Greg Tucker, ‘Rutherford for Real’, published 2010 (‘Rutherford for Real‘ may be purchased for only $20 by contacting email@example.com)
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
A significant moment in the history of warfare and weaponry occurred very quickly in Hoovers Gap, the southeastern tip of Rutherford County, in June, 1863. The principal figure in this watershed event was a tall (6’2″) Yankee mounted brigade leader named Col. John T. Wilder.
Before the war, Wilder was a successful industrialist in Greensburg, Indiana. He owned and managed a foundry with a hundred employees, sold milling equipment and had a national reputation as a hydraulics expert.
Eager to serve his country, the 31-year-old Wilder enlisted as a private when the war began in 1861. He was promoted to captain on his second day of service and several months later the governor of Indiana elevated Wilder to lieutenant colonel in the 17th Indiana Infantry.
Wilder was advanced to colonel in March, 1862 and given command of a mounted brigade. After several engagements in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, including several skirmishes against troops under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Wilder was sent to Gallatin, Tennessee with orders to prevent John Hunt Morgan and his raiders from joining Confederate forces at Stones River near Murfreesborough (Murfreesboro).
The methods and tactics of Morgan and Forrest impressed Wilder and he began leading his raids patterned on the style of his adversaries. He required that every man in his brigade carry a two foot hatchet, “handy in both camp and in raiding.” His command was dubbed the ‘hatchet brigade’. (A unit commendation in early 1863 noted: “… the energy and perseverance with which Col. Wilder in untiringly working to fit out his command, without causing any extra expense to the Government.”
In the meantime Christopher Spencer from Hartford, Connecticut, was having no success selling his new invention, patented in 1860, to the U.S. Army. Spencer had designed and built the world’s first reliable repeating rifle. It fired a .52 caliber rim fire cartridge with a seven round magazine. With a cartridge box holding ten preloaded magazines, the Spencer rifle could be loaded and fired 20 to 30 times a minute. (A trained soldier with a Civil War muzzle loader could get of three to four rounds in a minute).
Giving up on the Army brass, Spencer came in the spring of 1863 to Murfreesboro where he knew Union General William Rosecrans was encamped following with Battle of Stones River. When the Spencer repeating rifle was demonstrated, Wilder immediately saw that it would give his brigade a significant advantage.
But the Army was not buying so Wilder wrote to the bank in Greensburg, Indiana, borrowing the money to buy every man in his brigade (approximately 2,500 men) a Spencer repeating rifle. Each man signed a promissory note for $35 and Wilder cosigned each note.
Following the Confederate withdrawal after the Battle of Stones River, the Confederate leadership had established a line roughly from McMinnville to beyond Tullahoma to stop the advance of Union forces toward Chattanooga. Wilder’s brigade was given the task of opening the first breach in the Confederate line at Hoovers Gap, clearing the way for the Union Army advance toward Manchester.
This first combat use of repeating rifles was very effective. Surprised by the Union firepower the Confederate forces holding Hoovers Gap were quickly routed. Because of the Spencer rifles, one Confederate general estimated the size of Wilder’s brigade at five times its actual manpower. Wilder’s forces were given orders only to take and hold the Gap but they moved forward so rapidly that they went two miles further. This victory at Hoovers Gap earned a new name for Wilder’s brigade – the Lightning Brigade. (Eventually the Army repaid Wilder and his men and the Indiana bank for the cost of the rifles.)
After this dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness and advantage of the Spencer rifle, all Union officers began demanding the repeating firearm. “There is no doubt that the Spencer … is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier … one man equipped with it is equivalent to three with any other arm,” wrote Union Major General James H. Wilson.
Wilder and his brigade scouted and raided ahead of the Union Army as it advanced toward Chattanooga in late summer 1863. Part of the colonel’s mission was to disable the railroad. Wilder, an inventive engineer, designed and fabricated a ‘rail twister’ that made track repair far more difficult. his unit’s performance throughout the Chattanooga/Chickamauga campaigns earned Wilder the rank of Brigadier General.
After the war, Wilder moved to Chattanooga where he was instrumental in developing the mining, manufacturing and transportation industries. He also pioneered tourism development and founded Chattanooga’s first university (now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga). Among his interests were the Roane Iron Company (the largest employer in Chattanooga), the Wilder Machine Works, the Southern Car and Foundry Company, the Durham Coal Company, the Dayton Coal and iron Company, the Cleveland Hotel and the Cranberry Mine. For the next two decades, largely as a result of Wilder’s business activity, Chattanooga served as the center for the iron and steel industry in the South.
Wilder was elected Chattanooga mayor in 1871, establishing the area’s first free school system. His business interests eventually extended through Rockwood to Johnson City and into Western North Carolina. In the mid-1870’s Wilder toured Europe promoting Tennessee minerals and industry.
Wilder is also credited with coming to the aid of Nathan Bedford Forrest who was threatened with arrest and prosecution for his association with the Ku Klux Klan. After personally visiting with Forrest, Wilder enlisted the help of several U.S. Senators and persuaded President Grant to block any action against Forrest. Wilder and Forrest became friends and Forrest was a frequent visitor in the Wilder home.
Wilder’s wife died in 1892 after 24 years of marriage. Twelve years later Wilder, at the age of 74, remarried a 26-year-old southerner, daughter of a Confederate veteran. Wilder put his young wife, Dora Lee, through medical school in Knoxville. She became the first woman to pass the medical licensing exam in Tennessee.
Remembered for the Lightning Brigade at Hoovers Gap and the first combat use of repeating rifles, respected and admired by his former foes, Wilder died in 1917 at the age of 87. The funeral for this Yankee military hero was conducted in Chattanooga by the Chaplain-General of the Confederate Veterans Association.