A shooting star: Brigadier General William T. Martin

Major General Joseph WheelerWilliam T. MartinPerhaps no general of the Civil War had a more meteoric rise…and fall…than William T. Martin. In December, 1862, Martin was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding a battalion of Mississippi Cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart; by November 1863 he was a Major General commanding a cavalry corps. Within another 10 months, in September 1864 he was relegated to a backwater departmental command in southern Mississippi, relieved of field command by Major General Joseph Wheeler for disobeying an order. War has ever been an avenue to fast promotion, and the cavalry has always favored youth, but few careers have ever had such ups and downs.

Martin was used to precocious achievement. Born in Kentucky in 1823, Martin studied law in Mississippi – where his family also had property – and became district attorney for Natchez by the time he was 22. Natchez was one of the more lawless and infamous places in the United States in the 1840’s: a den of iniquity seething with bars, prostitution, gambling, and rough-cut river men who saw fighting as just another evening’s entertainment. Practicing criminal law in Natchez required as much physical prowess as legal acumen. On one occasion Martin had a finger bitten off by an opponent in a brawl and on another, caned a man on a public street. Despite – or maybe because of – these physical altercations, Martin thrived as a lawyer, teacher, and rising citizen of Natchez.

Despite his initial Unionist leanings, in 1860 he helped form a company of militia cavalry, and contributed greatly to equipping them for war. Upon secession, the “Adams Troop” joined the Confederate army, with Martin in command. They were headed for Virginia, where Martin’s company was combined with several others to form a battalion of Mississippi Cavalry. Martin was promoted to major to command the new unit. The next step up came in January, 1862, when troops from several states were combined with Martin’s battalion into the Jeff Davis Legion, and again Martin was promoted to Lt. Col., assuming command.

He led the Legion through 1862. He accompanied J.E.B. Stuart on the first famous “ride around McClellan” outside Richmond and fought in all of Lee’s campaigns of that year, earning notice and praise. In December, President Davis selected him for promotion to Brigadier General – jumping a grade – to go west and take command of a brigade of Mississippi Cavalry.

Transfer west included greater potential opportunities. It also meant he was leaving a successful theater for one where the miasma of defeat seemed to hang in the air. Confederate cavalry organization in the west was especially chaotic: Martin had barely assumed command of his brigade before he was bumped up to divisional command that February; then back again in the spring to brigade command, and finally, returned to divisional command in May with the creation of new formation in Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps. At first he served under Major General Earl Van Dorn, but with Van Dorn’s death at the hands of the jealous Dr. Peters, Martin found himself under Wheeler.

Martin’s and Wheeler’s relationship was not a good one, though for the first year or so things remained superficially cordial. Part of the problem was that Wheeler was simply unfit for high command. He was a notoriously poor disciplinarian, a bad administrator, and a poor tactician to boot. His commands suffered from excessive straggling and desertion, often ran to lawlessness and looting, and in general neglected mundane but important duties like picketing and patrolling in favor of raiding. Wheeler also showed marked favoritism towards Brigadier General John A. Wharton’s division over Martin’s men.

When the Tullahoma campaign opened in June, 1863, Wheeler was caught unprepared, which left Braxton Bragg largely in the dark about Federal intentions. In late June, Wheeler’s corps guarded Bragg’s center and right flank while Forrest’s corps protected the Army of Tennessee’s left. With Union forces stirring, on June 22nd Wheeler decided to strip Martin’s division from it’s position on the far right, pass the whole force behind the Rebel army to join Forrest at Spring Hill, and then launch a raid on Rosecrans’ rear, threatening Nashville. It was an idiotic scheme. Rosecrans’ supply lines were too well protected for Wheeler to have any real impact, and worse, Martin’s departure meant that Bragg was now blind to any Union movements from the east – which is exactly where Rosecrans intended to outflank the Rebels. The result was near-disaster for the Army of Tennessee. Martin had little role to play in the critical phase of the campaign, since Wheeler’s orders to move to Spring Hill took him ‘off the map’ for two days. Worse yet, once at Spring Hill Martin had to immediately reverse course and rush to Shelbyville, to join in a desperate rear-guard action there.

July and August saw the Army of Tennessee settle in around Chattanooga. Once again Bragg arrayed his cavalry on either flank. This time Forrest took the right, guarding the Tennessee River up towards Knoxville, while Wheeler was assigned the left, downstream, with instructions to patrol deep into Alabama.

Wheeler barely played lip service to this order. Instead of deploying both divisions to cover 100 miles of front, he left only two regiments. The rest of the corps fell back to Alexandria, Alabama and Rome, Georgia, where they spent a pleasurable month stealing horses, racing them, and “living high on peach pie.” Not surprisingly, Rosecrans was again able to achieve surprise, outflanking Bragg’s main force at Chattanooga, and once again Martin’s men had to race to get back into position.

Martin’s command was the smallest of the four cavalry divisions in Bragg’s army, numbering about 2,500 men, but they managed credible service in mid-September. Once tasked with a job, Martin demonstrated that he could successfully operate an effective cavalry screen – it was his accurate and timely intelligence that alerted Bragg to the opportunity in McLemore’s Cove on September 11th, when Union Major General James S. Negley’s division advanced into that mountainous cul-de-sac on their way to Lafayette, Georgia. Martin then watched the opportunity slip away as subordinate infantry commanders bumbled and stumbled their way fearfully into the Cove. After the war, in a rare comment on his wartime experiences, Martin wrote an article for the Southern Historical Society Papers which defended Bragg, and added a scathing indictment of several of the other generals involved.

Martin’s men saw extensive service at Chickamauga. Here, also, Wheeler displayed an overt favoritism towards Wharton’s command that must have rankled. Each evening during the battle, Wheeler left Martin’s division to picket the army’s flank while Wharton’s men retired several miles to the rear to a comfortable camp. This odd decision meant that Martin’s men basically had to pull continuous duty for several days while Wharton’s troops rested after each day’s fight. Worse yet, by the end of the battle, Wharton’s camps were so far to the rear that the men had to travel several hours to and from the front lines each evening and morning, which greatly curtailed their effectiveness.

After Chickamauga, Martin’s division accompanied Wheeler on yet another wild ride – the famous “October Raid” aimed at curtailing Rosecrans’ already crippled supply situation in Chattanooga. After an initial success – destroying approximately 800 wagons on the north bank of the Tennessee River – Wheeler pressed on into Middle Tennessee. The raid ended badly, with Wheeler’s columns being pursued by numerous Federal troopers, suffering heavy losses, and wearing out thousands of badly needed horses. Martin’s men limped back into Alabama towards the end of October, their effectiveness greatly reduced by losses and crippled livestock.

To be continued…


15 Responses to “A shooting star: Brigadier General William T. Martin”

  1. James F. Epperson Says:

    The more I learn about Wheeler, the more I think he may be the *Union* unsung hero of the war!

  2. davidpowell334 Says:

    Wheeler’s continued tenure in command of the AOT cavalry baffles me, and certainly proved helpful to the Federal army. He could be counted on to do the wrong thing at the worst time, IMO.

  3. Bill Bartmann Says:

    I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog. Thanks,

    A definite great read…:)


  4. Jamie Gillum Says:

    Glad I stumbled onto your blog. Very interesting info.!

  5. John Fox Says:

    Any idea where the image of Brigadier General William T. Martin came from?

  6. Donn Says:

    I just found out through the Colt archives that I own one of the original 1860 fluted .44 caliber Army revolvers that Wm. T. Martin purchased for what may have been the first order of arms. There was one lot of 160 shipped to him on Jan 17, 1861, along with 160 powder flasks, 80 holsters and 80 shoulder stocks. History can be very interesting at times. It’s in very good antique condition and no reason it couldn’t be fired. Once it is appraised, it will be for sale, hopefully to a museum or a serious collector so it can be preserved.

    • Farar Elliott Says:

      Hey, Donn, I would love to talk to you about the revolvers. I’m both a museum curator and a relative of Martin, and would be interested in acquiring or perhaps just tracking those objects.

      • donn klor Says:

        Thanks for the email, and apologize up front for a late response!
        Very interesting that he is related!
        The gun is in perfect mechanical condition, tight, etc. I have no way to know the name or rank of who it was issued to. It was definitely used but correctly cared for. Rifling is strong, no sign of rust, but finish is gone as you would imagine.
        I am considering it sold to a collector in Ohio, timing of funding will dictate the outcome. This has been in our family approximately 50 years and has never been for sale/available before.
        Would you care for any pictures? I believe I still have some on my main computer.
        Thanks for the note!

      • Farar Elliott Says:

        Thanks, Donn. Nah, no need for photos. I’m glad it is going into good hands.

  7. Tom Sabetta Says:

    Does anyone know who Martin’s chief surgeon was?


  8. Chris Evans Says:


    In reading Dyer’s still quite wonderful biography on Wheeler (I actually found a 1941 complete copy after your mention of it in a footnote being superior to the 1961 ‘revised’ edition) I came across the account of the bizarre assault on Wheeler in Nashville in August 1865 by two former Union officers.

    I was wondering since you have quite a collection of primary source material, do you have any additional information on this humiliating assault on Wheeler?


  9. Gerald D. Hodge, Jr. Says:

    Does anyone have access to Crute’s “Confederate Staff Officers?” I am looking for the names of MG William Thompson Martin’s staff. Thank you in advance. Gerald D. Hodge, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army

    • Dave Powell Says:

      There are four men listed:
      Major J. C. Bridgewater, 8 may 1863; Lieutenant Farrar B. Conner, ADC, 8 January 1863; Major M. McCarthy, QM, 2 August 1863; Captain Douglass Walworth, AAG, 8 January 1863.

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