Wesley Merritt was born on June 16, 1834 into a family of 11 children. After an unsuccessful law career, his father moved the family to a farm in St. Clair County IL, where the elder Merritt was a farmer, state legislator, and newspaper editor. Raised in the comfortable environment of an affluent and politically active household, Wesley attended the Military Academy at West Point, graduating in the Class of 1860 and ranked 22nd out of 41. Earlier, he had pondered the idea of going into law. Upon graduation, Merritt joined the 2nd US Dragoons and was promoted to brevet 2nd Lieutenant on July 1. He served on frontier duty at Fort Crittenden in Utah for about a year, in John Buford’s Company B. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant of the 2nd Dragoons on January 28, 1861, then to 1st Lieutenant on May 13. Merritt had a reputation for being one of the toughest disciplinarians in the service. He served as Assistant Adjutant-General of the Utah forces from June 27 to August 8 of that year, and as Adjutant of the 2nd United States Cavalry from July 1, 1861 until January of 1862. In February of 1862, he was appointed Aide-de-Camp to Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke, who commanded the Cavalry Department of the Army of the Potomac, serving at the headquarters in Washington, DC. On April 5, Merritt was appointed Captain of the 2nd United States Cavalry (the new name for the 2nd Dragoons), remaining in the defenses of Washington until April of 1863. At that time, Merritt was appointed Adjutant to General George Stoneman (as Ordnance Officer) of the First Cavalry Corps, participating in the raid toward Richmond.
Not long after the Battle of Chancellorsville, he was promoted to the command of the 2nd United States Cavalry (in the Reserve Brigade) which was commanded by Brigadier General John Buford. Once General Stoneman was relieved of his command of the Cavalry Corps, succeeded by General Alfred Pleasonton, Buford was transferred to command of the First Cavalry Division, and Merritt took the command of the 2nd US. On June 29, 1863, Merritt was promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers at General Pleasonton’s request and took over command of Buford’s Reserve Brigade, which consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th United States Cavalry Regulars, as well as the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Volunteers. Buford had come to admire the 6th Pennsylvania (also known as “Rush’s Lancers”) so much that he called them his “seventh regular cavalry.” The elements of the brigade were shadows of what they had once been due to depleted ranks caused by their mismanagement by previous commanders during the earlier stages of the war. Buford had trained Merritt in cavalry command and Merritt was an able and competent student. In writing to seek Merritt’s promotion, Pleasonton stated: “I desire to inform the general commanding that the losses my command has sustained in officers requires me to ask for the promotion of good commanders. It is necessary to have a good commander for the regular brigade of cavalry, and I earnestly recommend Capt. Wesley Merritt to be made a brigadier-general for that purpose. He has all the qualifications for it, and has distinguished himself by his gallantry and daring. Give me good commanders and I will give you good results.”
Merritt received his Brigadier General’s star due to “gallant and meritorious service” during the Brandy Station and Upperville actions of the campaign through Pennsylvania. Being promoted from the rank of Captain to Brigadier General was a previously unheard-of “skip” in promotion. Along with Merritt, Captains George Armstrong Custer and Elon J. Farnsworth received the same honor by Washington. For this reason, the three are commonly referred to as the “Boy Generals.” On June 29, the day of his promotion (and only two days before the Battle of Gettysburg), Buford dispatched Merritt and his brigade to Mechanicstown, Maryland, due to the heavy losses they sustained in the recent battles. Merritt was given instructions by Buford to guard the Army of the Potomac’s lines of communications as well as its paths of retreat should it become necessary. Crossing the Potomac River at Edward’s Ferry, Merritt and his brigade passed through Frederick and reached Mechanicstown (today Thurmont) that evening. While the army moved ahead and was engaged in the Gettysburg Battle, Merritt’s brigade rode westward through the passes in the Catoctin Mountains, searching for signs of the Army of Northern Virginia. After an exhausting day in the saddle, on the eve of the Gettysburg Battle while Buford’s other two brigades prepared to meet the Confederate advance, Merritt wrote in his diary: “The road is very rugged… people were very kind to us… they opened a schoolhouse & set a fine dinner for the men… went into the town & there as all along the road was rec’d with great joy by the people.” Early in the morning of July 2, the brigade marched off to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where the troopers made their camp and once again began watching the roads to the south and west. On July 3, the final day of the Gettysburg Battle, his brigade (except for the 6th U.S., which was detached to Fairfield and fought there against Brig. Gen. William “Grumble” Jones’ cavalry brigade) was called up to Gettysburg by a dispatch from Cavalry Corps commander Pleasonton. Merritt fought his brigade in a series of dismounted actions against Confederate infantry (and a small unit of cavalry) on the Federal left flank along the Emmitsburg Road. After the battle the brigade also participated in the pursuit of the enemy to Warrenton, Virginia, and in skirmishes at Williamsport, Boonsboro, Funkstown, Falling Waters, and Manassas Gap.
Only July 5, Merritt’s troopers rejoined Buford’s Division at Frederick, Maryland. There, the division received fresh horses and refitted for the campaign ahead.
Upon Buford’s death of typhoid fever in December 1863, Merritt took command of the First Division. Lamenting the untimely death of his mentor, Merritt prepared general orders for the troops which included a moving tribute to his revered commander.
When Major General Philip Sheridan was given command of the newly-formed Army of the Shenandoah, Merritt was given command of one wing of the cavalry, General Custer the other. Merritt was placed second-in-command to Sheridan in the Appomattox Campaign, and subsequently served as a Commissioner at General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S.Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
After the Civil War, Merritt served in the West as Lieutenant Colonel of the 9th US Cavalry, helping to put down several Indian uprisings. In 1876 he was Colonel of the 5th US Cavalry, then commissioned a Brigadier General, Regular Army, in 1887. He was the Superintendent of West Point from 1882 until 1887, and from 1895 until 1897 took over command of the Departments of the Missouri, Dakota, and the East, respectively. When war broke out with Spain, Merritt commanded the United States forces in the Philippine Islands, cooperating with Admiral Dewey in the US expedition to conquer Manila. He was the officer to accept the Spanish surrender. Merritt was the first Military Governor of the Philippines from July 25, 1898 until August 22, 1898, and then left for Paris to advise the United States Peace Commissioners. Merritt then assumed command of the Department of the East until his retirement on June 16, 1900, after having served 40 years in the Regular Army. He died at Natural Bridge, Virginia, on December 3, 1910 and is buried in the cemetery at his beloved West Point.
Merritt, under the tutelage of Buford, recognized the value of the cavalry as an indispensable arm of the service. He was a quiet, yet competent and intelligent soldier, calm under the greatest pressure. After General George McClellan was relieved from command of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, Merritt commented that “Little Mac” had demonstrated “ignorance of the proper use of the cavalry.”
Lieutenant Colonel Eben Swift of the 8th United States Cavalry made this assessment of Merritt: “Merritt at his high prime was the embodiment of force. He was one of those rare men whose faculties are sharpened and whose view is cleared on the battlefield. His decisions were delivered with the rapidity of thought and were as clear as if they had been studied for weeks… In him a fiery soul was held in thrall to will. Never disturbed by doubt, or moved by fear, neither circumspect nor rash, he never missed an opportunity or made a mistake.”
Merritt’s gravesite at West Point: