Union general and postwar industrialist John T. Wilder was born in Hunter County, New York, to Reuben and Mary Merritt Wilder. As a young man, ca. 1848, he moved to Ohio and worked as an apprentice engineer. In the late 1850s he moved to Indiana, established a foundry, and patented an improved waterwheel in 1859. When the Civil War began, Wilder joined the Seventeenth Indiana Volunteers. He and his regiment served extensively in the western theater, playing a particularly significant role in the Chattanooga area campaign of 1863, and gained the reputation of “Wilder’s Lightning Brigade.” In 1864 Wilder was brevetted a brigadier general.
He first was introduced to Chattanooga on August 21, 1863, when his Union forces bombarded the city. A year later Wilder resigned from the army due to illness, but he remembered the mineral-rich deposits of East Tennessee and returned to Chattanooga in 1866 ready to invest in the redevelopment of the area. The year after his return, Wilder and two associates organized the Roane Iron Works in Roane County. Later, he became involved in a number of other coal and steel companies, as well as in the production of a turbine wheel that he had invented. At Johnson City Wilder built a large hotel to accommodate the businessmen he hoped would be coming to buy land from his Carnegie Land Company. Wilder also pushed for the development of the state’s railroad system and developed a rail manufacturing company.
Wilder became active politically and was elected mayor of Chattanooga in 1871. He resigned the following spring, however, to focus his attention on various business interests. In 1876 Wilder made an unsuccessful bid for Congress and never sought another political office, though he accepted several political appointments. In 1877 Wilder was appointed postmaster of Chattanooga and served until 1882. In 1897 President William McKinley appointed Wilder to the pension office in Knoxville, an appointment that was renewed by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft.
Along with other Civil War veterans, Wilder supported the development of a military park at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefields and contributed to the erection of the Wilder Brigade Monument. He served first as commissioner and then as president of the Chickamauga Memorial Association in 1889.
As an industrialist, Wilder helped establish Chattanooga as an important industrial city in the redeveloping South. His civic leadership won the admiration of many, including a number of Confederate veterans, who elected him an honorary member of the Forrest camp of the United Confederate Veterans.
Wilder died on October 20, 1917, in Jacksonville, Florida, where he had gone to spend the winter. His body was returned to Chattanooga and buried in the Forest Hill cemetery.
Samuel Cole Williams, “General John T. Wilder,” Indiana Magazine of History 31 (1935): 169-203 and General John T. Wilder, Commander of the Lightning Brigade (1936)