It was during this time that his military self education began. "Williams improved his familiarity with European military history and expressed a particular interest in the French military experience. He toured many battlefields, visited arsenals and military museums, and acquired a considerable knowledge of weaponry."1
Why he moved to Detroit in 1836 is unclear, but it would be his home for the remainder of his life. There, he established himself as a lawyer, he married his first wife Jane, nee Larned, and produced three five children of whom two died young. Jane passed away in 1848 and he remained unmarried until he married Martha Tillman in 1875.
In the years prior to the Civil War, he served as a probate judge of Wayne County, president of a bank, owner of the Detroit Advertiser, postmaster of Detroit, and member of the Board of Education. 2
His military activities began early in his Detroit years, when he enlisted in the local militia, the Brady Guards. "He worked through the ranks from private in 1838 to Major General of the Michigan Militia twenty years later. He served on active Army duty during the Patriot War of 1838 and 1839 and, like so many others who later fought as generals in the Civil War, Williams also served during the Mexican War." 3 In 1855 he reorganized the moribund Brady Guard as the Detroit Light Guard and became its captain and leader. By 1859 the company had evolved into a battalion of two companies and Williams was its major. This activity allowed Michigan to send the first western troops to Washington in the tense days of 1861.
Appointed Brigadier General on May 17, 1861, he undertook the training of Michigan troops until he was ordered to Washington in October and placed in command of a brigade of 5000 troops under General Banks command. He was stationed near Darnestown, Maryland until he was moved to the extreme right wing of the Army of the Potomac at Hancock, Maryland where he remained from January to March of 1862.
Put in motion of March 1, he departed for Williamsport, Maryland, where he joined the main body of Banks command, crossed the Potomac and marched in Banks' ill-fated invasion of the Shenandoah Valley. [See Map] Driven out by late May, he reentered the Valley in early June and encamped at Front Royal until ordered to cross the Blue Ridge and concentrate with Pope's command at Culpeper, Virginia. Arriving there on the eighth, his command was placed in a guarding position south of the town near Cedar Mountain.
On the ninth, his command encountered the leading elements of Jackson's command commencing what turned out to be the opening of the Second Bull Run Campaign. Williams, under orders of Banks, attacked and succeeded in breaking the famed Stonewall brigade only to encounter the main body of the rebel army. Outnumbered, out of ammunition, and left unreinforced, he lost a third of his command and all of his officers. Yet he retired the command in order and his efforts deflected Jackson's movement.
His badly mauled forces were part of the Union troops that were maneuvered out of the battle of Second Bull Run and they joined the general retreat behind the defenses of Washington.
In Washington, he had a number of green regiments added to his command and, as temporary corps commander, was promptly sent toward western Maryland in search of Lee's army which had begun an invasion of Maryland in early September. On September 13 troops of his command found the famous Lost Order of Lee's detailing the positions and objectives of Lee's army west of the Blue Ridge. [See Map]
Four days later, he lead his troops in to the decisive battle of Antietam. Two days prior to the battle he was replaced by a West Pointer in corps command, but that commander (Mansfield) was killed early in the battle and Williams led the corps throughout the battle and for some time after. Once again he met and drove the troops of Jackson only to be, once again, left outnumbered, out of ammunition, and unreinforced. Forced to pull back he held an advanced position until the battle's end and lost of quarter of his command in the process.
After Antietam, his command crossed in to Virginia near Harper's Ferry, marched through Fairfax and into winter quarters near Stafford, Virginia and participated in Burnside's famous Mud March.
In early May 1863 he marched west with the main body of Hooker's command crossing Germana Ford to occupy Chancellorsville behind Lee's army then occupying Fredricksburg. When Hooker's command was rolled up by Jackson's famous march around the Union Army, it was Williams, with hastily entrenched his troops, who halted the rebel advance in the horrendous night battle of May 3-4 when Jackson fell near Williams' position. Retiring in order from its entrenchments in the morning of the 4th, his division had helped save the Union Army from annihilation.
By June he was, once again, marching into Union territory in search of an invading army under Lee. Williams arrived at Gettysburg on the evening of the first day and was again placed in command of his corps due to a vacancy created by the death of Gen. McPherson. Acting promptly he recognized the importance of Culp's Hill and, as at Chancellorsville, had his troops fortify it whence it withstood repeated rebel assaults preserving the the vital tip of the Union's fish hook position. Again he faced the Stonewall brigade, this time destoying it and capturing its flags. He participated in the famous commander's meeting held by Meade on the night of the second day where the decision to stand and fight was decided. Overshadowed by the more publicized events at Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge, his actions were not even credited in Meade's report and it took much effort to undo that error.
After Gettysburg, he followed Lee's retreat into Virginia, until September when he was ordered west to join Sherman's Army following the disaster at Chickamauga. He wintered in the mud of Tennessee guarding railroads during the Tullahoma Campaign. In the spring he joined Sherman's advance on Atlanta and fought with distinction in the Union victories at Resaca, New Hope Church, Kolb's Farm, and Peach Tree Creek. At Resaca his "Red Star" division, as it was now known, fought the decisive action that lead to the Union victory.
Williams and the XXth Corps joined Sherman's march to the sea which cut a path of destruction and vengeance that swept across Georgia then north into South and North Carolina breaking the back of rebel resistance and burning out the heart of secession. It was a march that ended in a victory parade through Washington in May of 1865.
Remarkably, Williams never received promotion to Major General, other than an honorary Brevet, mostly due to his refusal to curry favor with the press and his not having the connections in a West Point dominated military. That he had been a Democrat politician did not help either. Beloved by his troops, highly regarded and honored by his fellow officers, this neglect is glaring.
He next served as military administrator of the Ouachita District in Southern Arkansas until he resigned his commission in early 1866. He returned to Michigan and civilian life only to face financial difficulties that forced him to take a post as minister resident to San Salvador (now El Salvador). Once again returning to Michigan he made an unsuccessful run for Governor in 1870, but was more successful when he ran for and was elected to Congress in 1874 and 1876. At that post, he died on December 21, 1878 in Washington, D.C. and then, for several decades, his legacy disappeared. Partial revival began when, in 1921, a fitting bronze statue of Williams was unveiled on Detroit's Belle Isle. The real breakthrough occurred with the above mentioned 1959 publication of his finely written letters.4
Library of Congress Photograph of Williams colorized by Lowell Boileau.
from Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1977. (photographer not identified)