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 be 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 some 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 (13:46) and a pencil sketch of himself near Chancellorsville (13:52) are also noteworthy.