Civil War Profiles – Centenarian General Bisbee: A national hero


The Arlington National Cemetery website identifies William Henry Bisbee as “Brigadier General, United States Army.” Born in Woonsocket, R.I., in 1840, he followed his trade in retail merchandizing to Philadelphia, Delaware and Ohio while the storm clouds of domestic conflict were gathering.

In 1861, young Bisbee joined the Union army’s 18th U.S. Infantry organized in Columbus, Ohio, in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion of several Southern states. The great-grandfather-in-law of Frankford’s Joyce Wright-Fefel, Bisbee was destined to make history in more ways than one.

The enlisted soldier soon saw action with the Army of the Cumberland during a series of hard-fought contests: the Siege of Corinth, Miss., April-May 1862; Perryville, Ky., October 1862; Stones River, Tenn., December 1862 through January 1863; Chickamauga, Georgia, September 1863; Atlanta, Georgia, Campaign, including Rocky Faced Ridge, May 1864, and Jonesboro, July 1864; and duty at Lookout Mountain, Tenn., until July 1865.

During these grueling years of combat, William sustained wounds on three occasions. Specifically for bravery at the Battle of Stone’s River, he won several citations and a battlefield commission to second lieutenant from President Lincoln.

Having been blessed to survive four years of combat despite the Civil War’s high mortality rate, Bisbee chose to pursue a military career. He soon was engaged on the western frontier in what was known as the Indian Wars.

Promotions to captain and major came as Bisbee led detachments during the 1890s in Indian Territory (later, Oklahoma). When war with Spain came in 1898, he commanded a regiment in Cuba, fighting at Santiago and El Caney, as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The frontline encounters saw Bisbee elevated to the rank of colonel. Within a few months, he sailed toward the Philippine Islands with another former Union Army officer, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, to become military governor over Pangasinan and Nueva Ecija provinces in central Luzon.

When a well-earned retirement came in 1902, Bisbee, now a brigadier general, was one of the longest-serving career officers of Civil War vintage. Taking a well-earned period of relaxation, he traveled extensively over the next four years before establishing his home in Brookline, Mass.

With four more decades remaining on this planet, Bisbee devoted his retirement years to reading and writing articles for The Army & Navy Journal. He preferred the peace and quiet of home to the more active participation in the GAR or Grand Army of the Republic — the American Legion of that period.

But time did pass, and notoriety caught up with him on the celebration of his centennial birthday. Numerous articles appeared in newspapers, highlighting the general’s lengthy career of service to the nation.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a handwritten note of congratulations: “Yours has been a long and varied career, embracing as it does Civil War service, as well as service in the Indian campaigns, the War with Spain, and the Phillipine (sic) Insurrection.”

The president continued, “I desire, also, to congratulate you on repeated acts of gallantry which won for you deserved recognition as an able soldier and a fearless leader. Your patriotic service has enriched the traditions of the American Army and your devotion to duty stands as an inspiring example to the rising generation.”

For “devotion to duty,” Maj. Gen. James A. Woodruff decorated Brig. Gen. William Henry Bisbee, surrounded by three generations on the occasion of his 100th birthday, with the Order of the Purple Heart for “repeated acts of bravery 80 years ago.”

His death came at age 102 in 1942, while World War II was enveloping the globe. With full military honors, Bisbee’s burial took place at Arlington National Cemetery.

His legacy includes a memoir completed in 1921, titled “Reminiscences of General William H. Bisbee.” A copy of this historical manuscript of 181 type-written pages is destined for a New England archive so that future generations will learn about a young tradesman who became a national hero through dedication and self-sacrifice.

Tom Ryan is the author of the dual award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.