Shafter, William Rufus, 1835-1906

Alternative names
Birth 1835-10-16
Death 1906-11-12

Biographical notes:

Army officer. Born in 1835 in Kalamazoo County, Michigan. Served in the Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. Commissioned lieutenant colonel in the regular army 1866, brevetted brigadier general in 1897. Awarded medal of honor for gallantry at Fair Oaks. Received surrender of Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Served in Texas 1863-1897. Died in 1906.

From the description of Papers, 1863-1897, 1876-1877. (Texas Tech University). WorldCat record id: 24097707

Army officer.

From the description of William Rufus Shafter papers, 1864-1906. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70980436

From the description of Papers of William Rufus Shafter, 1862-1904. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 71068047

William Rufus Shafter was born October 16, 1835 in Galesburg, Michigan. Shafter served in the Union Army during the Civil War, after which he continued his army career with service on the Mexican frontier. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1895, was commissioned Brigadier General in 1897, and served as Major General of Volunteers during the Spanish American War. He died Nov. 12, 1906 and was buried at the Presidio of San Francisco.

From the description of William Rufus Shafter papers, 1862-1945 (inclusive), 1862-1904 (bulk). [microform]. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 754866358

From the description of William Rufus Shafter papers, 1862-1945, (bulk 1862-1904). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 754866357

Major General from Galesburg, Michigan, who served as Commander of U.S. Army in Cuba in the Spanish-American War.

From the description of William Rufus Shafter papers, 1862-1916. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 34418761

Biography / Administrative History

William Rufus Shafter, born on October 16, 1835, at Galesburg, was said to have been the first white male born in Kalamazoo County, Michigan. His father, Hugh Morris Shafter, came to what was then the frontier from Windsor, Vermont, and built his future home, a log cabin. He returned to Vermont to marry Eliza Sumner of Massachusetts. The newly married couple then proceeded to Michigan and to their small farm.

When he was not helping his father on the farm, Shafter attended common school in Galesburg. Anxious for further education, he began teaching in 1856. Eventually he attended Prairie Seminary in Richland County, where in 1861 he learned of the outbreak of the Civil War. He promptly enlisted in the Union Army for three years.

On August 22, 1861, Shafter was appointed a First Lieutenant of the Seventh Michigan Infantry, a regiment which served a year with the Army of the Potomac and saw action at Yorktown, Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill, West Point, and Savage Station. At the age of twenty-six, he was promoted to a Major in the Nineteenth Michigan Infantry. It was with this regiment that, after a fierce struggle, he was taken prisoner at Thompson's Station on March 5, 1863. Shafter was exchanged that May, and by June of 1863 was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Seventeenth U.S. Colored Infantry. He remained with this unit for the duration of the Civil War, leading them through the battles before Nashville on December 15-16, 1864. After the surrender at Appomattox, Lieutenant Colonel Shafter received the Brevet of Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers for gallant and meritorious service. Upon the reorganization of the U.S. Army he was mustered out of service on November 2, 1866.

Shafter had impressed his commanding officers throughout the War. They described him as brave, gallant, prompt, intelligent, and a good disciplinarian. Due to his outstanding record, he received many strong recommendations for permanent appointment in the reorganized army. Unlike many officers who passed from the temporary to the permanent establishment of the army at the end of the war, Shafter spent no time in civilian life.

His first appointment in the U.S. Army was that of Lieutenant Colonel of the Forty-first U.S. Infantry on July 28, 1866. Three years later, he was assigned to the Twenty-fourth U.S. Colored Infantry, with which he served ten years. For the most part, those years were spent on the Mexican frontier. There, he was relatively successful in controlling marauding bands of Indians and Mexican bandits. It was during this period that Shafter received the appellation Pecos Bill for leading his hungry and thirsty command to the Pecos River in Texas.

In 1879, Shafter was promoted to Colonel of the First U.S. Infantry, a position he held for nearly eighteen years. From 1879 he commanded his regiment in Dakota, Texas, and Arizona, was Superintendent of the Recruiting Service in New York, and again commanded his unit in Arizona, California, and South Dakota. Shafter was post commandant at Angel Island from 1891 to 1897, except for a period in 1894, when he led a battalion against strikers in Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

For his most distinguished gallantry in action at the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, May 31, 1862, Shafter received the Congressional Medal of Honor. This decoration, given in 1895, brought him to the attention of high-ranking officers in Washington.

President McKinley acknowledged his rank and record by commissioning him Brigadier General on May 3, 1897. The Senate promptly confirmed his appointment, and Shafter became commander of the Department of California, assigned to the same station where he had so long been post commander.

Shafter's call to fame came with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. He was commissioned Major General of Volunteers and placed in command of an expeditionary force. After a month's delay awaiting final orders, the expedition embarked for Santiago de Cuba on June 12, 1898. The troops landed June 22. By the seventeenth of July, the Spanish forces had capitulated to Shafter's Fifth Army.

During the armistice which preceded the final surrender of the Spaniards, the health of the American troops was severely impaired by malaria, yellow fever, and unsanitary conditions in the field. Though his campaign was successful, Shafter faced sharp criticism from the public and the press for conditions over which he had no control.

Despite the outcry following the return of the troops, Shafter's reputation remained intact. He returned to his regular army rank of Brigadier General and assumed command of the Department of California at San Francisco. He retained this post until October 16, 1899, at which time he was retired from active service. However, as a gesture of respect, the President allowed him to continue in this command under his volunteer rank of Major General until June 30, 1901.

After his final retirement Shafter moved to Bakersfield, California, where he lived with his daughter, Mary, and her husband, W. H. McKitterick, his wife, Harriet, having died in 1898. Throughout his residence in California, Shafter maintained old friendships and remained active in veterans' organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Society of the Army of Santiago de Cuba.

On November 12, 1906, William R. Shafter succumbed to pneumonia. He was buried with military honors at the Presidio of San Francisco in the presence of many distinguished individuals. Although after his death, Shafter's memory faded quickly from public consciousness, history has preserved the relative value of his achievements.

From the guide to the William Rufus Shafter papers, 1862-1945, 1862-1904, (Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.)


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Ark ID:


  • Military reconnaissance
  • Indians of North America--History
  • Spanish--American War, 1898
  • Military funerals


  • Army officers


  • Texas (as recorded)
  • Texas (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Piedras Negras (Mexico) (as recorded)
  • Chihuahua (Mexico : State) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Cuba (as recorded)
  • Galesburg (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Rio Grande (as recorded)
  • Fort Clark (Tex.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Mexico (as recorded)
  • Coahuila (Mexico : State) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)