William Selby Harney was born on August 27, 1800, in Haysboro, Tennessee, which has since become a part of Nashville. Harney was the last of eight children born to Thomas and Margaret (Hudson) Harney. His father was a merchant and surveyor who had served as a major in the Revolutionary War. Harney was educated at home as a youth before attending local common schools in his area. In 1814, he enrolled in a private academy in his hometown.
U.S. Army Officer
On February 13, 1818, with the help of his older brother, Benjamin F. Harney, who was an army surgeon, Harney received a commission as a second lieutenant in the 1st United States Infantry. He reported for duty on June 28, 1818, in Louisiana, where his first assignment was a campaign against the pirate Jean Lafitte. Taking part in the Seminole Wars in Florida, Harney received a promotion to first lieutenant on January 7, 1819. In 1821, Harney served as an aide to General Andrew Jackson, who was a fellow Tennessean and friend of the Harney family.
Harney served mostly in Louisiana for the next six years, until August 1824, when the army transferred him to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. On May 14, 1825, while on an expedition to open peace treaties with western Indian tribes, Harney learned that the army had promoted him to captain.
In 1832, Harney and his company engaged the Sauk Indians during the Black Hawk War. Other future notable military and political leaders who took part in that brief conflict were:
- Winfield Scott
- Jefferson Davis
- David Twiggs
- Albert Sidney Johnston
- Robert Anderson
- Zachary Taylor
- Abraham Lincoln
Following the Black Hawk War, Harney met and became engaged to Mary Mullanphy. The two wed on January 27, 1833. Their marriage, which produced three children, ended in an estrangement when Mrs. Harney moved to France, where she died in 1860.
On May 1, 1833, at the urging of President Andrew Jackson, the army promoted Harney to major and assigned him to the paymaster corps. A little over three years later, on August 15, 1836, Harney received a promotion to lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Dragoons. He joined his unit in Florida in January 1837, where he once again campaigned against the Seminoles. On December 20, 1840, Harney received a brevet promotion to colonel for “gallant and meritorious conduct” during the Seminole Wars.
In October 1845, army officials sent Harney to Texas, when the United States and Mexico quarreled over the establishment of the border between the two nations. When the dispute eventually led to warfare, he played a leading role in Brigadier General John Wool’s campaign against Chihuahua. Harney also fought under the leadership of Major General Zachary Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22-23, 1847), before joining Major General Winfield Scott’s Army of Invasion in March 1847.
Harney led Scott’s cavalry, but the two officers did not see eye to eye. When Scott relieved Harney of his command, Harney appealed to Washington, and President James K. Polk reinstated him over Scott’s objections. Despite his differences with Scott, Harney performed well during the Mexican-American War. On April 18, 1847, he received a brevet promotion to brigadier general for his participation in the battle of Cerro Gordo (April 12, 1847).
Between 1849 and 1853, Harney briefly commanded Military Department Number Five, which included much of Texas, on three occasions. In 1854, the army transferred him to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to campaign against Sioux Indians on the Great Plains from 1855 into early 1856. In 1856, Harney briefly returned to Florida, again battling the Seminoles.
Army officials redeployed Harney to Kansas in May 1857 to help curtail bloodshed between pro-slavery “border ruffians” from Missouri and anti-slavery Jayhawkers from Kansas, during the Kansas Border Wars. Harney remained in Kansas a little less than a year before the army ordered him to lead a campaign against the Mormons in Utah in April 1858. While traveling west with the Mormon Expedition, Harney learned that he had received a promotion to the full rank of brigadier general, effective June 14, 1858. Before reaching Salt Lake City, General Harney received orders to depart for the West Coast, where he would command the Department of Oregon.
Harney arrived at Fort Vancouver on October 24, 1858, and immediately began planning a campaign to pacify hostile Indian tribes. He soon faced a more pressing matter, however, when a dispute over the ownership of San Juan Island, in the Oregon Country, nearly led to bloodshed between British and United States forces. On July 27, 1859, during the so-called Pig War, Harney deployed federal troops commanded by George Pickett to the island to protect American interests. Cooler heads eventually resolved the bloodless encounter through diplomacy, but because of his inflammatory anti-British posturing, officials ordered Harney back to Missouri in July 1860.
Department of the West Commander
When the Union began to dissolve after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, Harney was in command of the Army’s Department of the West, headquartered at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Sympathies in the border state were greatly divided. In March 1861, Missouri’s Secession Convention opted to remain in the Union despite the secessionist leanings of Governor Claiborne Jackson. After the fall of Fort Sumter, federal officials suspected that secessionists were plotting to seize the St. Louis arsenal.
On May 10, 1861, Harney’s subordinate, Captain Nathaniel Lyon ordered his troops to surround and to imprison approximately 670 members of the Missouri Volunteer Militia, who were training at Camp Jackson, near St. Louis. Lyon then marched his prisoners through the streets of St. Louis, inciting pro-secessionist residents to protest. When a riot ensued, Lyon’s soldiers fired on the angry crowd, killing twenty-eight civilians and wounding as many as fifty more.
Lyon’s actions fanned anti-Union flames in Missouri. On May 11, the Missouri General Assembly approved a measure that created the Missouri State Guard, commanded by former Governor Sterling Price, and that granted Governor Jackson extensive executive powers to resist Union forces in the state.
Despite Lyon’s provocative actions, Price remained committed to maintaining peace in Missouri. On May 21, 1861, he met with Harney and the two men brokered the Price-Harney Agreement. The pact charged the Missouri State Guard with the responsibility of protecting pro-Unionist citizens in Missouri.
Relieved of Command
When Price proved unable to fulfill his end of the bargain, radical Unionists, led by U.S. Representative Frank Blair and his brother, U.S. Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair, contrived to have Harney relieved of his command. On May 16, 1861, the United States War Department issued Special Orders, No. 135 relieving Harney as commander of the Department of the West. The department then promoted Lyon to the rank of brigadier general effective May 17, 1861. Harney received word that the War Department had sacked him and Lyon succeeded him as departmental commander on May 30.
Harney returned to Washington, where he performed administrative duties until he retired from the army on August 1, 1863. Despite being retired, Harney received a brevet promotion to major general on March 13, 1865, after the Civil War “for long and faithful service.”
Following the Civil War, the government engaged Harney to negotiate peace with the Plains Indians in the West in 1868. In 1869, President Andrew Johnson appointed him as a member of the Board of Commissioners for Indian Affairs and as a member of the Board of Indian Peace Commissioners in the Northwest.
Marriage and Death
Harney spent the later years of his life living at his extensive landholdings in Missouri, in Mississippi, and at his last home on Lake Eola, near Orlando, Florida. On November 12, 1884, Harney married his housekeeper and caretaker, Mary E. (Cromwell) St. Cyr, in St. Louis. The couple had no children and remained married until Harney’s death on May 9, 1889, in Florida. Harney was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.