James Alexander Williamson

Medal of Honor citation:

Rank and Organization: Colonel, 4th Iowa Infantry.
Place and Date: At Chickasaw Bayou, Miss., 29 December 1862.
Entered service at: Des Moines, Iowa.
Born: 8 February 1829, Columbia, Adair County, Ky.
Date of issue: 17 January 1895.

Citation: Led his regiment against a superior force, strongly entrenched, and held his ground when all support had been withdrawn.

James Alexander Williamson was born on February 8, 1829, in Adair County, Kentucky, but was taken to Indiana at the age of three, and to Keokuk County, Iowa, when he was fifteen. He was graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and then returned to Lancaster, Iowa, where he studied law and began a practice. About 1854 he went to Des Moines and the next year was one of the leaders in the movement which moved the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines. Until the Civil War, Williamson was a staunch Democrat, serving as chairman of the State Democratic Committee and as a delegate to the 1860 Baltimore convention which nominated Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency. During the war he rose from first lieutenant to brevet major general of volunteers, despite the fact that he had no previous military experience of any kind. (His promotions were a result of his fearlessness and eagerness to learn.) After a few months service as adjutant of the 4th Iowa, whose colonel was Grenville M. Dodge, Williamson was elected lieutenant colonel of the regiment in April, 1862, and became its colonel in July. He was appointed brigadier general on April 1, 1865, to rank from January 13 and brevetted major general as of March 13, 1865. Meanwhile, he fought at Elkhorn Tavern under Samuel R. Curtis; garrisoned Helena, Arkansas, during the summer and fall of 1862; and participated in the hard fighting at Chickasaw Bayou under W. T. Sherman, the subsequent capture of Arkansas Post under John A. McClernand, and the Vicksburg campaign, where his regiment was part of Steele's division of Sherman's XV Corps. Before the surrender of Vicksburg, Williamson was compelled to take a leave of absence because of his health, but upon return to duty was assigned to the command of a brigade, which he led in the Chattanooga campaign including the engagement on Lookout Mountain and the storming of Missionary Ridge. During the Atlanta and Savannah campaigns he directed the 2nd Brigade of Osterhaus' division. Soon after the capture of Savannah Williamson returned to Iowa and, during the summer of 1865, served under General Grenville M. Dodge in command of the District of Missouri and in fighting Indians. He was mustered out in November, 1865. Williamson was wounded five times during the war, was repeatedly recommended for promotion, and won the universal approbation of his superiors. By the end of hostilities he had become an active Republican and in 1868 was a delegate to the Republican National Convention. The same year he became associated with the promotion of the Union Pacific Railroad and subsequently interested himself in western lands. From 1876 to 1881 he was commissioner of the General Land Office and in the latter year became land commissioner of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad (predecessor of the Santa Fe). He was president of this railway when he retired in 1892. General Williamson died at his summer home in Jamestown, Rhode Island, on September 7, 1902, and was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Georgetown, D. C.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.