Some careers are less glamorous than others.
Marcus J. Wright was one whom fame largely overlooked. He commanded a brigade in only two battles with the army of Tennessee, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. In each case, he was placed in a difficult situation largely by circumstances outside his control. He did not do poorly, but neither did he win plaudits.
The 30 year old Wright entered the war as Lieutenant Colonel of the 154th (Senior) Tennessee infantry – a pre-war militia unit that kept its old number, along with the “Senior” appellation to reinforce the militia connection, to distinguish it from mere wartime volunteers. The 154 was from Memphis and West Tennessee; Wright himself was from Purdy, just a few miles from what would become the field at Shiloh.
In fact, he led the 154th at Shiloh, assuming command after brigade commander Bushrod Johnson was wounded and Colonel Preston Smith stepped up to that command. On Sunday April 6th Wright was hit in the knee by a spent ball, taking a minor if painful wound, but nevertheless kept the field through the end of the two day battle. He earned considerable praise from superiors for his conduct during the fight.
That summer, as Confederate regiments re-organized for the duration of the war, many units also voted in new slates of officers. Wright apparently was not voted back; instead he took a job as Assistant Adjutant General under Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham in July, 1862. He would serve on Cheatham’s staff until November, fighting at Perryville on October 8th.
In November, as the Army of Tennessee fetched up at Murfreesboro, Wright was promoted to full colonel and sent to McMinnville, Tennessee – there to take charge of the post and the camp of instruction. He’d been post commander once before, at Columbus Kentucky, between January and March of 1862. At McMinnville his duties were administrative. He missed the battle of Murfreesboro in the meantime.
Wright had hopes for both additional promotions and a return to field command. He had a powerful patron in the form of Tennessee’s wartime Governor, Isham G. Harris, who embarked on an ambitious letter writing campaign on behalf of the young colonel. Harris promised Wright that the War Department in Richmond would be besieged on Wright’s behalf, writing letters under his own name and for Frank Cheatham to sign, urging Wright’s promotion. The effort was successful: Wright was appointed Brigadier in January, to date from December 13, 1862, confirmed by the Confederate Congress on April 22nd.
In January Wright returned to the Army of Tennessee, newly decorated with General’s braid, and eager for command. For two weeks he led the fabled Orphan Brigade, until the powers that be decided that a native Kentuckian should actually be given that job, for obvious political and morale reasons. Brigadier General Benjamin H. Helm replaced Wright on January 29th.
In the meantime, Brigadier General Samuel S. Donelson had taken ill, so ill that he would die later that spring, and the vacancy his incapacitation created seemed ideal for Wright. Donelson had commanded a Tennessee brigade in Cheatham’s Division. Wright took command on February 7th.
The brigade objected. Several officers expected that Colonel John Savage of the 8th Tennessee would get the job instead, and Wright’s arrival was a most unwelcome surprise. To make matters worse, Savage already viewed Wright as something of a political rival during their ante-bellum years, and now saw Wright’s promotion as an attack on himself. Eventually, Savage resigned in angry protest, and would harbor a grudge against Wright for many years.
Wright commanded the brigade through the summer of 1863, participating in the Tullahoma campaign, but seeing no action. He led his command into the attack at Chickamauga on September 19th. Overmatched and outflanked, Wright fell back just as Clayton’s Brigade was coming up. The tactical problems on the 19th were no fault of Wright’s; All five brigades in Cheatham’s division were poorly placed and suffered similar reverses. On September 20th, Wright’s men participated in the final successful attack on Kelly Field at the close of the battle.
If the brigade’s officers were critical of their new brigadier, that criticism was muted. One did note that he sent three different couriers to find Wright during the climax of the engagement on the 19th to no avail, but Wright earned neither censure nor special praise for his conduct on the field.
Two months later, Wright commanded the brigade at the battle of Chattanooga. His brigade had been detached, defending Cleveland, Tennessee, when Bragg hastily transferred it back to Missionary Ridge on November 24th to oppose Sherman’s crossing of the Tennessee River. On the afternoon of the 24th, Wright was given the impossible task of marching down the south Chickamauga Creek to the river bank in order to prevent Sherman – with three divisions already across – from effecting a lodgment on the south bank of the Tennessee.
Near dark, Wright’s men stumbled into Federals, and after some skirmishing, soon withdrew to a nearby hill. That night, they retreated further, to a position east of Missionary Ridge to guard Bragg’s northern flank. They were not further engaged. At 2:00 a.m. on the 25th, however, Marcus Wright turned command over to Colonel Anderson of the 8th Tennessee – Wright reported that he was sick with a “severe chill.” Historian Peter Cozzens has suggested that Wright lost his nerve.
If in fact Wright was showing the white feather, no official censure seems to have come from it. However, Chattanooga would be his last time in command of a brigade. In March, 1864, Wright was ordered to Atlanta, to take command of that post. He would spend the rest of the war in various administrative commands. His brigade was commanded by John C. Carter until it was broken up later in the fall of 64. Carter himself died at Franklin, one of the six Confederate Generals who lost their lives there.
One interesting facet of Wright’s career is that by the spring of 64, he was a confidante of Bragg’s, who wrote him several intimate letters expressing the ex-army commander’s dissatisfaction and vituperation with senior officers – especially Frank Cheatham. Wright owed his promotion to Harris’ and Cheatham’s influence, and could be expected to be loyal to them, not Bragg. Did Cheatham know of Wright’s relationship with Bragg? Did relations cool between Marcus Wright and Frank Cheatham as a result? There is little evidence either way, but Wright’s continued allegiance to Bragg could not have helped.
After the war, Wright returned to Memphis and practiced law, until he won a plum appointment: In 1878 he was made the official Confederate agent for collection of records to be included in the publication of the massive Official Records of the Civil War.” He did so assiduously for the next 39 years, until he retired in 1917. His role in collecting these records gave him unique access to the story of the war. He greatly influenced the history of the conflict not only by his work with the official records, but also by writing for other publications as well.
Still, Wright has left few footprints in the history of the war. He has no biography, for instance, and in most accounts he merits only a few words. A large number of questions about his relationships with subordinates and superiors remain.
I found two books to be especially helpful in providing some clues to Wright’s career:
Sam Davis Elliott, Isham G. Harris Of Tennessee, 2010
Christopher Losson, Tennessee’s Forgotten Warriors: Frank Cheatham and his Confederate Division, 1989.