Honored Carpetbagger

(April 28, 2017) After the Civil War some Republican Yankees moved South to exploit the political and economic opportunities provided by Washington-mandated enfranchisement of Republican-loyal black voters and congress’s simultaneous disfranchisement of many anti-Republican former Confederates. Southerners derisively labeled the newcomers as Carpetbaggers because they typically arrived with all of their belongings stuffed in cheap carpetbag luggage. One example was Illinois-born Henry Warmoth who became Louisiana’s first Carpetbag governor in 1868. During his four-year term he accumulated a $500,000 fortune on an $8,000 annual salary and admitted, “Corruption is the fashion and I do not pretend to be honest, but only as honest as anybody in politics.”

Nonetheless, most modern historians erroneously dismiss “Carpetbagger” as a pejorative term created by Southerners to project a false tyrannical narrative of Reconstruction. Contemporary Southerners, they suggest, were too blinded by hatred of Yankees to admit that even the most honest and industrious among the imported Yankees accomplished any good. In truth, despite resentments toward exploitive Carpetbaggers, many Southerners not only acknowledged the contributions of Northern immigrants but even appreciated and sometimes honored them.

One example is John Wilder who had been one of the most effective enemies of the Confederate armies in the Western Theater. When the war started the 31-year-old Wilder was operating his own foundry in Indiana but promptly left to join the Union Army. Early in 1863 he commanded an infantry brigade in Major General William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland. A few months later he gained permission to convert his brigade into mounted infantry. Additionally, he armed it with repeating rifles before any other brigade on either side. After his repeater-armed unit met Confederates at the battle of Hoover’s Gap in June 1863, the overwhelming superiority of its rifles became obvious. The brigade inflicted 200 casualties at a cost of only 50 of its own. Three months later at the battle of Chickamauga, no brigade on either side had more firepower—or used it more effectively—than Wilder’s.

Cranberry Furnace: Johnson City, Tennessee

After the war, Wilder foresaw opportunities in Tennessee and moved to Chattanooga. He organized a coal mining and pig iron production company, built a machine shop downtown and was elected mayor in 1871. Twenty years later the owner of the Chattanooga Times (and future owner of The New York Times), Adolph Ochs, would write of Wilder, “He is a…never flinching friend of Chattanooga … He cannot be forgotten… but by the ungrateful.”

Wilder’s first wife died in 1892. Twelve years later when he was 74 he married his 26-year-old nurse, Dora Lee. Her father was a Confederate soldier. John paid for Dora’s education at the College of Medicine in Knoxville. She became the first woman to pass Tennessee’s medical exam.

To conclude:

By 1885 Wilder owned mines on either side of the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. He built the luxury Cloudland Hotel atop 6,300-foot Roan Mountain. A line marking the state boundary was drawn down the middle of the dining room, serving alcoholic beverages on one side only. The hotel eventually failed, but is remembered today with a marker on the Appalachian Trail.

John T. Wilder died at age 87 in 1917. The chaplain general of the Confederate Veterans presided at the funeral, eulogizing, “The World is poorer since General Wilder died … as soldier and citizen he was in the front rank of all good works. He was devoted to the welfare of Chattanooga … This was his town, this was his country and his people.”*

* Philip Leigh New York Times Disunion Blog “Colonel Wilder’s Lightning Brigade” (December 25, 2012)

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