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FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [David Bell Birney]

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...Birney, a Union major general, was a Huntsville native...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: biod-request@www.anb.org
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 13, 2004
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      fyi...Birney, a Union major general, was a Huntsville native...aj wright //

      -----Original Message-----
      From: biod-request@... [mailto:biod-request@...]
      Sent: Friday, February 13, 2004 1:50 AM
      To: ANB bioday mailing list
      Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day

      Special Announcement: OUP is pleased to announce that ANB Online is now
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      American National Biography Online

      Birney, David Bell (29 May 1825-18 Oct. 1864), Union major general,
      was born in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of James Gillespie Birney,
      a lawyer. His mother's name is unknown. Birney's father, although
      a slaveholder, became an internationally known abolitionist and
      moved his family north when Birney was thirteen, eventually settling
      in Cincinnati. Birney received his education at Andover, Massachusetts,
      then returned to Cincinnati, where he entered business. When
      his company failed, Birney accepted a position as an agent for
      P. Choteau & Company in Upper Saginaw, Michigan, where he also
      studied law. Finding the Michigan climate too harsh, in 1848
      Birney removed to Philadelphia, where in eight years he rose
      from clerk to chief manager and director of a mercantile agency.
      In 1856 he joined the Philadelphia bar and developed a successful
      law practice.

      Birney's military experience prior to the Civil War was limited
      to service in two amateurish and ceremonial Philadelphia militia
      units. Abraham Lincoln's November 1860 election, however, motivated
      Birney to study military science in preparation for the war that
      he felt was likely.

      Birney's militia outfit formed the nucleus for the Twenty-third
      Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, a three-month regiment formed
      in April 1861. Birney served as its lieutenant colonel and saw
      action on 2 July 1861 at Falling Waters, Virginia. Upon the regiment's
      expiration in July, Birney returned to Philadelphia and recruited
      the new Twenty-third Pennsylvania Infantry, largely at his own
      expense. He led the regiment back to Virginia as its colonel.

      Birney's promotion to brigadier general on 17 February 1862
      originated primarily from his strong Republican political connections
      and the beliefs inherited from his father. His brigade of Maine
      and New York troops served in Brigadier General Philip Kearny's
      division of the Third Corps. Birney led his brigade during the
      Peninsula campaign, the Seven Days' battles, and the Second Manassas
      campaign. His corps commander, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman,
      placed Birney under arrest following the battle of Fair Oaks
      for "halting his command a mile from the enemy." A court-martial
      exonerated Birney of this unfounded charge.

      Following Kearny's death at the battle of Chantilly on 1 September
      1862, Birney assumed command of the division. The Third Corps
      did not see action at Antietam, but Birney's division played
      a controversial role at the battle of Fredericksburg on 13 December
      1862. Assigned to support an attack by Major General George G.
      Meade on the south end of the field, Birney's troops did not
      arrive in time to exploit the only Union success at that otherwise
      disastrous engagement. Meade complained bitterly of Birney's
      refusal to move forward (he was waiting for orders from his superiors),
      but other Union commanders did not endorse Meade's harsh judgment.

      Birney performed well at the battle of Chancellorsville, cementing
      a close relationship with his immediate superior, Major General
      Daniel E. Sickles. The War Department rewarded Birney for his
      Chancellorsville generalship with promotion to major general
      to date from 20 May 1863. When Sickles fell seriously wounded
      on 2 July 1863 at the battle of Gettysburg, Birney temporarily
      assumed command of the Third Corps, despite suffering two slight
      wounds himself.

      When the Army of the Potomac was consolidated in the spring
      of 1864, the Third Corps dissolved, and Birney's division transferred
      to the Second Corps. Birney led his men during the bloody Overland
      campaign of May and June 1864, particularly distinguishing himself
      during the famous fighting at the Spotsylvania "Mule Shoe" on
      12 May. He led the Second Corps between 18 and 27 June at Petersburg,
      while the permanent corps commander, Major General Winfield S.
      Hancock, recuperated from wounds.

      On 23 July 1864 Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant named Birney
      commander of the Tenth Corps in the Army of the James, then maneuvering
      against Richmond from the south and east. Birney led the corps
      during the operations at Deep Bottom in August and against Fort
      Harrison in September.

      General Birney fell ill with malaria in the autumn and returned
      to Philadelphia on 11 October. He died in his home a week later.
      He had married Marie Antoinette Jennison; they had six children.

      Birney's substantial political influence, cold, covert personality,
      and occasionally controversial relationship with fellow officers
      rendered him less than universally popular. He sided with his
      friend Sickles in the latter's bitter denunciation of Meade after
      Gettysburg, a stance that may have cost him command of the Third
      Corps. His ambition for advancement sometimes appalled his troops,
      who saw themselves disproportionately volunteered for dangerous
      missions. On balance, Birney proved to be a competent, brave,
      and energetic military leader, one of a minority of high-level
      Union officers whose prime motivation for fighting was emancipation
      of the slaves.


      A number of Birney's papers are in the James G. Birney Manuscripts
      at the University of Michigan Library. For information on Birney's
      Civil War career, including his military correspondence and battle
      reports, consult the index to The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation
      of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128
      vols., 1880-1901). The only biography is by Birney's law partner
      and close friend, Oliver Wilson Davis, Life of David Bell Birney,
      Major-General United States Volunteers (1867; repr. 1987). Obituaries
      are in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, 19 Oct. 1864, and
      the New York Herald, 20 Oct. 1864.

      A. Wilson Greene

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      A. Wilson Greene. "Birney, David Bell";
      American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
      Access Date:
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