third Battery of Light Artillery and the 2nd Company of Sharpshooters were also attached to the regiment, which was assigned to Fitz-John Porter’s Division and J.H. Marlendale’s brigade. This regiment saw a great deal of action and was known as “Henry Wilson’s regiment.” Wilson himself formally left the troops on arrival in Washington and gave his salary as Colonel of the regiment to the regimental hospital fund, having spent one hundred dollars of his own money in the process.
When Cameron was replaced as Secretary of War at the end of 1861, he stated that no man had done more to help organize the army than Wilson. By preparing bills for clothing, armaments, and supplies in appropriations, Wilson had been a mainstay in the early days of the war. Throughout the war, Stanton would have little to complain about with Wilson.
In February 1862 Wilson proposed a bill to “increase the efficiency” of the Medical Department.2,6,7 the bill provided for medical cadets and stewards and determined their pay. A major change was to give the Surgeon General the rank of Brigadier General. It also provided an Assistant Surgeon General and a Medical Inspector General and eight Assistant Medical Inspectors. These officers were to be appointed without regard to rank or seniority at time of appointment. This bill also charged the Medical Purveyor, under the Surgeon General, with the purchase of all medical supplies, all books, instruments, hospital stores, furniture and other articles required for the care of the sick and wounded. The day before the passage of the act, Surgeon General Clement Finlay retired. On April 25, 1862, William Hammond, then an Assistant Surgeon, was appointed to the vacancy.
Wilson was strong supporter of emancipation and strongly supported President Lincoln’s proposal to issue an Emancipation Proclamation to take effect at the end of the year. He was concerned because many people were against it and he continuously gave his encouragement to Lincoln to make certain that Lincoln did not change his mind. The proclamation was issued to take effect on January 1, 1863. It was only in effect for slaves in the states that had seceded and did not apply to those slaves in the states loyal to the Union such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Wilson supported the bill to enlist black soldiers into the Union Army and advocated equal pay for all soldiers, although the initial bill did not pay blacks soldiers the same as white soldiers. This enlistment of black soldiers into state regiments would be converted into the United States Colored Troops by Secretary Stanton in May 1863. The majority of activated units had their designations changed from the state volunteers to the USCT. An exception was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) that retained its state designation for political reasons.
In February 1863, Wilson introduced a bill to improve the health of the soldiers. This bill provided medical and line officers to supervise cooking and to improve sanitary methods. It also, interestingly, included a provision to provide tobacco to enlisted men.2 This measure was subsequently passed into law.
In 1863 when recruitment fell below required replacement, Wilson proposed changing the enlistment laws and providing authority to fill the quotas by use of a draft. Of necessity certain categories of labor were ruled to be exempt. In addition, because of objections to universal service, it was possible for a drafted individual to pay a fee of $300.00 for an exemption, and then pay someone else to take his place in the army. This is known as the Universal Enrollment Act. As is well known, there were objections from some of the poor who did not have the money to pay alternatives. This was particularly hard for the recent immigrants, including the Irish in New York City, who rioted. A substantial amount of the city was destroyed and Federal troops were called to quell the riots.
Also in December 1863, Wilson, who had never seen the need for a separately designated Ambulance Corps,6,7 finally became convinced by Dr. Henry Bowditch to support the bill to create a universal ambulance system. With his support, this bill was passed March 3, 1864, although by that time most of the armies were already using a variant of the system. There can be no question that Dr. Bowditch, more than any other person, was responsible for finally getting this bill passed.
Wilson also was active in trying to increase the status of surgeons. In February 1865, the bill was finally passed giving increased rank to surgeons. Directors of hospitals of 4,000 or more men or of two Corps were promoted to Colonel, and less than 4,000 men to Lieutenant Colonel.
On May 9, 1864, Wilson’s 17 year old son, Henry Hamilton Wilson, received a commission as a first lieutenant in the 31st USCT. Hamilton had attended the Highland Cadet Military Academy in Worcester, MA, and attended one year at the United States Naval Academy. He did well and by March of 1865, he was serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in one of General Rufus Saxon’s colored regiments. At the end of the war, he stayed in the army and served with the 6th Cavalry in Texas. He died suddenly, probably of severe dysentery, on December 23, 1867.9 This event, of course, devastated both Wilson and his wife.
Wilson served in the United States Senate from January 1855 to March 1873. He was opposed to the nomination of Andrew Johnson as Vice President in 1864, primarily because of Johnson’s ownership of slaves and support of slavery. He remained an opponent after Johnson became President. His was one of the votes for impeachment because of the rapid and easy re-entry into the Union by the seceded states by Johnson.9 In the post-war Congress, Wilson was also very active9,10 and his antagonism to President Johnson continued. Although Wilson was interested in the vice-presidency in 1868 under Grant, he did support Schuyler Colfax, who received the nomination. Wilson’s name was on the list for consideration of cabinet post under Grant but Wilson had it removed because of the ill health of his wife. She had incurable cancer of the stomach and died on May 28, 1870, at age 46, at home in Massachusetts.9,10
In 1866 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which President Johnson vetoed. In this case Congress had the votes to override the veto and the law was passed.10 During this period, in 1867, Wilson introduced the bill to charter Howard University for medicine, law, agriculture, and theology. Howard Medical School subsequently opened under the auspices of the Freeman’s Bureau.9,10
In 1872, Wilson was nominated and elected Vice President for Grant’s second term. Wilson, in that role, served as president of the Senate and worked diligently. Finally, the many years of stressful living caught up with him. He suffered a stroke in 1873 which left him partially paralyzed. But in typical behavior, he did not slow down. He died in office on November 22, 1875, at age 63.
Wilson was a strong supporter of Barton from the time they met early in the war. They became friends; and because he felt her activities were beneficial, he provided significant help to her efforts. He also helped her brother David obtain a commission as a Captain in the Quartermaster Corps, and provided a pass to allow her to accompany him. Wilson also helped Barton obtain transportation to the battlefields for her supplies, and at Fredericksburg authorized the use of a vacant house as a hospital. When Barton found that the work at the Missing Soldiers Office was more than she could do on her own, he secured government help for her. They remained friends throughout and after the war. Although rumors circulated about a romance after his wife died, there is no evidence that it occurred.
- McKay E. Henry Wilson: Practical Politician. Port Washington, NY: National University Publications, Inc.; 1971.
- Myers JL. Senator Henry Wilson and the Civil War. Lanham, MD: University of America Press, Inc.; 2008.
- Hatfield MO. Vice Presidents of the United States,1789-1993. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office; 1997.
- Nason IE, Russell T. The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson. Boston, MA: Lathrop and Company; 1881.
- Pryor EB. Clara Barton, Professional Angel. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press; 1987.
- Rutkow IM. Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine. New York, NY: Random House; 2005.
- Adams GW. Doctors in Blue. The Medical History of the Union Army during the Civil War. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State Universtiy Press; 1952.
- Brumgardt JR, ed Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Nashville, TN: University of Tennessee Press; 1980.
- Myers JL. Henry Wilson and the Era of Reconstruction. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.; 2009.
- Abbott R. Cobbler in Congress. Lexington, KY: University of Kentuckey Press; 1972.
About the Author
Dr. Slawson is a 1962 graduate of the University of Iowa School of Medicine. He spent eight years as a medical officer in the United States Army, and had training in Radiology and Radiation Oncology, ultimately serving as Director of Radiation Oncology at Walter Reed General Hospital. In 1971 he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, and remained there until his retirement in 1998, although he still has a faculty position and works there part-time. He is currently a Master Docent at the NMCWM in Frederick, MD. Dr. Slawson also is actively involved in researching new topics on Civil War medicine and life in the nineteenth century. He has presented and published on several topics both for the Museum and for articles in other publications. He has had a book published on African American physicians in the Civil War: Prologue to Change” African American Physicians in the Civil War Era. Dr. Slawson is a member of the NMCWM and the Society of Civil War Surgeons.