Alexander Wilkin was a St. Paul lawyer and businessman who served as secretary of Minnesota Territory. He was the highest ranking officer from Minnesota killed during the Civil War.
Wilkin was born December 1, 1819 in Goshen, New York. His father Samuel J. Wilkin, and grandfather James W. Wilkin, were politicians. Alexander studied law at Yale and became an attorney. In 1847 he joined the Tenth Unites States Infantry Regiment and was commissioned a captain. The unit was deployed to northern Mexico during the Mexican-American War.
Wilkin saw little action during his deployment, but gained a reputation as a serious soldier, and a man not to trifle with. On January 20, 1848 he shot and killed Captain Joshua W. Collett in a duel. Despite his later regrets, Wilkin wrote at the time that he never felt cooler in his life. Though he was little more than five feet tall, and weighed less than one hundred pounds, he commanded respect.
Wilkin resigned his commission on March 6, 1848. In 1849 he moved to St. Paul. President Millard Fillmore appointed him secretary of Minnesota Territory. Wilkin was given the position because he was a Whig, and the Wilkin name was known in Washington. Wilkin held this position from 1851 to 1853. He also served as a United States Marshal. While living in St. Paul, Wilkin invested in land, railroads, and newspapers. He worked as a lawyer and insurance agent. Wilkin was a founder of the St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company, which eventually became Travelers Insurance.
When the Civil War began in April of 1861 Wilkin was elected captain of a St. Paul militia unit known as the "Pioneer Guard." The unit was enlisted as Company A of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment on April 29, 1861. On July 21, 1861 Wilkin and the First Minnesota fought in the Battle of Bull Run, where Union Army forces were defeated. For his bravery during the battle Wilkin was made a captain in the regular army. Before he could report, he received a promotion to major with the Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Wilkin joined his new regiment in Lebanon, Kentucky, where it was assigned to the Army of the Ohio. On January 18, 1862 the Second Minnesota played a leading role in the Battle of Mill Springs. Wilkin was cited for his "valor and judgment" during the battle, which ended in a Union victory. Then the Second Minnesota joined the siege of Corinth, Mississippi. Wilkin was on detached service for much of his time with the Second Minnesota. Brevetted a lieutenant colonel, he served on General William Tecumseh Sherman's staff.
Shortly thereafter he was appointed colonel of the Ninth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. When Wilkin took command, the regiment was engaged in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and scattered across West-Central Minnesota. On December 26, 1862 Wilkin commanded nearly two hundred fifty soldiers at the execution of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato. Afterward, Wilkin established his headquarters and a military training school at St. Peter.
In October 1863, the Ninth Minnesota was sent to Missouri. The following May the regiment marched to Memphis, Tennessee and joined a force tasked with eliminating the threat of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. Before leaving Memphis, Wilkin was given command of a brigade. On June 10, 1864 the Ninth Minnesota fought in the Battle of Brice's Crossroads. The battle ended in a rout of all Union forces, save Wilkin's brigade. As before, Wilkin received praise for his bravery.
The Ninth Minnesota was then assigned to another expeditionary force ordered to operate against Forrest. On July 14, Wilkin and the Ninth Minnesota engaged Forrest's forces at the Battle of Tupelo. While speaking with a member of his staff, Wilkin was shot and killed. Wilkin was buried near where he fell, but his family recovered his remains and reburied them in Goshen, New York. Minnesota honored Wilkin by naming Wilkin County after him in 1868 and erecting a statue of him in the state capitol in 1910.
Alexander Wilkin and family papers, 1770–1965
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Photocopied and typescript copies of correspondence, legal documents, and newspaper articles.
Regimental letter and order book, November 28, 1862–July 30, 1864
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Copies of letters and orders written primarily by colonels Alexander Wilkin and Josiah F. Marsh from regimental headquarters at St. Peter, Minnesota.
Bearss, Edwin C. Protecting Sherman's Lifeline: The Battles of Brice's Crossroads and Tupelo, 1864. Washington, D.C.: Office of Publications, 1971.
Board of Commissioners. Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861–1865. 2 vols. St. Paul: The Pioneer Press Company, 1891.
Burns, W. S. "A.J. Smith's Defeat of Forrest at Tupelo (July 14th, 1864)." In Battles and Leaders Vol.4, edited by Johnson and Buel, 421-22. New York: Century Co. [1887-88].
Hubbs, Ronald M. "The Civil War and Alexander Wilkin." Minnesota History 39, no. 5 (1965): 173–190.
———. "Alexander Wilkin and 1850s St. Paul: A Pioneer Writes Home." Ramsey County History 24, no. 2 (1989): 3–16.
———. The Military Life and Death of Colonel Alexander Wilkin. St. Paul: St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co., 1961.
Lundstrom, John B. One Drop in a Sea of Blue: The Liberators of the Ninth Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.
On April 29, 1861, Alexander Wilkin is commissioned captain of Company A of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Alexander Wilkin is born in Goshen, New York.
He is commissioned a captain in the Tenth United States Infantry.
Wilkin serves in the Mexican War.
Wilkin kills Captain Joshua W. Collett in a duel.
Wilkin moves to St. Paul in Minnesota Territory.
President Millard Fillmore appoints Wilkin secretary of Minnesota Territory and serves until 1853.
Wikin helps found the St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company, which would eventually become Travelers Insurance.
Wilkin is commissioned captain of Company A of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
He fights in the Battle of Bull Run with the First Minnesota.
Wilkin is commissioned a captain in the regular army and then a Major in the Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
He is revetted lieutenant colonel and serves on the staff of General William Tecumseh Sherman during the siege of Corinth, Mississippi.
As Colonel, he commands several companies of the Ninth Minnesota providing security at the execution of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato.
Wilkin and the Ninth Minnesota distinguish themselves at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads.
Wilkin is killed at the Battle of Tupelo, Mississippi.
The Minnesota State Legislature names Wilkin County in his honor.
A statue of Wilkin is erected in the Minnesota State Capitol.