Westward the Course of American Empire: UVA Unionists and 19th Century American Expansion

by Matthew H. Wallace | | Monday, April 29, 2019 - 09:24

Of the Union veterans who attended the University of Virginia, nearly a dozen pursued military careers after the Civil War, including Wray Wirt Davis, George Worth Woods, Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, Charles Eversfield, John Fox Hammond, Stephen Dandridge, John Edward Summers, Charles Irving Wilson, George Lea Febiger, John Thornley, and William Evelyn Hopkins. This blog will discuss the lives of Wray Wirt Davis and George Worth Woods in depth. While Davis was a southerner and a cavalry officer, Woods was a navy physician from the North.

Woods and Davis’s post-war careers took place at a time when the United States aggressively expanded its influence and power, first by staking transcontinental claims in the Far West and then through imperialist ventures abroad in the Caribbean and Far East. Historian Pekka Hämäläinen noted that, at home, American policymakers “envision[ed] a new kind of empire, one of cities, railroads, agricultural hinterlands, and real estate… set[ting] out to tame, commodify, and carve up the land.” Westward continental expansion caused what historian Elliott West describes as an end to a “diplomatic age of innocence” as shifting westward horizons “opened the United States to a range of new contacts and relationships.” According to diplomatic historian Richard Beisner, the United States began “a more aggressive and expansionist phase” of diplomacy in Asia and the Caribbean starting around the year 1890. Both Davis and Woods’s careers thus were harnessed to further American imperial expansion throughout the late nineteenth century.

General Wray Wirt Davis

Wray Wirt Davis was born May 28, 1839 in Richmond, Virginia. His parents were John F. and Delight Thomas Davis and he had five younger brothers.  Davis received his education at several private schools in Richmond and then at Hampden-Sydney College before attending the University of Virginia for two years, from 1854 to 1856. While at UVA, he studied general liberal arts but later withdrew from the University on May 1, 1856 due to failing health. Davis taught in Virginia for several years before becoming a professor of Greek and modern languages at Helena College in Arkansas. The University of Virginia Alumni News suggests cryptically that Davis joined the U.S. Army in 1860 “for his health.” But in sticking with the Union, Davis defied his kinfolk:  his family was distantly related to Jefferson Davis, and included several Confederate soldiers; the family held out in Richmond until shortly before Union in occupation in April of 1865.

Following his work as a professor, Davis enlisted as a private at the age of 19 in the 1st Regiment U.S. Cavalry Company K on May 12, 1860 at the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. Davis’s early military service consisted of fighting Native Americans in the western territories. Although the United States stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific by 1860, encroachments against native tribes in the Great Plains and the Southwest would continue for decades. Davis’s superiors praised him for his “gallantry,” later resulting in Davis earning an officer’s commission. Davis rose up the ranks by serving as a reliable military instrument of the U.S. government’s systematic campaign to remove Indians from their land and destroy their way of life. The outbreak of the Civil War, however, drew Davis and many other troops away from displacing Indians and toward the East to fight the Southern rebels.

Davis, like Woods, steadily advanced in rank over the course of his long career. By 1862, Davis had become a first sergeant in the 4th Cavalry, with whom he was serving in Kansas at the start of the war. During Davis’s time with the regiment, the 4th Cavalry fought in Fremont’s Campaign against Springfield, Missouri, the capture of Fort Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh, Buell’s Campaign in North Alabama and Middle Tennessee, the pursuit of Bragg, the Battle of Perryville, the Battle of Stone’s River, and numerous other expeditions. Davis accepted a commission on May 6, 1863 as a 2nd lieutenant. For gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19, 1863 Davis earned the position of brevet 1st lieutenant. During the battle, Davis suffered a fractured thigh, falling after a rebel shot out his horse from under him. Through numerous acts of gallant and meritorious service, Davis earned promotions to brevet captain, regimental adjutant, first lieutenant, and finally brevet major.

Davis continued to serve in the 4th Cavalry after the war, primarily in the Southwest, as the government became more and more aggressive with removing Indian tribes to pave the way for settlement. Historian Mary Stockwell describes President Ulysses S. Grant as pursuing a policy of removal to reservations, against contemporaries’ calls for exterminations of Indian nations, to protect Native Americans from “the onrush of settlers.” Grant, accordingly, explained in his 1869 inaugural address that the goal for the U.S. Indian policy for removal to reservations to culminate in “civilization and ultimate citizenship.” Historian Richard White explains that to accomplish this goal, the U.S. government would use “legal coercion, and, if necessary, violence to force [Native Americans] to establish proper homes.”

 Davis officially became a captain on August 1, 1868. Following the end of the Civil War, the U.S. army and Native Americans fought many wars, several of which Davis participated in. On June 11, 1870, Davis led troops of the 4th Cavalry against warriors of an unknown Indian nation at Mount Paso, near Texas, in Mexico. He was commended once again for performing “gallant service” on the North Fork of the Red River, Texas, on September 29, 1872. The Indian Bureau and the western troops often viewed Indians off of reservations as hostile and aggressively pursued them. As he rose through the ranks, Davis served as an instrument to carry out a policy that historian Richard White describes as “peace by whatever means necessary.”

Davis continued to serve in the West, serving as the commander of Fort Reno, Oklahoma, fighting in Great Sioux War of 1876, and clashing with Apache Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Canyon April 23, 1882, where he captured many Apache pack animals. While on a six-month leave of absence, he married his wife Anna Berry Davis in her parents’ home in St. Louis, Missouri on January 2, 1884. Davis later fought the Apache again during the Geronimo War of 1885 to 1886. Davis already had experience fighting and pursuing the Apache leader Geronimo, chasing him in May 1885 across the border in Nacori, Mexico. General Crook ordered Davis on June 2 to travel again into Mexico and to raise no more than two hundred Indian scouts to accompany his men in suppressing Geronimo, the Apache, the Chiricahua, and other hostile leaders. By this point Crook had adapted to what historian Robert M. Utley describes as the “unconventional warfare” of Indian guerrillas. Utley writes that upon recognizing his Indian foes as “superior guerilla fighters,” Crook employed different techniques, “[fighting] Indians like Indians and usually, in fact, with Indians.”

Davis first re-entered Mexico on July 13 and encountered Geronimo two weeks later on July 28, in the Sierra Madre Mountains. On August 7 in the Teres Mountains, Davis received word that his scouts had encountered Geronimo and the Chiricahua war band five days earlier, capturing several wives and children of Geronimo and other Chiricahua leaders. Davis and his troops saw more action at Langs Ranch, New Mexico, on October 10 and at the Florida Mountains on November 7. Once again, Davis’s peers commended him for his service in fighting Indians. One fellow officer claimed Davis had “done more good Indian fighting … than any other officer in that section. The officer continued: “More of him and his grand results must as a consequence show up, after the campaign, in official circles of recognition. He deserves all they can bestow in the way of promotion.” In 1909, the Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, a long-running and still-existing journal run by professional American soldiers, lauded Davis and his fellow officers as “sterling Indian fighters” whose work resulted in the “capture of Geronimo and his followers.” These attitudes were typical of military officers of Davis’s time, most of who, according to historian Robert Wooster, viewed Native Americans as inferior to whites.

Following the Geronimo Campaign, Davis became a major in the 5th Cavalry on April 16, 1890. The following February, Davis was present at the funeral of General William Tecumseh Sherman, serving on the staff of the funeral’s grand marshal, General Wesley Merritt. He continued to serve in various posts across the entire nation, including on special duty in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1892. In 1898, Davis wrote an essay for the army, entitled “Some observations on the Use of Cavalry in War” while serving as a major in the 5th. After the start of the Spanish-American, Davis became a lieutenant colonel in the 8th Cavalry. Davis served as the commander of a military district in Cuba for several months. On January 19, 1900, he became a colonel in the 3rd Cavalry. Davis then transferred to the Philippines, which the United States now administered as a colony after the end of the war, and the army stationed him in Luzon, about 250 miles from Manila. During his 18 months of service there, he allegedly contracted Bright’s Disease, a condition affecting the kidneys. As with his experience in the West, Davis once again furthered the United States’ efforts to exercise its dominion over a people it considered foreign—this time the people of the Philippines instead of the American Indians.

Around July 22, 1900 the army ordered Davis to China to help suppress the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion started as a response to American and European imperial encroachment into China, following several centuries of conflict and diplomacy between the Chinese and Western powers, including the Sino-French War from 1884-1885. Davis presumably served there until his retirement on April 29, 1901. After forty years in the army, Davis retired at his own request.

Following his service, Davis and his wife lived in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. As a retired colonel, he achieved the rank of brigadier general by April 23, 1904. Davis died on February 11, 1914 in Washington, D.C., of chronic Bright’s disease and his body now rests in Arlington National Cemetery. His widow Anna lived at a hotel called “The Cairo” in Washington, D.C., and received a pension of $12 a month. A special act of Congress increased the pension to $30 a month beginning in March 1917. She died the following year on August 15 and is buried alongside her husband at Arlington.

Medical Director George Worth Woods

George Worth Woods was born August 24, 1838 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His mother was Nancy Woods of Maine and he had at least one sister, Sarah B. Woods. Prior to his service in the war he studied at the University of Virginia from 1860 to 1861, graduating on July 4. While the vast majority of his classmates ultimately enlisted in the Confederate army, Woods was one of four members of his class who would ultimately join the Union ranks.

During the war, Woods served aboard several vessels and naval hospitals on land. The navy first sent Woods to the Naval Hospital in New York City on February 25, 1862 where he received his commission as an assistant surgeon on April 24. On May 27, his superiors reassigned him to the U.S.S. Mohawk, one of two blockading vessels including the U.S.S. Roanoke that Woods served on during the war. Once the Union army retook Norfolk, Virginia, Woods began serving at its naval hospital. There, he received a promotion to Passed Assistant Surgeon on May 8, 1865. Like Davis, Woods received high military honors for his wartime service, with the Navy awarding him the Order of the Merit in 1866.

Woods served with the Pacific, Atlantic, and Asiatic squadrons following the war. Like Davis’s service in the army, Woods and his naval comrades served America’s growing commercial interests. As historian Richard Beisner argued, post-war diplomats began to “[promote] U.S. exports in foreign markets, and [expand] the areas of the world in which Americans believed their national interests were involved.” The navy first sent Woods to the naval base at Mare Island in Vallejo, California, on November 17, 1865. On July 23, 1867, he began service aboard the U.S.S. Pensacola and on December 10, 1869 he received a promotion to surgeon. In January 1870 he commenced his brief service aboard the Independence before being assigned to serve on the Jamestown two months later. From that time until 1882, Woods additionally served on several shore and sea billets including the U.S.S. Lackawanna, Tuscarora, Wachusett, and Benicia. At some point before 1880, he married his wife J. C. Woods and had two daughters, Catherine and Florence. Woods received an appointment to a commission comprising several branches of military physicians in 1882 to combat a Yellow Fever epidemic in San Francisco. He and his fellow doctors advocated for quarantines to several nearby islands.

Beginning in 1882, Woods served aboard the USS Juniata on a surveying mission in the Western Pacific that lasted until 1885. During the mission, he visited Singapore, China, Korea, and Indonesia and assisted in rescue operations following the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. The commander of the Juniata was the then Commander George Dewey, later famous as the hero of Manila Bay, whom Woods diagnosed and treated during the mission. Woods and the crew of the Juniata were among some of the first Americans to visit Korea in 1884, during which time Woods kept an extensive journal that has since been published. An 1882 treaty between the United States and Korea enabled this expedition, allowing the U.S. Navy to gather information and prepare for expanding American commercial interests.

 Woods’s extensive journal covers many of his observations of Korean culture, politics, geography, and history. After leaving Korea, the Juniata returned to home via several Chinese coastal cities, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Eastern Africa. While in China, Woods received news of the naval Battle of Fuzhou between the French and Chinese. He commented that the only officers on the Chinese side who had “any intelligent idea” were those educated in America and fired upon the French flagship Volta, managing to kill a British pilot named Thomas.  In Zanzibar, Woods and the officers of the Juniata met with the Sultan several times. Woods wrote:

The Sultan of Zanzibar is no common man. He is a good looking, dignified, learned, kind-hearted gentlemen, is no bigot, has visited Europe, where he learned to appreciate many European ways, and makes friends and counselors of the English and American consuls.

In Mozambique, Woods and the crew of the Juniata assisted American business interests directly, intervening on behalf of the Boston firm Ropes and Co. whose goods were confiscated by the Portuguese authorities on smuggling charges due to a lack of a permit.

Once back in the United States, Woods receive a promotion to Medical Inspector in 1888. He served aboard a Naval flagship, the U.S.S. Charleston, which in 1890 brought Kalakaua, the last king of the then kingdom of Hawaii, on a diplomatic mission to the United States. Despite Woods’s care and advice to treat the sick monarch, Kalakaua’s condition worsened. Woods eventually diagnosed the king with Bright’s Disease, treating him until Woods pronounced him dead on January 20, 1891. For his service to the Kingdom of Hawaii, Woods received the honor of the Order of Kalakaua.

While not actively involved in the imperial acquisition of Hawaii, the diplomatic efforts in which Woods was involved represented another example of the U.S. Navy supporting the goals of American commercial interests. Shortly after Kalakaua’s death, American businessmen overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and the U.S. annexed the archipelago as a territory in 1898. In 1895, Davis received a promotion to Medical Director, the highest rank he could hold as a naval physician. Like Davis, therefore, the military of Woods’s time recognized his service with high honor despite passive involvement with the U.S. government’s aggressive imperial expansion and domination over foreign peoples. Additionally, although Woods’s career ended before the U.S. Navy adopted Alfred Thayer Mahan’s doctrine of naval imperialism, it is clear that he served in a post-war Navy whose growing power in the service of American economic interests contributed to developments in what Mahan later theorized as the “sea power” of a nation. Thus, Woods’ service indirectly supported a process by which Mahan predicted naval power would serve a nation’s “central link” to “most surely of all [other countries] gathers to itself riches.”

Woods’s last assignment was at the U.S. Naval Hospital in New York in 1898 where he briefly served before a period of ill health caused him to retire in 1900. Woods spent the last two years of his life living with his daughter in San Francisco, California, before dying of apoplexy on June 9, 1902. He is buried at the Mare Island Cemetery in Vallejo. During his lifetime, Woods had been an active member of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States. Reporting on his death, the Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons noted that he was “a fluent and interesting writer” who wrote medical essays on dysentery, skull fractures, intestinal obstruction, appendicitis, and x-ray machines. His writing “indicat[ed] a mind ready to grasp the latest and best in medical research,” and he was a “tender hearted, sympathetic, and broad minded physician.”


Wray Wirt Davis and George Worth Woods both served long decorated careers in the U.S. military long after their education at the University of Virginia and service in the Civil War. Like other alumni who fought for the Union, their alma mater has largely forgotten their wartime service and post-war careers—careers that provide a window into America’s aggressive imperial expansion at home and abroad. While Davis was involved with a more direct application of military power in clearing the way for westward settlement, Woods too supported naval efforts to spread America’s developing economic influence throughout the Pacific. Both men illustrate the range of military careers pursued by Civil War veterans in the late nineteenth century.

Matthew Wallace is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, studying History and participating in the Distinguished Majors Program for Politics. As a 2018-2019 Sewell Undergraduate Intern for the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History, Matt researched the history of Albemarle County and UVA during the war. 

Images: (1) W. Wirt Davis (arlingtoncemetery.net) and George W. Woods (courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command); (2) Geronimo (courtesy Library of Congress); (3) Grave of Wray Wirt Davis at Arlington (taken by William Kurtz); (4) King Kalakaua onboard the U.S.S. Charleston (courtesy Library of Congress); (5) Medical Director George Worth Woods (Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons).

Sources: Compiled Service Records for Wray Wirt Davis and George Worth Woods, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C., accessed through Fold3.com, https://www.fold3.com/browse/273/); Pension records for Wray Wirt Davis, RG 15, NARA; “George W. Woods Journals, 1883-1886,” Washington State University Libraries, Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Pullman, WA; St. Louis Globe-Democrat, October 20, 1883, January 6, 1884; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 1891; Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, vol. 44; “Elliott West, Reconstruction in the West,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, accessed through https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/reconstruction-in-the-west/;Alfred T. Mahan The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1890); Ray Allen Belington and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, 6th ed., abridged ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001); Robert L. Beisner, From the Old Diplomacy to the New, 1865-1900, 2nd ed. (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1986); Peter Cozzens, Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890: The Struggle for Apacheria (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001); Angie Debo, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); David Dixon, Hero of Beecher Island: The Life and Military Career of George A. Forsyth (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994); Frederick A. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, vol. 3 (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1959); Thomas Clement Fletcher, Life and Reminiscences of General Wm. T. Sherman (Baltimore: R. H. Woodward Company, 1891); Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army: From Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903); Dan L. Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography (Glendale, CA: A.H. Clark Co., 1988); Robert Marshall Utley, et al., The Indian Frontier, 1846-1890, rev. ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003); Mary Stockwell, Interrupted Odyssey: Ulysses S. Grant and the American Indians, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018); Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York, NY, United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2017); George W. Woods, Robert R. Swartout, and Fred C. Bohm, eds., Naval Surgeon in Yi Korea: The Journal of George W. Woods (Berkeley, California: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California-Berkeley, Center for Korean Studies, 1984); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Robert Wooster, The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).