John Darragh Wilkins papers  1862-1865
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Biography

Wilkins, John Darragh, d. 1900

Rank : Captain (1861 April), Major (1865 May)

Regiment : United States. Army--Infantry Regiment, 3rd; United States. Army--Infantry Regiment, 15th (1865- )

Service : 1846-1886

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, Tenn., in April, 1865, receiving a major's commission. After the war, he remained in the regular army, transferring 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.