- Jul 30, 2018
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.
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.
The Battle at Chapin's [sic] Farm, September 29, 1864.-Sketched by William Waud.
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.
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.