By Dennis D. Urban
For those of you who participated in National Park Service Historian Jim Ogden’s Saturday March 20 tour of Colonel John T. Wilder’s actions at the Battle of Chickamauga, you witnessed another superb history lesson from Jim. It was refreshing to see such excellent attendance and so many new faces to participate in Jim’s well-researched and entertaining presentation. He never disappoints.
What many of our membership probably did not know, and I certainly among them, was Wilder’s post-war life and business career which was centered in East Tennessee and in Knoxville. This was not mentioned on the tour, but whether you were on the tour or not, his personal and business dealings in our region should be of interest to you. This article should complete the loop on his post-war career.
Pre-war Wilder was trained as a draftsman and a millwright, a builder of several successful mills, a foundry owner, a patented inventor of hydraulic machines, an early industrialist, and an entrepreneur. He was certainly not your usual civilian turned military officer. These pre-war experiences guided his post-war career and steered him to East Tennessee and Knoxville.
The discovery of iron in Roane County led to extensive mining and milling operations in the area. John T. Wilder came to the area shortly after the war to establish a business. The town of Rockwood was founded as a company town serving the employees of the Roane Iron Company and its president, William O. Rockwood, from whom the town took its name. Wilder lived in Rockwood between 1867 and 1870. During this time, Colonel Wilder also established a business in the Chattanooga area manufacturing rails for the railroad industry. During his years in Chattanooga, circa 1870 – 1884, he was very active in civic affairs and local politics. Driven by business and moving around East Tennessee Wilder established iron manufacturing and commercial businesses in Johnson City where he lived from 1884 to 1892. By this time, Wilder became very wealthy. Unfortunately, his wife, Martha Jane (Stewart) Wilder, passed away in Johnson City at the young age of fifty-four. Wilder maintained several homes around East Tennessee where he had business interests. His principal residence from 1892 to 1897 is undetermined but it may have remained in Johnson City.
Wilder’s residence in Knoxville began in 1897 when he was appointed a Federal pension agent by President William J. McKinley. Upon relocating to Knoxville, Wilder boarded with two of his daughters at the Oxford Hotel, 408 W. Clinch Avenue. His office was in the Customs House (now the East Tennessee Historical Society). His daughter, Mary, worked with him as a clerk in the office. Soon the family moved to a single family residence at 931 9th Street in what was originally the City of West Knoxville. West Knoxville was annexed by the City of Knoxville circa 1897 and 9th Street became the current 17th Street in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. His home would have stood near the present intersection of 17th Street and Cumberland Avenue. He resided in this location until about 1904.
Wilder constructed another home, this time east of the city, beginning circa 1903. The single family home was located on Boyd’s Ferry Road (later Boyd’s Bridge Pike) along the river. He called this small farm Cherry Hill. This home may have been built as a summer residence. The home still stands today at 2027 Riverside Drive and is listed on the National Register. About this same time, the seventy-four year old Wilder was hospitalized in Knoxville. He and his young nurse, twenty-nine year-old Dora Lee, an aspiring medical student, fell in love and were married in 1904. He certainly financed her education at the University of Tennessee from which she graduated with a medical degree in 1910. About this time, he resigned his position as the pension agent in Knoxville. The Wilders resided in their east side home until 1913 when the couple moved to Monterey, Tennessee where Wilder maintained a home since his Rockwood days. This became their main residence.
On October 20, 1917 while on his annual Florida vacation in Jacksonville with his wife and daughters, Colonel John T. Wilder died unexpectedly. His wife and daughters were at his bedside as he passed into eternity. While best known as Colonel, Wilder was promoted to brevet Brigadier General just two months before his resignation from the Federal service in August 1864 and well after his insightful and forward-thinking actions on the southern portion of the Chickamauga field September 19-20, 1863. His military legacy was intact from that point, while his many accomplishments in the business and entrepreneurial sphere, especially in East Tennessee and Knoxville, have been mostly forgotten. His life was remarkable in many ways and for his many accomplishments. It is well to recall both areas of achievement of this truly American success story.
Sources: www.ajlambert.com, Ancestry.com, Wikipedia, and various internet sources
Mr. Urban is a historian and former President of the KCWRT. His book, The Making of a Civilian Soldier in the Civil War, the First Diary of Private William J. McLean,was released in September 2019.