Brigadier General Wesley Merritt
Wesley Merritt was born on June 16, 1836 in New York City. When he was 4 years old, the family moved to Illinois. He graduated West Point in 1860 and was assigned to the U.S. 2nd Dragoons stationed in Utah. In the Dragoons, he served under Colonel Philip St. George Cook and Captain John Buford, both of who would become Civil War Generals. These officers were mentors to the young Merritt.
As the Civil War started, the 2nd Dragoons were ordered east and were designated as the U.S. 2nd Cavalry. In 1862, Wesley Merritt was promoted to Captain and assigned as an aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Cook, who was Commander of the Cavalry Department during the Peninsula Campaign. In May of 1863, he was assigned adjutant to Major General George Stoneman, the commander of the newly formed Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. At this time, he participated in Stoneman’s Raid. Merritt personally led troops that destroyed 2 railroad bridges, a railroad depot and tore up miles of tracks.
In June of 1863, Merritt was in command of his old unit, the U.S. 2nd Cavalry during the Battle of Brandy Station. He was slightly wounded in a saber dual with Brigadier General Rooney Lee, who was also wounded during the battle. During the rest of June, he participated in all of the Cavalry battles fought by the U.S. 1st Division leading up to Gettysburg. On June 29, 1863, he was promoted from Captain to Brigadier General of Volunteers, concurrently with similar promotions of George A. Custer and Elon J. Farnsworth. Merritt was assigned to command the Reserve Brigade, which consisted of 4 Regular U.S. Cavalry Regiments and the 6th PA Vol. Cavalry (Rush’s Lancers). He was under the command of his old mentor, Brigadier General John Buford.
Although he did not participate in the July 1st battle west of Gettysburg, he was involved in a 6 hour battle along the Emmitsburg Road, just south of the main Gettysburg Battlefield. Merritt and Farnsworth fought 4 brigades of Major General Hood’s Division under the command of Brigadier General Evander M. Law and Brigadier General “Tige” Anderson’s Georgia Brigade. After Gettysburg, Wesley Merritt led the Reserve Brigade in the pursuit of General Lee’s retreating Rebel Army and during the Autumn Campaigns. In December, he took command of the 1st Division when John Buford died.
In 1864, Merritt commanded the 1st Division of Cavalry during Lt. General Grant’s Overland Campaign, participating in all of the Cavalry Battles including Yellow Tavern in which C.S.A. Major General J.E.B. Stuart was killed. In the fall of 1864, Merritt in command of the 1st Cavalry Division of the Army of the Shenandoah under Major General Philip Sheridan. He led this Division in all of the battles of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign finally driving the rebels from this stronghold in Virginia. He was promoted to Brevet Major General for bravery during this campaign. In 1865, he was General Sheridan’s Cavalry Commander during the Appomattox Campaign, participating in all of the battles of that campaign. Lt. General Grant named Merritt, and Generals John Gibbon and Charles Griffin, as commissioners to meet with Confederate commissioners Lt. General James Longstreet and Major General John B. Gordon, in order to draft the details of the surrender and parole of the Confederate Troops.
After the War he reverted to Lt. Colonel in the Regular Army and assumed command of the U.S. 9th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, in Texas. They fought the Comanche, Kiowa and Apache. He made former slaves into one of the best Cavalry units in the Army. On July 1, 1876, he was promoted to Colonel and assumed command of the U.S. 5th Cavalry during the Centennial War with the Lakota and Cheyenne. He led the 5th with a scout named Buffalo Bill Cody against the Cheyenne at the Battle of War Bonnet Creek, gaining the first U.S. victory against the Indians after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. When the campaign against the Lakota and Cheyenne was over, Merritt assumed command of Fort D.A. Russell outside Cheyenne Wyoming. While there, he led the U.S. Cavalry against the Ute Indians during the White River War of 1879, rescuing a surrounded cavalry patrol like in a Hollywood movie. Merritt completed his service on the Great Plains in 1882, moving on to be the Superintendent of West Point from 1882 until 1887. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1887 and Major General in 1895.
During the Spanish-American War he was named commander of all land forces in the Philippine Campaign. When the Spanish surrendered, Merritt was named the first Military Governor of the Philippines. He then was relieved of this position and sent to France to serve as an advisor to the U.S. Delegation in the peace negotiation leading to the treaty of Paris.
Wesley Merritt retired from the Army in 1900 after 45 years’ service. He died in Natural Bridge, VA on December 3, 1910 of arteriosclerosis at the age of 74, and is buried at the West Point Cemetery.
Thomas has been a Civil War buff for many years. He is a member of the Wyoming Valley Civil War Round Table, The Lackawanna County Civil War Round Table, and The Luzerne Historical Society. Thomas has ancestors who served with both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. Thomas’ great, great uncle served under Wesley Merritt in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Another great, great uncle served with Merritt at Fort D.A. Russell during the Indian Wars. And a distance relative if his wife served with Merritt in the Philippians during the Spanish-American War.
Tom can be contacted through this web site at Wesley.Merritt@uniongenerals.org