French, William Henry, 1815-1881

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William H. French was born in Baltimore. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1837 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He briefly served in the Second Seminole War and was then assigned to garrison duty along the Canada–US border from late 1837 through 1838, when he was reassigned to other military posts for the next decade.

During the Mexican–American War, French was aide-de-camp to General Franklin Pierce, and also on the staff of General Robert Patterson. He was engaged in the siege of Vera Cruz, and received two brevet promotions for bravery: to captain for Cerro Gordo and to major for Contreras and Churubusco.

Between 1850 and 1852, he again served against the Seminole Indians in Florida and was the commanding officer of Stonewall Jackson. The two disagreed often and French's assignment with Jackson led to the two filing numerous charges against each other with U.S. Army authorities. After Florida, French served on frontier duty until 1861.

He was the co-author of Instruction for Field Artillery (1860), along with William F. Barry and Henry J. Hunt.

At the start of the Civil War, Captain French and the 1st U.S. Artillery were stationed at Fort Duncan, Eagle Pass, Texas. He refused to surrender his garrison to the Confederate-aligned state authorities as they requested. Instead, he moved his men to the mouth of the Río Grande in sixteen days and sailed to Key West, where he quartered at the Federal military post there, Fort Zachary Taylor. Shortly thereafter, he was elevated to major and assumed command of the base. In conjunction with the Union Navy, he was instrumental in shutting off Key West to slave traders.

He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers as of September 28, 1861, and was assigned to the Army of the Potomac, where he commanded a brigade of the II Corps in the Peninsula Campaign. He was engaged at the battles of Yorktown, Seven Pines, Oak Grove, Gaines' Mill, Garnett's & Golding's Farm, Savage's Station, Glendale, and Malvern Hill. French received praise in official reports for his actions and leadership, and was promoted to command a division during the Northern Virginia Campaign.

French commanded the 3rd Division of the II Corps at the Battle of Antietam, making the first attack on Confederate units in the Sunken Road. He was promoted to major general on November 29, 1862. He led his division in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

French commanded elements of the VIII Corps and the District of Harpers Ferry during the Gettysburg Campaign, but shortly after Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, French assumed command of the battered III Corps. His military reputation was ruined during the Mine Run Campaign in November 1863 when Maj. Gen. George G. Meade claimed that French's corps moved too slowly to exploit a potential advantage over Gen. Robert E. Lee. This engagement was the last for the III Corps, which was reorganized out of the Union Army in the spring of 1864, and French was mustered out of volunteer service on May 6, 1864.

He remained in the regular army, and for the remainder of the war, he served on military boards in Washington, D.C. French ended the war with the regular army rank of colonel of the 4th U.S. Artillery.

Following the war, French commanded the 2nd Artillery on the Pacific Coast from 1865 until 1872, including an assignment as commander of Fort McDowell in San Francisco Bay. In 1875, he was appointed the commander of Fort McHenry near Baltimore. In July 1880, at his own request, being over sixty-two years of age, he was retired.

French died in Washington, D.C., and is buried there in Rock Creek Cemetery.

He married Caroline Read (1820–1884). They had six children: Frank French (1842–1865), William H. French (1844–1923), Anna French Clem (1852–1899), Frederick French (1855–1906), George French (1857–1895), and Rosalie French Conklin (1861–1891).

His grandson, John French Conklin (1891–1973), was also a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a brigadier general in the United States Army.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Commandery of the State of Massachusetts Civil War collection, 1724-1933 (inclusive);, 1861-1912 (bulk). Houghton Library
creatorOf French, William Henry, 1815-1881. Autograph letter signed : [n.p.], to Maj. F.M. Etting, [18]65, Jan. 28. Pierpont Morgan Library.
contributorOf Bounty Land Application File of Lieutenant William H. French, Captain Taylor's Company, 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment (50-160-21161) United States. National Archives and Records Administration
creatorOf French, Wm. H. (William Henry), 1815-1881. Papers. United States Military Academy, USMA Library
referencedIn French, William Henry -- Brigadier General United States. National Archives and Records Administration
creatorOf 1879 - File No. 2669 (French, Wm H - California) United States. National Archives and Records Administration
creatorOf French, William Henry, 1815-1881. Autograph letter signed : Head Quarters Third Army Corps, to Brig. Gen. S. Williams, 1864 Jan. 18. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Charges and Specifications Against Brevet Major William H. French, 1852 - 1852 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Philip Case Lockwood memorial collection of Civil War portraits and autographs, 1862-ca. 1886. Houghton Library
referencedIn Papers of the Buxton, Lea, and Marshall families, 1855-1965 University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Frederick M. Dearborn collection of military and political Americana, Part III: The Civil War: The Union, 1804-1915. Houghton Library
referencedIn Approved Pension File for Caroline R. French, Widow of Brevet Major General William H. French, U.S. Army (WC-197269) United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Consolidated Military Officer's File of Colonel William H. French, 4th U.S. Artillery United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Fort Duncan Records, 1857-1861 Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
referencedIn PH 1716, Young, Brigham 1801-1877. Brigham Young photographs circa 1860-1870 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Church History Library
contributorOf 1874 - File No. 4384 (French, William H - Maryland) United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Sneden, Robert Knox, 1832-1918. Map of Warrenton Junction : Orange and Alexandria R.R., Virginia shewing destruction of R.R. by enemy, October 1863. Virginia Historical Society Library
referencedIn Sprague, J. T. (John Titcomb), 1810-1878. Letter, 1863. Duke University Libraries, Duke University Library; Perkins Library
contributorOf 1877 - File No. 4042 (French, William H - West Virginia) United States. National Archives and Records Administration
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Key West FL US
Baltimore MD US
San Francisco Bay CA US
Florida FL US
District of Columbia DC US
West Point NY US
Fort Duncan TX US
District of Columbia DC US
Baltimore MD US
Virginia VA US
Subject
Mexican War, 1846-1848
Contreras, Battle of, 1847
Seminole War, 2nd, 1835-1842
Cerro Gordo, Battle of, Mexico, 1847
Peninsula Campaign, 1862
Malvern Hill, Battle of, Va., 1862
Savage's Station, Battle of, Va., 1862
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862
Fredericksburg, Battle of, Fredericksburg, Va., 1862
Chancellorsville, Battle of, Chancellorsville, Va., 1863
Gettysburg Campaign, 1863
Churubusco, Battle of, Churubusco, Destrito Federal, Mexico, 1847
Mine Run Campaign, Va., 1863
Civil War, 1861-1865
Gaines' Mill, Battle of, Va., 1862
Vera Cruz, Battle of, 1847
Occupation
Soldiers--19 century.--United States
Aides-de-camp
Authors
Function

Person

Birth 1815-01-13

Death 1881-05-20

Male

Americans

English

Information

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