The History of Orlando Willcox, a Michigan Civil War Hero

By Brittni Wilcox

Orlando Willcox was a very important part of Michigan’s military history, especially during the Civil War. He was born and raised in Detroit, MI. He had a loving family and lived a simple life in his early years. Later, he led Michigan soldiers in the Civil War battles of Alexandria, Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. He faced many challenges, including being held as a prisoner of war. Orlando Willcox will forever be remembered as a Civil War hero and his legacy remains strong even today.

Orlando Bolivar Willcox

 Orlando Willcox was born on April 16, 1823 in Detroit, Michigan.[1] He was the son of Charles and Almira Wilcox, the brother of Eban and Myra Wilcox, and the grandson of John and Margaret Willcox.[2] He graduated from West Point Military Academy in New York in 1847. [3]He married twice. He was married to Julia Elizabeth McReynolds Willcox and to Maria Farnsworth Willcox.[4] Maria was his wife during the Civil War. He had one child named Elon Farnsworth Willcox. He worked as a lawyer when not serving in the army.[5] Orlando Willcox served in the US army for over 40 years.[6] He served in the Mexican American War, the Third Seminole War, the Civil War, and fought against Indians on the frontier. Orlando Willcox finally resigned from the army in 1887.[7] His two most significant honors are receiving the Medal of Honor for the battle of Bull Run during the Civil War and having the town of Willcox, Arizona named after him. [8] Orlando Willcox died on May 11, 1907 in Ontario, Canada at age 85. He was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.[9]

Elmira Willcox

Orlando Willcox is best known in Michigan history for his service in the Civil War. He led the 1st Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. The 1st Michigan Infantry went into battle in Alexandria on May 24, 1861.[10] The rebel troops fled at the sight of the First Michigan Infantry.  Willcox had the honor of raising the Union flag over the captured city and reclaiming it. After this success, Willcox was rewarded with a larger brigade command.[11]

Presentation of Colors, Downtown Detroit, 1861

One of the most significant battles of the Civil War was the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas Junction, Virginia on July 21, 1861. Orlando Willcox described his experiences during and after the battle in a personal journal he wrote for his family members. He started by explaining the journey to the battle site. Orlando Willcox explained that there were not enough rations, only about 4 days’ worth, and that each brigade was only allowed one wagon full of ammunition and an ambulance.[12] There were three brigades that were sent to battle, but they got split up when cover was needed for soldiers to refill their canteens of water.[13] Orlando Willcox’s split up brigade was given the task to cross a field and open fire on the enemy from a point of elevation. [14] In the brigades attempt to reach higher ground, they were faced with heavy enemy fire. In Orlando Willcox’s words, “The whole regiment was swept back as by a tornado.” [15] The brigade did gain reinforcements and was able to continue farther into enemy lines. Eventually, the brigade was surrounded by the rebels on both sides. Willcox’s horse was shot in the front and lower part of the neck and Willcox himself was shot in the right forearm. He explains the feeling of being shot as, “I felt a severe shock, like that of electricity in my arm, which began to spin around like a top.” [16] Willcox’s wounded horse most likely prevented his escape. He was caught by Colonel William Withington of the Confederacy and forced to surrender.[17]

Gen. Willcox with his men at First Bull Run, 1861

After Willcox’s brigade was forced into surrender, he was taken as a war prisoner of the Confederates. He was held as a prisoner for more than a year. [18] One of the men who was a part of capturing Willcox, remembered Willcox’s kindness during the battle of Alexandria. This man made sure that Willcox’s wounds were dressed and brought him to the Lewis House for proper care. [19] Willcox describes his first experiences as such, “Thus, by the goodness of God, I had been kindly dealt with by the enemy and shall never forget or cease to be grateful to those who saved me from the horrid exposures of many, who lay, even for days, in the sun and rain, their wounds undressed.”[20] Willcox also explains the hardships he faced as a prisoner of war. He explains that food was very scarce and mainly consisted of hard bread and rotting meat. He recalls the number of amputated limbs he saw. Willcox saw dead bodies lying on the lawn and the stench of the dead bodies consumed him. He also received many insults from soldiers.[21]  On a more positive note, Orlando received word that his horse had lived and an action report had given honor to him and his regiment.  The action report noted that Willcox’s regiment, “Deserves the credit of advancing farther into enemy lines than any other of our troops, as their dead on the field proved.” [22] Willcox spent two weeks at the Lewis House before being sent to Richmond, Virginia. [23] He was then transferred to Charleston, South Carolina after a typhoid fever outbreak. [24] Throughout the rest of Wilcox’s imprisonment, he was transferred from place to place. The Union prisoners formed a Prisoner’s War Association and elected Willcox the president.[25] This group mainly discussed their chances of re-crossing the border between the Union and Confederacy. Willcox’s freedom began with the capture of Fort Donelson. This allowed the Union to be able to make exchanges for Willcox’s freedom.[26]  After being released by the rebels, Willcox led divisions at the Battle of Antietam and Fredericksburg. He continued to serve until the war ended. [27]

Lewis House

Orlando Willcox is a Civil War hero who greatly contributed to Michigan history and the preservation of the Union. The 1st Michigan Infantry he led established Michigan as an asset to the Union Army. This then led to Michigan being seen as a more respected and powerful state in the United States. Willcox deserves honors for the bravery and courage he portrayed in battle. Especially the courage it took to return to war even after being held as a prisoner for over a year.  His family and ancestors should all be very proud of the man he was. His length of military service alone is remarkable. Orlando Willcox’s work in the Battle of Bull run is one of his most significant achievements. The Battle of Bull Run was very important to the outcome of the Civil War. The history of the work of Michigan soldiers should be cherished and never forgotten. The legacy of Orlando Willcox lives on even today and inspires other soldiers to continue to fight for their beliefs.

Grave marker of Orlando Bolivar Willcox


[1] Geni. “Maj. General Orlando B Willcox (USA).”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Find A Grave. “Orlando Bolivar Willcox.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Geni. “Maj. General Orlando B Willcox (USA).”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jack Dempsey. Michigan and the Civil War. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011. 27

[11] Ibid. 30

[12] Robert G Scott. ed. Forgotten Valore. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1999. 288

[13] Ibid. 289

[14] Ibid. 290

[15] Ibid. 292

[16] Ibid. 295

[17] Ibid. 296

[18] Find A Grave. “Orlando Bolivar Willcox.”

[19] Robert G Scott. ed. Forgotten Valore. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1999. 297

[20] Ibid. 298

[21] Ibid. 301

[22] Jack Dempsey. Michigan and the Civil War. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011. 31-33

[23] Robert G Scott. ed. Forgotten Valore. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1999. 302

[24] Ibid. 307

[25] Ibid. 317

[26] Ibid. 320

[27] Geni. “Maj. General Orlando B Willcox (USA).”