William Buel Franklin was born in York, Pennsylvania on February 27, 1823. He was the first of six children of Walter S. Franklin and Sarah Buel, including five boys and one girl. The elder Franklin was a lawyer who served as Clerk of the United States House of Representatives from 1833 until his death in 1838. William’s great-grandfather, Samuel Rhoads, was a member of the First Continental Congress. William’s brother, Samuel Rhoads Franklin, was an officer in the U.S. Navy who achieved the rank of rear admiral. His youngest brother served as an officer in the U.S. Army during the American Civil War.
Franklin’s family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1829, where they lived until 1835 before returning to York. Upon his return to York, Franklin enrolled at the York County Academy to prepare for college. Just before Franklin’s father died in 1838, he petitioned Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett to secure an appointment for William to the United States Military Academy. Poinsett initially demurred because Franklin was only sixteen years of age, but at the urging of future President James Buchanan, he relented.
U.S. Military Academy
Franklin entered the Academy on July 1, 1839. There, he rubbed shoulders with future Civil War notables George B. McClellan, Thomas J. Jackson, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, Don Carlos Buell, William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, Winfield Scott Hancock, Nathaniel Lyon, John F. Reynolds, D. H. Hill, Lafayette McLaws, Alfred Pleasonton, Simon B. Buckner, William F. Smith, Fitz John Porter, Edmund Kirby Smith, George Stoneman, George Pickett, and classmate Ulysses S Grant. During his four years at West Point, Franklin proved to be a stellar student, graduating first in his class of thirty-nine cadets on July 1, 1843.
Following his graduation, the army brevetted Franklin to second lieutenant and assigned him to the topographical engineers. After taking part in a survey of the Northwestern Lakes for two years, Franklin performed survey duties on Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny’s Expedition to South Pass of the Rocky Mountains in 1845. Upon his return, army officials assigned Franklin to the Topographical Bureau at Washington, D. C., where he served until 1846. On September 21, 1846, Franklin received a promotion to the rank of second lieutenant.
Following a brief stint in Georgia, the army transferred Franklin to General Zachary Taylor‘s command during the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848). Serving in Northern Mexico, Franklin received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant, “for gallant and meritorious service during the Battle of Buena Vista” (February 22–23, 1847).
Educator and Engineer
After the Mexican-American War, Franklin served as an assistant professor of natural and experimental philosophy at the U.S. Military Academy between 1848 and 1851. Following his assignment at West Point, Franklin worked on or supervised many bridge and lighthouse projects in the eastern United States for the next eight years. During that time, army officials promoted Franklin to first lieutenant on March 3, 1853, and to captain on July 1, 1857.
In 1859, officials selected Franklin as the superintending engineer in charge of the extension of the Capitol Building in Washington, including the construction of the new dome. During the two-year span that followed, he also oversaw the construction of the new general post office and treasury buildings in the nation’s capital.
First Battle of Bull Run
Soon after the Civil War began, officials promoted Franklin to the rank of colonel in the army and assigned him to the 112th U.S. Infantry, on May 14, 1861. Just four days later, the War Department commissioned him as a brigadier general in the volunteer army. Two months later, Franklin led the 1st brigade of the 3rd Division of the Army of Northeastern Virginia into combat at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
Army of the Potomac
When President Abraham Lincoln turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reorganize Union forces in the East following the disaster at Bull Run, McClellan named Franklin as a division commander in the newly created Army of the Potomac in September 1861. By the spring of 1862, President Lincoln had drafted his own reorganization plan for the Army of the Potomac. On March 8, he issued War Order No. 2, merging the army’s divisions into five corps. Lincoln named Major General Irvin McDowell, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman, Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to command the five corps, respectively. On March 13, 1862, a disgruntled McClellan issued General Orders, No. 101 (Army of the Potomac), confirming the President’s selections.
In the spring of 1862, McClellan launched his ill-fated Peninsula Campaign. During the initial phase of the campaign, Franklin commanded the 1st Division of McDowell’s 1st Corps and took part in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5–May 4, 1862). Following the failed Federal naval offensive at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff (May 15, 1862), McClellan issued General Orders, No. 125 (Army of the Potomac) on May 18. McClellan’s order created a provisional 6th Corps, commanded by Franklin. During the Seven Days Battles (June 25–July 1, 1862), Franklin’s Corps played major roles in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill (June 27, 1862) and the Battle of Savage’s Station (June 29, 1862). On July 24, 1862, officials brevetted Franklin to brigadier general in the regular army, “for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battle before Richmond, Virginia,” effective June 30, 1862 (U.S. War Department, General Orders, No. 87).
When McClellan withdrew from the Virginia Peninsula during the summer of 1862 following the failed Peninsula Campaign, the army sent Franklin’s Corps to Alexandria, Virginia, near Manassas. On July 22, 1862, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 84, removing the provisional designation of the 6th Corps, making it a certified corps of the Army of the Potomac. The War Department followed up that directive on August 2, 1862, with General Orders, No. 93, promoting Franklin to the rank of major general, U. S. Volunteers, effective July 4, 1862.
During the Northern Virginia Campaign, McClellan assured General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on August 27, 1862, that he would advance Franklin’s Corps to support Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia during the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). Instead, McClellan ordered Franklin to remain in Alexandria. On August 28, Halleck contacted Franklin directly and ordered him to support Pope regardless of McClellan’s directives. Franklin demurred and, instead, awaited direct orders from McClellan, which did not come.
On August 29, Franklin began moving, after receiving another direct order from Halleck, but McClellan directed him to halt near Annandale, just a few miles from where Pope’s troops had engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. On August 30, Franklin advanced to Centerville in time to encounter Pope’s defeated army as it retreated toward Washington. Pope later charged Franklin with failing to obey orders, but nothing came of the allegations because of McClellan’s role in the affair.
On September 13, 1862, McClellan ordered Franklin to seize Crampton’s Gap at South Mountain and then to head west to relieve the garrison at Harpers Ferry, which was under siege. Instead of departing immediately, Franklin moved on the morning of September 14. His troops did not reach Burkittsville, near the mouth of the pass, until around noon. Franklin then spent three hours deploying 12,000 Union soldiers to dislodge between 500 to 1,000 Confederate defenders commanded by Colonel William A. Parham.
When the action finally started, the Yankees quickly seized the gap and sent the Rebel defenders scurrying down the western side of the mountain. By the time Franklin rounded up nearly 400 prisoners and reassembled his forces, it was after 6 p.m. The victorious general determined it was too late in the day to move west and relieve the Union soldiers who were holding out at Harpers Ferry. The next day, before Franklin’s reinforcements arrived, the garrison at Harpers Ferry surrendered to General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Their surrender enabled Jackson to march east and join Longstreet and Lee near Sharpsburg, Maryland, setting the stage for the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). During that bloody encounter, to Franklin’s unhappiness, McClellan held back much of the 6th Corps.
Left Grand Division Commander
Although the Army of the Potomac halted Robert E. Lee’s advance into Maryland, McClellan’s reluctance to press Lee’s retreating army displeased President Lincoln. On November 5, 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order removing McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with General Ambrose E. Burnside. The next week, on November 14, Burnside issued General Orders, No. 184 (Army of the Potomac), which reorganized his new command into three “Grand Divisions.” He named Franklin to lead the Left Grand Division, which comprised the 1st and 6th Corps.
Battle of Fredericksburg
During the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), Franklin confronted Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops on the Confederate right, as Major General Joseph Hooker‘s Center Grand Division and Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division were being mauled in their attempts to carry strongly fortified Rebel positions on Marye’s Heights.
Relieved of Command
After the battle, some of Burnside’s subordinates, including Franklin and Hooker, criticized Burnside’s leadership during the engagement. As the faultfinding grew, Burnside requested an audience with President Lincoln on January 23, 1863. During the meeting, Burnside presented General Orders, No. 8 (Army of the Potomac), which proposed dismissing Hooker from the army (on approval of the President) and also proposed relieving many of Burnside’s subordinate general officers of their command, including Franklin. Burnside demanded that Lincoln either approve the order or accept his resignation. Unwilling to approve a wholesale dismissal of so many generals, Lincoln instead drafted General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department) on January 25, 1863, announcing that Burnside was being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, at his own request. The order also announced that army officials had relieved Franklin of his duties with the Army of the Potomac.
The controversy surrounding the Union disaster at Fredericksburg did not end with General Orders, No. 20. Eager to find a scapegoat, the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated the matter during the spring. After hearing misleading testimony from Burnside, the committee issued a report on April 6, 1863, targeting Franklin. Unwilling to let the committee’s partisan conclusions sully his reputation, Franklin published a rejoinder at his own expense that refuted their conclusions. Unfortunately for Franklin, the Republican press largely ignored his response.
Transfer to New Orleans
After losing his command with the Army of the Potomac, Franklin traveled to New York to await further orders. On June 25, 1863, General Henry W. Halleck ordered Franklin to report to New Orleans, Louisiana for duty with the Department of the Gulf, commanded by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks placed Franklin in charge of troops in and around New Orleans from July 28 until August 15. On August 15, 1863, Banks issued Special Orders, No. 200 (Department of the Gulf), naming Franklin as commander of the 19th Corps. On August 20, Franklin issued General Orders, No. 1 (19th Army Corps), assuming his new command.
Wounded during the Red River Campaign
Franklin’s performance in the West was less than stellar. On September 8, 1863, fewer than fifty Confederate defenders repulsed a contingent of four gunboats and nearly 6,000 infantrymen commanded by Franklin, as they attempted to subdue Fort Griffin on the Sabine River in Texas. The next spring, Franklin’s corps spearheaded the ill-fated Red River Campaign. During that campaign, Franklin received a wound to his left leg at the decisive Battle of Mansfield (April 8, 1864).
Franklin’s leg wound soon developed complications, requiring him to be on sick leave from April 29 to December 2, 1864. During that period, he returned to the Washington area. On July 10, 1864, Franklin was traveling on a train near Baltimore, when Confederate Colonel Harry Gilmor took him prisoner during a raid on the Magnolia Station. Franklin escaped the next night.
Resignation from the Army
Physically limited because of his wound, Franklin could no longer hold a field command. From December 2, 1864 to November 10, 1865, he served as President of the Board for Retiring Disabled Officers, at Wilmington, Delaware. While stationed there, Franklin received a brevet promotion to major general in the regular, effective March 13, 1865, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion.” On November 10, Franklin again went on leave before resigning from the army on March 15, 1866.
Following his military career, Franklin worked for the Colt Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut for twenty-three years, from November 15, 1865 to April 1, 1888. He also served as an engineer, consultant, and board member on several public and private projects. In 1872, Franklin declined an offer to run for President of the United States as a Democratic candidate.
Franklin’s health declined near the turn of the century. On the morning of March 8, 1903, he peacefully died at his residence in Hartford. His remains were buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery near his birthplace in York, Pennsylvania.