William Wirt Adams, the older brother of fellow Confederate general Daniel W. Adams, was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, on 22 March 1819. He was the son of George Adams, who moved the family to Natchez when Wirt, as he was called, was six years old. George Adams, a federal district judge, later sent his son to be educated at St. Joseph’s Academy in Bardstown, Kentucky. Wirt subsequently went west and served briefly in the army of the Republic of Texas in 1839. Later that year he returned to Mississippi after his father died. He was a sugar planter in Louisiana for several years but married Sallie Huger Mayrant of Jackson in 1850 and settled in Mississippi, where he became a successful banker and planter. Adams was elected to the state legislature from Issaquena County in 1858 and 1860.
After Mississippi’s secession he went as a commissioner to Louisiana, soliciting that state’s cooperation. In February 1861 Confederate president Jefferson Davis offered Adams a cabinet position as postmaster general. Adams declined, citing pressing business interests, but settled his banking affairs and began organizing a cavalry regiment. Mustered into Confederate service in August 1861 as the First Mississippi Cavalry, the regiment consisted of companies from Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Adams served as colonel of the unit, which went to Kentucky in late 1861. It formed part of the rear guard for Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston’s force as it retreated south after the fall of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in early 1862. The regiment fought at Shiloh and then operated independently in West Tennessee and Mississippi. It captured a Federal battery at Britton’s Lane, near Denmark, Tennessee, in September 1862, helped secure Earl Van Dorn’s line of retreat after the Battle of Corinth the next month, and captured a trainload of Union troops near Burnsville.
Adams’s regiment then operated in Washington County, where it kept abreast of Federal movements and endeavored to protect the region from enemy incursions. Sent south of Vicksburg in the spring of 1862, Adams unsuccessfully pursued a Federal cavalry force that was marauding through the state under Col. Benjamin Grierson, although the regiment’s resistance did force Grierson to divert away from Natchez. During the Vicksburg Campaign Adams’s men fought at Raymond and protected the retreat of Brig. Gen. John Gregg’s infantry. Adams and his cavalry harassed Union forces operating against Vicksburg and skirmished with Federal troops near Jackson after Vicksburg fell. His services in the Vicksburg Campaign brought Adams a promotion to brigadier general on 25 September 1863. Later that year his command operated near Natchez and was involved in engagements at Port Hudson and Baton Rouge. The brigade clashed with Federal troops during William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign against Meridian in February 1864 but could not prevent the city’s capture and destruction. Adams’s men met a Union expedition up the Yazoo River in mid-April and captured the gunboat USS Petrel, removing eight naval guns before burning the vessel. Over the next several months his command skirmished with various enemy forces in Mississippi.
Late in the war Adams’s brigade was attached to Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, serving with it until the end of hostilities. Adams ultimately surrendered and was paroled near Gainesville, Alabama, on 12 May 1865.
After the war Adams resided in both Vicksburg and Jackson. He was appointed state revenue agent in 1880 and was later named postmaster of Jackson by Grover Cleveland. Adams’s life ended abruptly in Jackson on 1 May 1888, when he encountered John Martin, a hostile newspaper editor, on the street: the two men drew pistols and fatally wounded each other.
- John H. Eicher and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (2001)
- Goodspeed’s Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi, vol. 1 (1891)
- Dunbar Rowland, Mississippi: Comprising Sketches of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons, Arranged in Cyclopedic Form, vol. 1 (1907)