Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Hamilton, Gen. Charles Smith (1822-1891)

Wisconsin Civil War Officer, U.S. Marshall, Wisconsin Board of Regents Member

Hamilton, Gen. Charles Smith (1822-1891) | Wisconsin Historical Society
b. Western (town), New York, November 16, 1822
d. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 17, 1891

Charles Hamilton was a career military officer who commanded troops in both the Mexican-American War and Civil War. He was also a successful businessman and served on the University of Wisconsin's Board of Regents.

Early Years

After his childhood in upstate New York, Hamilton entered into the military academy at West Point in 1839, where he was a classmate of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He graduated in 1843 and was stationed around the Great Lakes. In 1848 he served in the Mexican-American War, where he was wounded and brevetted to captain for gallant service. Over the next five years he commanded companies in Texas, Mississippi, and on the frontier before resigning his commission in 1853, at age 31. He settled in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and established a linseed-oil mill.

Civil War Service

When the war broke out in 1861, few Wisconsin residents had formal military training. Those who did, such as Hamilton, were immediately given positions of authority. Hamilton was commissioned colonel of the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry on May 11, 1861, and was promoted to brigadier general in the U.S. Army in August.

For the next year Hamilton led divisions of the U.S. Army in Virginia. In May 1862 he was reassigned to command Union troops fighting in Tennessee and Mississippi. That fall he led divisions at the battles of Iuka and Corinth and was one of the Union's top three generals serving under Ulysses S. Grant in the West.

In the spring of 1863 Hamilton felt that he had not been given a command to which his talents and service entitled him. On April 13, 1863, he resigned from the Army. President Lincoln requested him to withdraw his resignation but Hamilton refused.

Postwar Years

Hamilton returned to Fond du Lac and resumed his linseed-oil business. In 1869 his old friend, President Grant, appointed him U.S. Marshall for the eastern district of Wisconsin. He also served on the University of Wisconsin's Board of Regents, 1866-1875. In 1875 he moved to Milwaukee, where he continued to manufacture linseed-oil and in 1878 became president of the Hamilton Paper Co.

Hamilton was active in veterans' organizations, leading the Wisconsin department of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion for a time. He died on April 17, 1891, at his home in Milwaukee.

Links to Learn More

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography Madison, 1965); Dictionary of American Biography VIII: 183-184; H. L. Conard, ed., History of Milwaukee (Chicago, 1896 ); E.B. Quiner, Military History of Wisconsin (Madison, 1866).]