OPINION

As It Were: George Wright was the right person to serve as Union's 'military storekeeper' in Columbus

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist

It all sounds a bit innocuous.  

George Wright served through most of the American Civil War as a “military storekeeper.”  

Ed Lentz

While thousands of men were on the front lines of combat fighting and dying, George Wright was minding the store.

Why should we remember him?

Because without him, it is quite possible the North would not have won the Civil War. It often is easy to forget that in any war – and for that matter at any time – America is served best by people in uniform who are making sure that our military forces are the best armed, best supplied and best supported in the world.

In the Civil War, Wright was one who made that happen. 

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Wright was born in 1815 near what is now Newark. His family had come to Ohio in 1808 from New England. His grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution, and his father had served in the War of 1812. Wright, the youngest of five children, grew up in a family with a tradition of military service.

George Wright

The family staked out a living on a farm in Licking County, and Wright grew up on the edge of a receding frontier. His family believed education was the key to success; therefore, at a young age Wright was enrolled in the nearby Granville Academy. He later went on to study at what would become Case Western Reserve University and then at Ohio University.

In 1842, he started studying law. In 1843, he passed his bar examination and began practicing law in Licking County. For the next several years, he made a living representing the interests of newly formed railroad companies and in finding a wife, Hetta Taylor.

Then, in 1861, war broke out between North and South.

Wright, reasonably well-known and respected for his legal talent, immediately began recruiting men to join the locally originated 76th Ohio Infantry Regiment. But it soon became apparent that his real contribution to the war effort would be found in Columbus.

Coming to the capital city of Ohio, he was recruited by Gov. William Dennison to help organize supplies and equipment.

Appointed to be assistant quartermaster general, he inherited a nightmare assignment.

Thousands of men, young and old, were coming to join in the war effort, and they needed food, clothing and other supplies. Much of the material being received by the Union Army was of shoddy or inferior quality. The meat sometimes was rotten. The uniforms had blue dye that washed out in a first rain, leaving a blue-skinned soldier. And shoes often had soles made of cardboard.

Wright brought some order to the chaos, and soon, the worst of the supply offenders were removed. He did so well that in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln asked him to take over as military storekeeper at the newly created Columbus Arsenal.

Wright supervised the construction of some of the first buildings at what is now Fort Hayes. And for the rest of the war, he made sure that the arsenal produced immense quantities of ammunition and other military supplies for the Union Army.

Wright had other duties, as well. He helped establish the first aid society for Ohio soldiers at Cincinnati, Nashville and other cities. He also introduced the use of "transportation tickets" for needy Ohio soldiers with a plan later adopted across the Union Army.

At the end of the war, he returned to the law and to railroads.

In 1867, he became Ohio’s first commissioner of railroads and telegraph with an appointment from Gov. Jacob Cox. He was reappointed by Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes and served until 1871, when he became a vice president on the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad under the presidency of former Union Gen. George B. McClellan.

Over the next several years, he worked in several cities for a number of railroad lines until he retired from active business in 1887 and returned to Columbus. His wife had died some years earlier, and Wright was returning to be closer to at least some of his four children and their families.

Wright remained active in several veterans and civic organizations and was a supporter of the newly formed Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society. At the time of his death in 1903, he was its vice president.

Daniel J. Ryan, one of the best Ohio historians of his era, wrote a lengthy obituary for his old friend. He concluded by writing: “It was a pleasure and a profit to be in his presence and many a delightful hour was passed in his companionship. His kindly deeds and sunny disposition will not fade from our memory. ...” 

Wright is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Newark, not far from the farm where he was born.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.