He served in the Union Navy. His citation reads "Served as pilot on board the USS Signal, Red River, 5 May 1864. Proceeding up the Red River, the USS Signal engaged a large force of enemy field batteries and sharpshooters, returning their fire until the ship was totally disabled, at which time the white flag was ordered raised. Acting as pilot throughout the battle, Wilkes stood by his wheel until it was disabled in his hands by a bursting enemy shell." He was a flat boat pilot before the Civil War, and when the Civil War broke out he joined the 49th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and held the rank of Lieutenant. After the Civil War, he resumed his career as a pilot and was known as one of the best steamboat men between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.