William Henry French, a career military man, was born January 13, 1815 in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from West Point in 1837, 22nd out of 50 in a class that included future generals John Sedgwick, Braxton Bragg, Joseph Hooker, Jubal Early and John Pemberton. Before the outbreak of the Mexican War, French fought the Seminoles in Florida, was posted to garrison duty on the Canadian border and helped enforce the removal of the Cherokee from the southeast. In Mexico, French served under Franklin Pierce, and was brevetted for his actions at Cerro Gordo, Contreras and Churubusco. After the war, French continued at various regular army posts at different points on the frontier, and helped to re-write the army’s light artillery textbook.
French was stationed at Fort Duncan, Texas when that state seceded from the Union. A staunch Unionist, French was anything but indecisive, and rapidly led his command to the mouth of the Rio Grande, and then to Key West, where he stamped down on secessionist activities. In September, 1861 French was commissioned brigadier general, and took command of the Third Brigade, Sumner’s Division, Army of the Potomac. After leading his men ably during Fair Oaks and the Seven Days battles, French was given command of the Third Division, II Corps. His men were at the center of the fighting at Antietam, suffering 1,700 casualties around the Roulette Farm and “Bloody Lane.” He was promoted to major general in November and led his division against Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville. French and his men were stationed near Harper’s Ferry during the Battle of Gettysburg, and made themselves useful by destroying pontoon bridges the rebels would need on their retreat route.
Shortly thereafter, on July 7, 1863 French succeeded the wounded Daniel Sickles to command of the III Corps. Unfortunately for French, his tenure as a Corps commander was short-lived and fraught with controversy. During the Mine Run campaign of November, French’s leadership was poor and his command blundered into battle at Payne’s Farm and failed to reach its objective point. Meade was furious. French blamed his subordinates, but it was too late. When the Army was reorganized and consolidated in the spring of 1864, he was mustered out and returned to Philadelphia to await orders. His war was over.
French remained in the regular army after the conclusion of the war, and helped put down the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. He died in May, 1881, and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.