John Darragh Wilkins – Colonel, United States Army

John Darragh Wilkins of New York
Appointed from Pennsylvania, Cadet, United States Military Academy, 1 July 1842 (46)
Brevet Second Lieutenant, 4th U. S. Infantry, 1 July 1846
Secon Lieutenant, 3rd U. S. Infantry, 31 December 1846
First Lieuenant, 10 November 1851
Regimental Adjutant, 19 January 1856 to 1 May 1860
Captain, 17 April 1861
Major, 15th U. S. Infantry, 6 May 1864
Transferred to 33rd U. S. Infantry, 21 September 1866
Transfered to 8th U. S. Infantry, 15 March 1869
Lieutenant Colonel, 19 February 1873
Colonel, 5th U. S. Infantry, 22 June 1882
Retired 2 August 1886
Breveted First Lieutenant, 20 August 1847 for gallant and meritorious service in th battles of Contreras and Churubusco, Mexico
Breveted Major, 1 July 1862, for gallant and meritorious service in the battle of Malvern Hill, Virginia
Breveted Lieutenant Colonel, 3 May 1863 for galland and meritorious service in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Virginia
Died 20 February 1900

West Pointer John Darragh Wilkins was a career army officer with fifteen years of service behind him when the Civil War broke out. Having already received a commendation for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco during the Mexican War, Wilkins had the reasonable expectation of personal advancement, and when he received a promotion from Adjutant to Captain of the 3rd Infantry in April, 1861, his notions might have seemed confirmed.

Like many ambitious officers in the regular army, Wilkins was skeptical about the value of volunteer troops, and by the early months of 1862, his attitudes began to sour as he felt increasingly frustrated with the poor performance of the non-professionals in combat, the self-seeking leadership in the military, and the army’s general ineffectiveness. Yet gnawing away even more at Wilkins’ morale was his sense that while his class-mates from West Point and other officers rose through the ranks with ease, he remained mired in the sargassum of a Captaincy. He moaned about having become the only field officer in his regiment, and was thus acting commander, while promotion still managed to elude him.

The 3rd Infantry participated in the Peninsular Campaign during the summer of 1862, standing before Yorktown during the siege, but seeing little action until the Battle of Malvern Hill. Wilkins led his regiment at Malvern Hill, remarking on the ragged performance of the federal troops. He claims to have seen volunteer officers and enlisted straggling back from the engagement, expecting to go home, rather than back to their regiments, and he felt that this disarray, combined with timid and self-serving generalship, cost the opportunity to take Richmond. More to the point, against his better nature, Wilkins approached his commanders to indicate how “disgusted and chagrined” he had become as a captain, only to be denied the promotion he felt was due him. Although official rosters list him as receiving a brevet appointment as major on July 1, 1862, for service at Malvern Hill, Wilkins’ feelings were not assuaged. “Generals were very anxious that [captains] should remain captains all their lives,” he insisted, certain he would never receive proper respect (1862 July 15). Thereafter, only George McClellan escaped his scathing criticism.

After the battles at Second Bull Run and Antietam, Wilkins’ bitterness mounted, worsened by poor conditions and the continued absences of the officers in his regiment, leaving him the responsibility of command without the position. Further embittered by McClellan’s dismissal, Wilkins fumed his way into the Fredericksburg Campaign. The 3rd Infantry crossed into the city on December 13th, and assumed positions in the field at dusk. In the morning, they discovered that they were very near Confederate lines, and were forced by a withering hail from Confederate sharpshooters to fall back into a safer position in the city tannery, holding their position until replaced arrived. On the 14th, Wilkins’ regiment were posted in the streets of the city, and the following day he was preparing to fight his way out of the city when the order came to fall back. Once again, Wilkins placed blame for a defeat on shoddy generalship and the shameful performance of volunteers, many of whom were busier at looting than at fighting.

The notorious failure of morale in the Army of the Potomac during the winter of 1862-63 caused Wilkins’ attitudes to continue to fester. He felt personally insulted at the arrival of African American soldiers in February. “I am about the only Captain in the 3rd Infantry,” he wrote “who was [sic] had the manliness to stand by the Regt through thick & thin and the ‘niggers’ in and out of Congress appreciate me accordingly” (1863 February 4).

The 3rd were drawn into the Battle of Chancellorsville, and in July, Wilkins received further recognition for his efforts in the form of a brevet appointment as Lieutenant Colonel for gallant and meritorious service at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Wilkins was transferred to the 15th Infantry, stationed near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, in April, 1865, receiving a Major’s commission. After the war, he remained in the regular army, transfering to the 33rd Infantry on September 21, 1866, and to the 8th Infantry on March 15, 1869. He was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 8th Infantry in 1873 and Colonel of the 5th Infantry in 1882, holding that position until his retirement in 1886. Wilkins was married and had two daughters, Carrie and Emma.

Scope and Contents:

John Darragh Wilkins stood a world away from the stereotypical fresh-faced farm boy recruit of the Civil War. A true professional soldier, trained at West Point (class of 1846) and steeled in combat during the Mexican War, Wilkins had few illusions about military life. The 64 letters in the Wilkins Papers, almost all written to his wife in Washington, D.C., paint a vivid picture of the frustrated aspirations of this career officer who seemingly could never garner enough attention or find promotion fast enough. Through his bitter carping, an unvarnished portrait emerges of life in the regular army during the Civil War, replete with tales of poor leadership, ill discipline among the volunteer troops, and occasional military disaster.

Several letters trace Wilkins’ elaborate attempts to secure promotion, but even his mother’s visit to the Secretary of War failed to achieve the results he desired. Wilkins’ bitter complaints, though, must seen in the context of having received brevet appointments for gallant and meritorious service first at Malvern Hill (Major) and second at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (Lieut. Colonel), and finally an appointment in rank to Major in the 15th Infantry (official records of the army indicate that Wilkins was promoted to a majority in the 15th Infantry on May 6, 1864, yet his letters indicate that he continued to serve with the 3rd Infantry until May, 1865). Sadly, the absence of pre- and post-war letters and the apparent absence of at least of his war-time correspondence make it difficult to evaluate whether Wilkins was ever actually deprived of advancement relative to his fellow officers, or whether he merely suffered from a chronic case of the sullens.

Although Wilkins is not a man prone to deep reflection, the Wilkins Papers include a number of excellent comments on the role (plight) of officers in the Union army, catty comments on generals and leadership, and insightful commentary on troop morale. His descriptions of the battles of Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville provide interesting and unusual observations, but the engagements at Second Bull Run and Antietam are mentioned, retrospectively, only in passing. His account of a review in honor of Abraham and Mary Lincoln and a pencil sketch of himself in front of his tent at Chancellorsville are also noteworthy.


  • DATE OF DEATH: 02/20/1900
  • BURIED AT:   SITE 794


  • DATE OF DEATH: 02/14/1896
  • BURIED AT:   SITE 794

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