William Henry French was born, on January 13, 1815, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the son of William and Anna Rosetta French, natives of New Hampshire, who had recently moved. After receiving a basic education locally, French studied at the University of Maryland before graduating from Columbian College in Washington, DC (modern-day George Washington University) in 1833.
U.S. Military Academy
Soon after earning his college degree, French entered the United States Military Academy on July 1, 1833. He graduated four years later, on July 1, 1837, ranked twenty-second in his class of fifty cadets. Among French’s classmates were future Civil War general officers Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, and John C. Pemberton, on the Confederate side, and John Sedgwick, Joseph Hooker, and Edward D. Townsend on the Union side.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation from West Point, army officials commissioned French as a brevet second lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Artillery. Deployed to Florida, he took part in the Second Seminole War. On July 9, 1838, officials promoted French to first lieutenant. During that year, he took part in the forced removal of the Cherokee tribes in the southeastern United States to present-day Oklahoma. For the next few years, French garrisoned at various locations around the country. During that period, he married Caroline Read on March 31, 1840.
The army sent French to Texas in 1846 when the border dispute between the United States and Mexico intensified. When the two nations declared war, French served 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), 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 war, French received brevet promotions to captain, effective April 18, 1847, “for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Cerro Gordo” and to major, effective August 20, 1847, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.”
Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the army promoted French to captain on September 22, 1848. In 1849, he returned to Florida for two years, where he again campaigned against the Seminole Indians. During the following decade, French served on garrison duty at several locations around the United States.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, French was in charge of Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande, near the current town of Eagle Pass, Texas. Rather than surrender his command to state authorities after Texas seceded from the Union, French ordered the destruction of all property that his men could not carry, and he marched his soldiers 400 miles east to the mouth of the Rio Grande. From there, he moved on to Florida, where he helped reinforce forts Jefferson and Taylor. In late March, French moved his command to Key West, Florida, where he helped curb secessionist activities.
On September 28, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed French as brigadier-general in the volunteer army (see General Orders, No. 106 (Headquarters of the Army), December 5, 1861). One month later, on October 26, 1861, officials promoted French to the rank of major in the regular army. In November, the army sent him to Washington, DC, where he helped prepare defenses for the nation’s capital.
During Major General George McClellan‘s Peninsula Campaign, French commanded the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac. During the campaign, he was engaged in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4, 1862), the Battle of Seven Pines (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). For his “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Fair Oaks,” officials brevetted French to lieutenant colonel in the regular army effective June 1, 1862.
Northern Virginia Campaign
In the late summer of 1862, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck recalled elements of the Army of the Potomac, including the 2nd Corps, from the Peninsula, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched his Northern Virginia Campaign and threatened Washington, DC. Emboldened by the Rebel victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862), Lee took the war to Northern soil. On September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River near Poolesville, Maryland. To prepare for Lee’s advance, the War Department authorized the addition of a third division to the 2nd Corps. Officials assigned French to command the new division on September 12, 1862.
Five days after his promotion, French saw his first action as a divisional leader at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). During that engagement, Confederate Major General D.H. Hill‘s division, firmly entrenched behind a sunken road later known as Bloody Lane, severely punished French’s division. Repeated assaults against the Rebels cost French nearly 1,700 of 5,500 of his soldiers before his division drove the Greycoats back after three-and-one-half hours of fighting. Officials later brevetted French to colonel in the regular army for his “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Antietam.” Sadly, French’s oldest son, Lieutenant Frank Sands French, was severely wounded at Antietam and died three years later from his injuries.
Battle of Fredericksburg
At the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), French and his division again spearheaded a frontal assault involving a sunken road. On December 13, 1862, French’s soldiers stormed 7,000 Confederates protected by a stone wall between Telegraph Road and Marye’s Heights. A hail of Rebel artillery and infantry fire cut down repeated charges by several of French’s brigades, producing casualty rates approaching fifty percent. After the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg, the War Department appointed French as a major general of volunteers, effective November 29, 1862 (General Orders, No. 316, U.S. War Department).
Battle of Chancellorsville
The next great confrontation between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia occurred at the Battle of Chancellorsville, from May 2‑4, 1863. Major General Joseph Hooker‘s piecemeal deployment of his numerically superior army resulted in French’s division not being heavily engaged during what turned out to be another federal fiasco.
Following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia needed food, horses, and equipment. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took the war to the North. Disengaging from Union forces near Fredericksburg, Lee launched the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3–July 23, 1863) by moving his army across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then pushing northeast through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
During the early stages of the Gettysburg Campaign, officials placed French in charge of the Harpers Ferry District with orders to guard the head of the Shenandoah Valley. Commanding elements of the 8th Corps, he oversaw the destruction of pontoon bridges on Lee’s escape route over the Potomac River.
On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 2, 1863), 3rd Corps commander Major General Daniel Sickles was severely injured. With Sickles’ immediate return to action unlikely, Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, appointed French to command the 3rd Corps on July 7.
As commander of the 3rd Corps, French pursued Lee’s defeated army after the Battle of Gettysburg, seeing action at 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).
Mine Run Campaign
During the Mine Run Campaign, Meade ordered the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Corps to cross the Rapidan River at Jacob’s Ford on November 26, 1863. Once across the river, the Union force would quickly swing west in three columns and attack Lee’s right flank near Mine Run, a small stream flowing north to the Rapidan. The success of the operation depended upon the element of surprise. Unfortunately for Meade, the weather and some poor generalship combined to eliminate any chance he had to catch Lee off guard.
French was first in line for the crossing, and he had trouble getting his men and artillery to the other side of the swollen Rapidan, creating a bottleneck for the other two corps. Once across the river, French made a wrong turn and got lost on his way to Mine Run. By the time all the Union forces were positioned to launch their assault, Confederate scouts discovered their whereabouts. Alerted to the Yankees’ presence, Lee quickly redeployed elements of his army, forcing a stalemate following a vigorous engagement on November 27. After a four-day standoff, Meade pulled back across the Rapidan and went into winter quarters.
Promotion and Demotion
During the winter, Meade’s superiors in Washington and northern journalists harshly criticized the general for the failed Mine Run Campaign. Meade blamed the performance of his subordinate generals, particularly French, for the botched opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Despite Meade’s criticism, officials promoted French to lieutenant colonel in the regular army on February 8, 1864. On March 10, Meade met with the newly appointed General of the Armies Ulysses S. Grant and discussed reorganizing the Army of the Potomac. Two weeks later, on March 24, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 10, announcing that it had removed French and two other corps commanders from their commands.
After performing administrative duties for the next few weeks, French mustered out of the volunteer army on May 6, 1864, but he remained in the regular army. Toward the end of the war, officials brevetted French to brigadier general and to major general on March 13, 1865, for “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Chancellorsville” and for “Gallant and Meritorious Services during the Rebellion.”
Post-war Army Career
French remained in the army for the next sixteen years. He spent much of that time in California. On July 2, 1877, army officials promoted French to colonel. Two weeks later, they sent him to West Virginia under orders from President Rutherford B. Hayes to suppress the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. A dispute with railroad officials and charges of French’s drunkenness induced him to ask the War Department to relieve him from that assignment on July 23, 1877. The War Department granted the request, and French returned to California until he retired from the army on July 1, 1880.
French returned to Washington, DC, where he died on May 20, 1881, at age sixty-six, just ten months after his retirement. He was interred at Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.