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William Gilham: Soldier, Educator

The following write-up is of a talk delivered to the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table by Eric J. Mink on January 10, 2000.

The January meeting began with the audience being asked how many have heard of William Gilham. Only about 10% of the long time students of the war raised their hand. Yet Gilham’s presence was felt on almost every major battlefield of the war for his work behind the scene. His life and career was linked with that of Thomas J. Jackson. While Jackson is now recognized around the world as a military genius and Confederate icon, Gilham’s fame doesn’t appear on the radar screen in our national conscious.

Historian Eric Mink, after posing the opening question, spent the next 45 minutes informing the audience of who Gilham was and what he accomplished. Mink, a graduate of Mary Washington College, has worked on numerous battlefields including his current position at Richmond National Battlefield Park.

While little is known about Gilham’s personal life, we know he was born in Vincennes, Indiana on January 13, 1818. His father’s family came from Virginia and it was with the Old Dominion that he would make his mark. He gained a military education at West Point where he graduated 5th in the class of 1840. Upon graduation, he became a lieutenant in the 3rd United States Artillery and fought in the Seminole and Mexican Wars. Gilham was cited for good conduct in both of his battles in Mexico, but felt that his real calling was as an educator rather than as a fighter. Hearing of an opening at Virginia Military Institute, Gilham left Mexico to become a professor on the Lexington campus. From 1846 through 1851 Gilham never took a vacation as he developed VMI’s departments of Chemistry and Agriculture, taught infantry tactics and served as the Commandant of Cadets. To lighten the load on Gilham, the Lexington school in the summer of 1851 hired another professor, an uncommon man with the common name of Thomas Jackson.

Gilham and Jackson despite widely different personalities became close friends. They were roommates for a year and later became business partners. Thomas Munford, the future cavalry leader, wrote that the contrast “was as marked as it was possible to be.” Gilham is described as a personable man with a twinkle in his eyes and a tremendous sense of humor. Jackson’s students described him as a lethargic and sickly person without the hint of a sense of humor. The contrast extended beyond their personalities differences to their teaching methods. While Jackson is thought of as one of the poorer instructors in all American history, Munford wrote that Gilham “was an instructor of high order.” The VMI students looked at Jackson as a weirdo and one frustrated student challenged him to a duel. In contrast, a cadet wrote that Gilham “commanded our profound respect, admiration, and love.”

In 1859, the VMI cadets, with their instructors Gilham and Jackson, went to Harpers Ferry to put down the John Brown Raid. In response to this raid, Virginia Governor Henry Wise ordered Gilham to write a manual to train volunteers and militia. The taunting task, finished in the fall of 1860, was entitled Manual of Instruction for the Volunteers and Militia of the United States. Future Union general Phillip Kearney regarded the book as the “best Military Work that exists.” While other books on military tactic existed for professional soldiers, Gilham’s comprehensiveness and easy to understand text made it perfect for the American civilian soldier. The book was officially adopted by Virginia and other Southern states.

Major William Gilham

When Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, Gilham’s star far out shown that of his friend and colleague Thomas Jackson. Four days later, Gilham and the VMI cadets received orders to report to Richmond. Gilham, now a colonel, became the Commandant of Camp Lee, the camp of instruction for thousands of Virginians. With the outbreak of war, Gilham’s manual, which had been published in Philadelphia, was briefly unavailable to the citizen soldiers of the South. But being the ideal book for the training of these young men, the manual was quickly republished throughout the South.

During the summer, Gilham organized a unit, which became the 21st Virginia, one of the future backbones of Jackson’s command. The regiment was ordered to northwest Virginia where Gilham temporarily commanded a brigade. In the fall, Jackson arrived on the scene and took command. In the first week of January, 1862 the Romney campaign began despite severe winter weather. Gilham’s Brigade led the advance to Bath (now Berkeley Springs) on the 3rd and 4th day of the New Year. Jackson captured Bath but blamed Gilham for allowing the Union troops to escape. Although Gilham followed orders, Jackson brought court martial charges against his friend for neglect of duty and being slow. Douglas Southall Freeman, the famous chronicler of Robert E. Lee’s army, wrote that the charges against Gilham were just one example of Jackson’s efforts to cover his own mistakes.

Nothing came of the charges, but January 4 ended Gilham’s career on the battlefield. He seemed to realize that his interest and ability lay in teaching rather than duty in the field. He returned to VMI. On May 15, 1864, the VMI cadets participated in the Battle of New Market. As acting superintendent, Gilham was present on the battlefield but did not command troops. About a month later a Union raid torched the campus of VMI. The VMI cadets spent the final months of the war in Richmond.

After the war, VMI reopened, but had little money to pay its instructors. In debt with little salary from his job and no royalties from his book (the Confederacy never adopted a copyright law), Gilham was forced to resign to seek other income. Gilham moved to Richmond where he became a chemist and later president of the Southern Fertilizing Company. Seven years later, he went to Vermont for health reasons. The re-location did not help and he died on November 16, 1872. Fittingly his body was returned to Lexington for burial in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, just a few yards from his friend and colleague.

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