A career military officer, Major General William French commanded the 3rd Army Corps during the Civil War from July 1863 to March 1864
William Henry French was born, Jan. 13, 1815, at Baltimore, Maryland. He was the son of William and Anna Rosetta French, natives of New Hampshire, who had recently relocated. After receiving a basic education locally, French studied at the University of Maryland, before graduating from Columbian College, in Washington, DC, (modern-day George Washington University) in 1833.
Soon after earning his college degree, French entered the United States Military Academy on July 1, 1833. He graduated four years later, on July 1, 1837, ranked twenty-second in his class of fifty cadets. Among French's classmates were future Civil War general officers Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, and John C. Pemberton, on the Confederate side, in addition to John Sedgwick, Joseph Hooker, and Edward D. Townsend on the Union side.
Following his graduation from West Point, French was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Artillery. Deployed to Florida, he participated in the Second Seminole War. On July 9, 1838, French was promoted to first lieutenant. During that year, he participated in the forced removal of the Cherokee tribes in the southeastern United States to present-day Oklahoma. For the next few years, French was garrisoned at various locations around the country.
French was sent to Texas in 1846 when the border dispute between the United States and Mexico intensified. When war was declared, French was appointed as acting adjutant-general to Major General Robert Patterson's division and later as aide-de‑camp to Brigadier-General Franklin Pierce in 1847. During the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848), French was engaged in the Siege of Vera Cruz (March 9‑29, 1847), the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 17‑18, 1847), the Battle of Contreras (August 19‑20, 1847), the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847), and the capture of Mexico City (September 13‑14, 1847). During the war, French was brevetted to captain, effective April 18, 1847, "for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Cerro Gordo" and to major, effective August 20, 1847, "for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.
Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, French was promoted to captain, on September 22, 1848. In 1849, he returned to Florida for two years, where he again campaigned against the Seminole Indians. During the following decade, French again served on garrison duty at several locations around the United States.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, French was in charge of Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande, near the current town of Eagle Pass, Texas. Rather than surrender his command to state authorities after Texas seceded from the Union, French ordered the destruction of all property that his men could not carry, and he marched his soldiers four hundred miles east to the mouth of the Rio Grande. From there, he moved on to Florida, where he helped reinforce Forts Jefferson and Taylor. In late March, French moved his command to Key West, Florida, where he helped curb secessionist activities.
On September 28, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed French as brigadier-general in the volunteer army (see General Orders, No. 106, Headquarters of the Army, December 5, 1861). One month later, on October 26, 1861, French was promoted to the rank of major in the regular army. In November, he was sent to Washington, where he helped prepare defenses for the nation's capital.
During Major General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, French commanded the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac. During that offensive, he was engaged in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4, 1862), the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1, 1862) the Battle of Oak Grove (June 25, 1862), the Battle of Gaines' Mill (June 27, 1862), the Battle of Savage's Station (June 29, 1862), the Battle of Glendale (June 30, 1862), and the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862). For his "Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Fair Oaks," French was brevetted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army effective June 1, 1862.
In the late summer of 1862, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck recalled elements of the Army of the Potomac, including the 2nd Corps, from the Peninsula, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched his Northern Virginia Campaign and threatened Washington, DC. Emboldened by the Rebel victory at the Battle of Bull Run II (August 28 to 30, 1862), Lee decided to take the war to Northern soil. On September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River near Poolesville, Maryland. In preparation for Lee's advance, the War Department authorized the addition of a third division to the 2nd Corps. French was assigned to command the new division on September 12, 1862.
Five days after his promotion, French saw his first action as a divisional leader at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). During that engagement, Confederate Major General D.H. Hill's division, which was firmly entrenched behind a sunken road, later known as Bloody Lane, severely punished French's division. Repeated assaults against the Rebels cost French nearly 1,700 of 5,500 of his soldiers, before his division drove the Greycoats back after three and one-half hours of fighting. French was later brevetted to colonel in the regular army for his "Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Antietam." Sadly, French's oldest son, Lieutenant Frank Sands French, was severely wounded at Antietam and died three years later from his injuries.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), French and his division again spearheaded a frontal assault involving a sunken road. On December 13, 1862, French's soldiers stormed seven thousand Confederates protected by a stone wall between Telegraph Road and Marye's Heights. Repeated charges by several of French's brigades were cut down by a hail of artillery and infantry fire, producing casualty rates approaching fifty percent. At one point during the massacre at Marye's Heights, Robert E. Lee, watching the action unfold from above, reportedly reflected, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." After the disastrous Union defeat, French was appointed as major general of volunteers, effective November 29, 1862 (General Orders, No. 316, U.S. War Department).
The next great confrontation between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia occurred at Chancellorsville, from May 2‑4, 1863. Major General Joseph Hooker's piecemeal deployment of his numerically superior army resulted in French's division not being heavily engaged during what turned out to be another Federal fiasco.
Following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia was in need of food, horses, and equipment. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee decided to take the war to the North. Disengaging from Union forces near Fredericksburg, Lee launched the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3–July 23, 1863) by moving his army across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then pushing northeast through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
During the early stages of the Gettysburg Campaign, French was placed in charge of the Harper's Ferry District with orders to guard the head of the Shenandoah Valley. Commanding elements of the 8th Corps, he oversaw the destruction of pontoon bridges on Lee’s escape route over the Potomac River.
On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 2, 1863), 3rd Corps commander Major General Daniel Sickles was severely injured. With Sickles's immediate return to action unlikely, Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, appointed French to command the 3rd Corps on July 7.
As commander of the 3rd Corps, French participated in the pursuit of Lee's defeated army after the Battle of Gettysburg, seeing action at the Battle of Manassas Gap (July 8, 1863), the Bristoe Campaign (October 13–November 7, 1863), and the Mine Run Campaign (November 27-December 2, 1863).
During the Mine Run Campaign, Meade ordered the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Corps to cross the Rapidan River at Jacob's Ford on November 26, 1863. Once across the river, the Union force would quickly swing west in three columns and attack Lee's right flank near Mine Run, a small stream flowing north to the Rapidan. The success of the operation depended upon the element of surprise. Unfortunately for Meade, the weather and some poor generalship combined to eliminate any chance he had to catch Lee off guard. French was first in line for the crossing, and he had trouble getting his men and artillery to the other side of the swollen Rapidan, creating a bottleneck for the other two corps. Once across the river, French made a wrong turn and got lost on his way to Mine Run. By the time all of the Union forces were in position to launch their assault, the day was spent, and Confederate scouts had discovered their whereabouts. Alerted to the Yankees' presence, Lee quickly redeployed elements of his army, forcing a stalemate following a vigorous engagement on November 27. After a four-day standoff, Meade pulled back across the Rapidan and went into winter quarters.
During the winter, Meade's superiors in Washington and northern journalists harshly criticized the general for the failed campaign. Meade, in turn, blamed the performance of his subordinate generals, particularly French, for the botched opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Despite Meade's criticism, French was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army on February 8, 1864. Nonetheless, on March 10, Meade met with newly-appointed General of the Armies Ulysses S. Grant and discussed reorganizing the Army of the Potomac. Two weeks later, on March 24, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 10, announcing that French and two other corps commanders had been removed from their commands.
After performing administrative duties for the next few weeks, French mustered out of the volunteer army on May 6, 1864, but he remained in the regular army. Toward the end of the war, French was brevetted to brigadier-general and to major general on March 13, 1865 for "Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Chancellorsville" and for "Gallant and Meritorious Services during the Rebellion."
French remained in the army for the next sixteen years. Much of that time was spent in California. On July 2, 1877, French was promoted to colonel. Two weeks later, he was sent to West Virginia under orders from President Rutherford B. Hayes to suppress the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. A dispute with railroad officials and charges of French's drunkenness induced him to ask the War Department to relieve him from that assignment on July 23, 1877. The War Department granted the request, and French returned to California until he retired from the army on July 1, 1880.
French returned to Washington, DC, where he died on May 20, 1881, at the age of sixty-six years, just ten months after his retirement. He was interred at Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.
French was survived by his wife, Caroline (Read) French, and four grown children. His daughter, Anna R. French, was the wife of Newark, Ohio-native Brigadier-General John Lincoln Clem, popularly known as the Drummer Boy of Shiloh.
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- Abraham Lincoln
- Army of Northern Virginia
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Bull Run I
- Battle of Bull Run II
- Battle of Chancellorsville
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Gaines' Mill
- Battle of Gettysburg
- Battle of Glendale
- Battle of Malvern Hill
- Battle of Manassas Gap
- Battle of Oak Grove
- Battle of Savage's Station
- Braxton Bragg
- Bristoe Campaign
- D.H. Hill
- General Orders, No. 106 (Headquarters of the Army)
- General Orders, No. 316 (U.S. War Department)
- George B. McClellan
- George G. Meade
- Gettysburg Campaign
- John C. Pemberton
- John Sedgwick
- Joseph Hooker
- Jubal Early
- Mexican-American War
- Mine Run Campaign
- Peninsula Campaign
- Robert E. Lee
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- Siege of Yorktown
- Ulysses S. Grant
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