Recruiting colored troops - William Birney

luinrina

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Men of Color – To Arms! To Arms!Now or Never!
From American Battlefield Trust


William McDowell Birney was born on May 28, 1819 in Madison City, Alabama. He was the second son and child of abolitionist James Gillespie Birney and his wife Agatha McDowell Birney.

He was the older brother of General David Bell Birney, well-known for commanding a division under General Sickles at Gettysburg and under General Hancock during the Overland Campaign and eventually receiving command of the X Corps in July 1864.

William spent the first years of his life on a plantation. When his father determined the plantation wasn't profitable enough, he sold it and the family moved north to Kentucky. His father established a law firm and looked for a publisher for his abolitionist newspaper, but he faced opposition. The Birneys therefore moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Philanthropist found a publisher and readers.

William studied at Centre College in Kentucky and at the Yale University. He then practiced law in Cincinnati. He traveled to Europe, wrote articles for American and English newspapers, taught for two years at the college in Bourges, France, and got involved in the Revolutions of 1848. He returned to America in 1853 and established a newspaper in Philadelphia.

Birney, William.jpg

From Wikipedia

At the outbreak of the Civil War, he and his brother David joined the Union Army. William was commissioned Captain of Company C of the 1st New Jersey Infantry. The regiment – as part of the Fourth (Reserve) Division under General Theodore Runyon – was at Bull Run in July 1861, but was not engaged. After three months service the regiment mustered out on July 31, 1861.

On September 27, 1861 William then received a commission as Major of the 4th New Jersey Infantry. The regiment participated in the Peninsula Campaign and was brigaded with the 1st to 3rd New Jersey Infantry. At Yorktown, the New Jersey Brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General Kearny of the First Division, I Corps, but for Seven Pines and the Seven Days the brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General Taylor of the First Division, VI Corps. In August 1862, while at Harrison's Landing, William was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

The regiment was too late to fight at 2nd Bull Run, but it fought at Crampton's Gap during the Battle of South Mountain. At Antietam, an order to charge the woods north of Dunker Church was countermanded and the brigade took position to support the 6th Corps Artillery.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the regiment's colonel was mortally wounded during a charge against a railroad embankment. He died five days later, the command of the 4th New Jersey falling to William. He was promoted to Colonel on January 8, 1863. During the Chancellorsville Campaign, the 4th New Jersey fought at Marye Heights and Salem Church.

William resigned in June 1863 to accept a commission as Colonel of the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops. He was heavily involved in recruiting black men for the Union Army. He received a promotion to Brigadier-General, to rank from May 22, 1863, and was sent to Maryland to recruit more colored troops.

William was next transferred to Virginia under the command of Major-General Benjamin F. Butler. Battle followed at Chaffin's Farm / New Market Heights at the end of September 1864, where William's brigade fought in a yet incomplete 3rd Division of the X Corps – which was commanded by none other than William's brother David Birney. William's colored brigade then participated in several battles along the defenses of Richmond.

Harper's_Weekly_-_Page_676_-_Chaffin's_Farm.jpg

The Battle at Chapin's [sic] Farm, September 29, 1864.-Sketched by William Waud.
From Wikipedia

In December 1864, the colored troops of the X Corps were combined with the ones from the XVIII Corps, forming the new all-black XXV Corps, commanded by Major-General Godfrey Weitzel. Birney's brigade was in the 2nd Division and was involved in the last assaults at Petersburg. The XXV Corps were among the first troops to enter Richmond on April 3, 1865. During the Appomattox Campaign, William commanded the 2nd Division.

He was mustered out of service in August 1865. However, in 1866, William was retrospectively appointed Brevet Major-General to rank from March 13, 1865.

For a few years, William and his family lived in Florida before moving to Washington, D.C. where he established a law practice. He served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and as a school board trustee until 1886. He also wrote a book on his father which was published in 1890.

Birney, William_book.jpg

available on archive.org

William died on August 14, 1907 in Forest Glen, Maryland. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.


Sources:
- Wikipedia
- Bay-Journal
 

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Cavalry Charger

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I'm fascinated by the image first of all. It shows the coloured troops in uniforms that look more Confederate than Union :confused:

The little black drummer boy also caught my eye. The way he is looking at these men clearly indicates his hopes for the future rest in them. It's a very captivating image of how children perceive their elders, and look up to them. Pregnant with a sense of expectation.

I enjoyed reading the history of William Birney, and the book he wrote about his father would be very insightful. If they originally owned a plantation, does that mean they were also slave owners? What effected the change in his father's thinking?

Great share and information, Lu.
 

luinrina

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If they originally owned a plantation, does that mean they were also slave owners? What effected the change in his father's thinking?
Yes, they owned slaves. According to Wikipedia, William's parents got them as wedding presents from William's grandfathers in 1816. Back then, James Birney hadn't yet fully established his strong abolitionist views and accepted the gift kindly. He and his wife were still living in Kentucky then.

I think James Birney started changing his views soon after. When Kentucky drafted a resolution to talk with Ohio and Indiana about passing laws to capture and return runaway slaves in 1817, James opposed it - twice (he had political aspirations and sat in the Kentucky General Assembly representing Mercer County). His opposition was soundly defeated. Looking for better chances for his political aspirations, he uprooted his family to Alabama.

There, he purchased the plantation and slaves, though he brought the slaves from Kentucky too. In Alabama he helped draft an act that promised paid legal counsel to slaves when they were tried by a jury, or that the prosecutor's witness and relatives couldn't be members of the jury. When the family moved back to Kentucky and sold the plantation, James sold the slaves to a friend that was known for treating slaves kindly.

James also opposed Andrew Jackson as president. Jackson's views on slavery apparently alienated James Birney, aiding in developing abolitionist views. That most likely affected his sons when they grew up. Both William and David opposed slavery.

I'm fascinated by the image first of all. It shows the coloured troops in uniforms that look more Confederate than Union :confused:
I've been wondering about that too but didn't look into it. Maybe someone with more knowledge of the uniforms of colored troops can enlighten us. Paging James N. and @major bill .
 

James N.

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I'm fascinated by the image first of all. It shows the coloured troops in uniforms that look more Confederate than Union :confused:...
Thanks for that further info @luinrina . It really helps to fill out the picture of this man's story, and I'll be interested to see if any of our uniform experts can provide any further insight into the image.
… I've been wondering about that too but didn't look into it. Maybe someone with more knowledge of the uniforms of colored troops can enlighten us. Paging James N. and @major bill .
That is a slightly faded print showing them in their regulation U.S. Army greatcoats which were made of the same so-called sky-blue kersey material as their trousers. (Notice their forage caps remain dark blue and that the officer isn't wearing a greatcoat, only his regular frock.) Union officer's overcoats or greatcoats ONLY were dark blue while the enlisted ranks wore the light blue, and even then officers sometimes wore enlisted men's coats as well, as I'm doing here in this photo made on the set of Glory:

scan0017.jpg
 
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Cavalry Charger

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That is a slightly faded print showing them in their regulation U.S. Army greatcoats which were made of the same so-called sky-blue kersey material as their trousers. (Notice their forage caps remain dark blue and that the officer isn't wearing a greatcoat, only his regular frock.) Union officer's overcoats or greatcoats ONLY were dark blue while the enlisted ranks wore the light blue, and even then officers sometimes wore enlisted men's coats as well, as I'm doing here in this photo made on the set of Glory:

View attachment 259799
Thanks James N. I can see now how the faded affect may give a different impression.

Wow! You appeared in the movie 'Glory'? That's awesome!
 

James N.

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