James Samuel Wadsworth was born in Geneseo, New York on October 30, 1807. He began Harvard, left, and then finished his studies at Yale, passing the bar in 1832. He never practiced law, but instead became a philanthropist, entered politics and managed the family estate. Wadsworth’s politics aligned him with the more radical wing of the Democratic Party, and later the new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. He married Mary Craig Wharton in 1833 and they had six children.He was a prominent politician and reformer, as well as a gubernatorial candidate in the state of New York.
First entering politics in 1827, Wadsworth rose to prominence in 1847 during the New York State Democratic Convention. In 1860, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Wadsworth is credited with playing a great role in swaying the nomination towards Lincoln.Although well past the ideal military age, Wadsworth felt so strongly about the war he left his family and business ventures to offer his services to the war effort. During the early stages of the Civil War, as a civilian, Wadsworth conducted steamers loaded with workers and supplies from New York to Maryland, to rebuild the torn railroad lines between Annapolis and Washington.Commissioned a Major General in the New York State Militia, he served as a volunteer Aide-de-Camp to General Irwin McDowell. Found to be a capable leader, he was later given a commission and promoted to Brigadier General. Wadsworth’s concern for the health and welfare of his troops earned him their respect. He made sure the soldiers had decent housing and adequate rations. His soldier's referred to him as "Old Waddy" He did love his troops. At his own expense he purchased a supply of gloves for use by his pickets on cold days and nights. In one case, the 20th New York, one of his commands, marched 15 miles arriving at their tenting site at night, exhausted and cold. Wadsworth had already arranged a plentiful supply of firewood for them and had hot coffee waiting for them.
He saw his first combat at Chancellorsville in May 1863, where his troops were only lightly engaged. Gettysburg would prove more challenging. The battle fought between July 1-3, 1863, would have the largest number of casualties of the war.Commanding the First Division of the First Corps, at the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1, 1863, General Wadsworth dispatched a brigade to Culp’s Hill where major attacks were driven off. The First Division bore the brunt of many attacks on the first and second day of the battle. As a result of the fight at Culp’s Hill, half of the division was killed or wounded. At Gettysburg, his troops were the first to arrive and back up Buford's dismounted cavalry, who were the first Union units to engage the advancing Confederates. Thanks to them, they held them off until the rest of the army joined them. In fact, Wadsworth was temporarily in command for a short time after his commanding officer, Gen. Reynolds was killed by a sniper. At Gettysburg National Battlefield near Culp’s Hill, there stands a monument to Brevet Major General Wadsworth.
By May 1864, the fighting had moved back into northern Virginia. General Wadsworth now commanded the Fourth Division, Fifth Corps, during the Battle of the Wilderness. This would be Major General Wadsworth’s last battle. On May 6, he was shot at close range and was captured by Confederate troops after falling from his horse. Taken to a Confederate field hospital, he died after two days, on May 8, 1864.
The efforts to commemorate Wadsworth began within two weeks of his death. On May 19, 1864, General John A. Dix, commander of the regular army posts in New York Harbor wrote “I respectfully suggest that the name of Wadsworth be given to one of the forts in the harbor.” Mary Craig Wadsworth also felt that her husband should be honored in this way. She wrote to Lincoln, “I am very anxious that one of the new forts now being erected in the harbours of New York should be named after my beloved husband.”
General Order 161, was issued on November 7, 1865 proclaiming, “the military post of Staten Island, New York Harbor, now known as Fort Richmond, will hereafter be called Fort Wadsworth, in memory of the gallant and patriotic services of Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, who was killed, at the head of his command, in the battle of the Wilderness.” In 1903, General order 16 gave the General’s name to the entire reservation, that included all the forts and batteries on the Staten Island side of the Narrows. Fort Wadsworth was identified in the 1972 legislation that established Gateway National Recreation Area. At that time the fort was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army.