William Henry French - Facts

January 13, 1815 - May 20, 1881

Key facts about Major General William French, a career military officer, commanded the 3rd Army Corps during the Civil War from July 1863 to March 1864.

Portrait of William H. French

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862, William H. French and his division spearheaded the failed assault Marye’s Heights. [Wikimedia Commons]

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Full Name:

  • William Henry French

Birth Date:

  • January 13, 1815

Birth Location:

  • Baltimore, Maryland

Parents:

  • William and Anna Rosetta (Halverson) French

Education:

  • United States Military Academy (1837)

Occupation:

  • Military officer

Career Summary:

  • Colonel (USA)
  • Major General (USVA)
  • Brevet Major General (USA)

Spouse:

  • Caroline Read (1840)

Place of Death:

  • Washington, DC,

Date of Death:

  • May 20, 1881

Place of Burial:

  • Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC

Significance:

  • William H. French studied at the University of Maryland before graduating from Columbian College, in Washington, DC, (modern-day George Washington University) in 1833.
  • William H. French attended the United States Military Academy from July 1, 1833 to July 1, 1837, ranked twenty-second in his class of fifty cadets.
  • Among William H. French’s classmates at the United States Military Academy 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, William H. French was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Artillery.
  • William H. French participated in the Second Seminole War.
  • On July 9, 1838, William H. French was promoted to first lieutenant.
  • William H. French participated in the forced removal of the Cherokee tribes in the southeastern United States to present-day Oklahoma.
  • William H. French married Caroline Read on March 31, 1840.
  • During the Mexican-American War, William H. 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) William H. French was engaged in the Siege of Veracruz (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 Mexican-American War, William H. French was brevetted to captain, effective April 18, 1847, “for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Cerro Gordo.”
  • During the Mexican-American War, William H. French was brevetted to major, effective August 20, 1847, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.
  • William H. French was promoted to captain, on September 22, 1848.
  • Out the outbreak of the Civil War, William H. French was in charge of Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande River near the current town of Eagle Pass, Texas.
  • On September 28, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed William H. French as brigadier general in the volunteer army (see General Orders, No. 106, Headquarters of the Army, December 5, 1861).
  • On October 26, 1861, William H. French was promoted to the rank of major in the regular army.
  • During the Peninsula Campaign, William H. French commanded the 3rd brigade, 1st division, of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
  • During the Peninsula Campaign, William H. French 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).
  • William H. French was brevetted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army effective June 1, 1862, for his “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Fair Oaks.”
  • On September 12, 1862, the War Department assigned William H. French to command the newly created 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
  • William H. French saw his first action as a divisional leader at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
  • William H. French was brevetted to colonel in the regular army for his “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Antietam.”
  • During the Battle of Antietam, repeated assaults against well-entrenched Confederate troops cost French roughly 1,700 of his 5,500 soldiers.
  • William H. French’s oldest son, Lieutenant Frank Sands French, was severely wounded at the Battle of Antietam and died three years later from his injuries.
  • At the Battle of Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862, William H. French and his division spearheaded the failed assault Marye’s Heights.
  • After the disastrous Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, William H. French was appointed as major general of volunteers, effective November 29, 1862 (see General Orders, No. 316, U.S. War Department).
  • During the early stages of the Gettysburg Campaign, William H. French was placed in charge of the Harpers Ferry District with orders to guard the head of the Shenandoah Valley.
  • Commanding elements of the 8th Corps, William H. French oversaw the destruction of pontoon bridges on the Confederate General Robert E. Lees’ escape route over the Potomac River.
  • Following a severe injury to Major General Daniel Sickles during the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General George G. Meade appointed William H. French to command the 3rd Corps of the Army of the Potomac on July 7, 1863.
  • As commander of the 3rd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, William H. French took part in 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, William H. French had trouble getting his men and artillery across the swollen Rapidan River, creating a bottleneck.
  • During the Mine Run Campaign, William H. French made a wrong turn and got lost on his way to Mine Run.
  • Major General George G. Meade blamed the performance of his subordinate generals, particularly William H. French, for the botched opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia during the Mine Run Campaign.
  • William H. French was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army on February 8, 1864.
  • On March 24, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 10 announcing that William H. French and two other corps commanders had been removed from their commands with the Army of the Potomac.
  • William H. French mustered out of the volunteer army on May 6, 1864, but he remained in the regular army.
  • William H. French was brevetted to brigadier general on March 13, 1865 for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Chancellorsville.”
  • William H. French was brevetted to major general on March 13, 1865 for “Gallant and Meritorious Services during the Rebellion.”
  • On July 2, 1877, William H. French was promoted to colonel.
  • In July 1877, William H. French was sent to West Virginia under orders from President Rutherford B. Hayes to suppress the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
  • William H. French he retired from the army on July 1, 1880.
  • William H. French died in Washington, DC, on May 20, 1881, at the age of 66, just ten months after his retirement.
  • William H. French was interred at Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.
  • William H. French was survived by his wife, Caroline (Read) French, and four grown children.
  • William H. French’s 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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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title William Henry French - Facts
  • Coverage January 13, 1815 - May 20, 1881
  • Author
  • Keywords William Henry French
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 8, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 29, 2021

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