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American Civil War: Major General Wesley Merritt


American Civil War: Major General Wesley Merritt

Major General Wesley Merritt, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Wesley Merritt - Early Career:

A native of New York City, Wesley Merritt graduated from West Point in 1860. Ranked twenty-second of forty-one graduates, he was assigned to the cavalry and posted to the 2nd US Dragoons at Fort Crittenden, UT. Arriving as a brevet second lieutenant, Merritt was promoted to second lieutenant on January 28, 1861, and to first lieutenant on May 13, 1861. After serving as the assistant adjutant for US forces in Utah, he was named adjutant for the newly renamed 2nd Cavalry. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Merritt was recalled to Washington, DC.

Wesley Merritt - Civil War:

Arriving in the capital that fall, Merritt was assigned as an aide-de-camp to the former commander of the 2nd Cavalry, Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke. He remained in this role until April 5, 1862, when he was promoted to captain and returned to the 2nd Cavalry. For the remainder of the year, the regiment remained idle within the Washington defenses. In April 1863, Merritt finally saw field service when he was named adjutant for the commander of the Army of the Potomac's Cavalry Corps, Major General George Stoneman.

In early May 1863, Merritt rode with Cavalry Corps during Stoneman Raid. Designed as a deep penetration raid to support Major General Joseph Hooker's efforts at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the operation proved a failure after Stoneman's men became bogged down after crossing the Rapidan River. After the raid, Merritt was promoted to command the 2nd Cavalry which was then part of Brigadier General John Buford's Reserve Brigade. Due to his failure, Stoneman was sacked and the Cavalry Corps given to Major General Alfred Pleasonton.

On June 9, 1863, Merritt led the 2nd Cavalry during the Battle of Brandy Station. The largest cavalry battle of the war, the fighting at Brandy Station was inconclusive, but proved a turning point for the Union cavalry which had been consistently bested by their Confederate adversaries to this point. Twelve days later, on June 21, Merritt earned praise for his performance at the Battle of Upperville. Due to losses and the need to reward gifted officers, Pleasonton reorganized the Cavalry Corps.

As part of the reorganization, Captains Merritt and Elon Farnsworth, as well as First Lieutenant George A. Custer, were promoted directly to brigadier general. With his new rank, Merritt was given command of the Reserve Brigade in Buford's First Division. Riding north, Buford's men arrived at Gettysburg, PA and played a key role in preventing the Confederates from capturing the high ground near the town on July 1. While Merritt's brigade was held in reserve on July 1, it took part in Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick's ill-fated mounted attack on July 3.

Merritt continued to lead his brigade through the fall of 1863, and ascended to command the First Division following Buford's death from typhoid in December. In May 1864, Merritt ably led the division during Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign. For his actions at the Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864), in which Confederate cavalry commander Major General J.E.B. Stuart was killed, Merritt received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in the regular army. In August, Merritt's division was transferred to Major General Philip H. Sheridan's newly formed Army of the Shenandoah.

Campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley, Merritt's men delivered a key blow at the Battle of Opequon (Third Winchester) on September 19, and fought well as Sheridan destroyed Confederate forces led by Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early. For his actions in the Valley, Merritt received a brevet promotion to major general. Returning to the Army of the Potomac, Merritt's horsemen fought at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865. With General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in retreat, Merritt was made Sheridan's second-in-command for the Appomattox Campaign

Pursuing Lee west, Sheridan and Merritt were able to corner him at Appomattox Court House. When Lee decided to surrender to Grant, Merritt was named one of the commissioners to oversee the process. With the war concluded, Merritt reverted to his regular army rank of lieutenant colonel on July 28, 1866, and was given command of the 9th Cavalry in Texas. An African-American unit, the 9th was known as the "Buffalo Soldiers." After decade in Texas, Merritt was promoted to colonel and given command of the 5th Cavalry on July 1, 1876.

Wesley Merritt - Frontier and Spanish-American War:

Shortly thereafter, on September 9-10, he defeated the Lakota at the Battle of Slim Buttes, the US Army's first major victory after the defeat at the Little Bighorn. Brought back east in 1882, Merritt served five years as the superintendent at West Point. Upon finishing his term he was promoted to brigadier general. In 1895, he was promoted to major general. Following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Merritt was ordered to the West Coast to oversee the creation of the VIII Corps. This force was intended to land in the Philippines to follow up the naval victory at the Battle of Manila Bay.

Departing San Francisco in June 1898, the VIII Corps arrived in the Philippines the following month. After consultations with Commodore George Dewey, Merritt's troops were landed and moved into position to assault the city of Manila. Prior to the attack, Dewey and Merritt met with General Fermin Jaudenes, the Spanish commander in Manila. Jaudenes agreed to offer only token resistance as long as Emilio Aguinaldo's Filipino insurgents were kept out of the attack. The two American commanders agreed to this request and the city was taken on August 13 by American forces. After briefly serving as military governor of the Philippines, Merritt departed and served as an advisor to the American peace negotiators in Paris. With the war ended, Merritt retired from the US Army in 1900. He died on December 3, 1910, at Natural Bridge, VA and was buried at West Point.

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