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General William McDowell Birney (1819-1907)
Civil War soldier, 2nd child of James G. and Agatha (McDowell) Birney.
  • by Marvin Kusmierz (March 2003 - Last Update Feb. 2008)
  • Gen. William Birney Cival War

  • Birth: 28 May 1819, Madison City, Madison Co., AL.
  • Death: 14 Aug 1907, Forest Glen, MD.
  • Burial: Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, DC.
  • 1st marriage: Catherine Hoffman, married 12 Nov 1846.
  • 2nd marriage: Mattie C. Ashby, of VA.
    --- See Birney Family Genealogy for descendants.

    William was born on a plantation near Madison City one year after his parents moved there from Danville, Kentucky. His brother, James, and two years his senior was born in Kentucky. William lived on the plantation until he was four -- his father sold it after determining it wasn't profitable enough. The family moved to Huntsville where his father established a law practice.

    He spent fourteen years in Alabama. In 1833, the family up rooted and headed for Kentucky. His father, a devout and active abolitionist, wanted to return to Kentucky politics where he believed he had a better chance of advancing this cause. During the years spent in Alabama, William's brother Dion was born (1823), and he also experienced the loss of his sister, Margaret (1821) who died a year after birth -- and, a brother, Arther born in 1827 and passed on in 1833.

    The stay in Kentucky was short as his father encountered strong resistance there to the newpaper he was trying to get started. The paper was called the, "Philanthropist" and was to take a strong anti-slavery position. He was forced to move north to Cincinnati, Ohio, where in 1834 he found someone willing to print the paper for him. It was in Cincinnati that William finished his education, and became a lawyer. In 1846, he married Catherine Hoffman. A year later, in 1847, they had their first child, Richard, and two years later, their first daughter, Margaret was born.

    About 1950, William accepted professorship at the University of Paris. In 1852, Catherine gave birth to their second son, Arthur in Paris, France. Other births that may have taken place in France based on dates of birth were Albert (1853), Florence (1854) and Theodore (1854). According to historical accounts William and Catherine lived in Europe for five years. The same reference states that when they returned to the U.S., William started his own newspaper in Philadelphia.

    The stay in Philadelphia wasn't very long, as the birth of their daughter, Katherine, took place in Cincinnati, OH in 1856. Then in 1858 a son, William, was born. Their son, Ulric was born in France in 1859, no understanding could be found explaining this.

    When the Civil War broke out, William and his brother, David, joined the Union army. William's first assignment was as a captain with the 1st New Jersey Infantry, and with whom he fought in the First Battle of Bull Run. Subsequently, he was promoted to major accompanied and was assigned to the 4th New Jersey Infantry, and with them he participated in the Chancellorsville Campaign. Later, he become active in the recruitment of black slaves for the army. This consisted of seven black regiments. On May 22, 1863, William was commission a brigadier general, at this time he was still with thef black regiments stationed in Maryland. The following year, William and the black regiments were sent into battle in the states of South Carolina and Florida. After Gen. Birney and his troops joined up with the other black regiments under Major General Benjamin F. Butler in Virginia, which formed the 3rd Division of the X Corps.

    In 1864 Catherine gave birth to their son, Theodore in Illinois. William's regiments during this time joined up with Major General Godfrey Weitzel, becoming a part of the 2nd Division of the XXV Corps and participated in the last assaults on the Petersburg line.

    On March 13, 1865, he was brevetted a major general, and on August 24th, he was mustered out of military service.

    William became the US attorney for the District of Columbia. William and Catherines' last son, Herman, was born in Illinois in 1866 (no explanation was found for this). Their last daughter, Elizabeth was born in 1868.

    According to the U.S. Census of 1880, William and Catherine are living in Washington, D.C.:

    • Name, Relationship, Marital Status, Gender, Race, Age, Birthplace, Occupation
    • William BIRNEY, Self, Married, Male, White, 61, AL, Lawyer
    • Catherine H BIRNEY, Wife, Married, Female, White, 55, MO, Keeping house
    • Katherine BIRNEY, Daughter, Single, Female, White, 23, OH, Musician
    • William V. BIRNEY, Son, Single, Male, White, 21, OH, Artist
    • Theodore W. BIRNEY, Son, Single, Male, White, 16, IL, At home
    • Arthur A. BIRNEY, Son, Married, Male, White, 28, France, Lawyer
    • Helen T. BIRNEY, Wife, Married, Female, White, 23, MD, At home
    • Richard C. BIRNEY, Son, Single, Male, White, 3, DC,
    • Margaret M. BIRNEY, Daughter, Single, Female, White, 2, DC
    • Edith S. BIRNEY, Daughter, Single, Female, White, 11 months, MD
    • Jenine DICKERSON, Other, Single, Female, White, 22, VA, Servant
    • Margaret KERR, Other, Single, Female, White, 18, DC, Servant

    No further history was found on William after this census.

    In 1907, William died at the age of 88. He was living at his home in Forest Glen, Maryland. It is not known when Catherine died.


    Updates to this history:

    Feb 2008 - Information from Semi-centennial Historical and Biographical Record of the Class of 1841, by Yale University (1892).

      This book published by the univerity he attended, provides a rather detailed history of William adding the following data to this historical biography.

    • Middle name of "McDowell," derived from his mother's maiden name.
    • Second marriage to Miss Mattie C. Ashby, of Virginia.
    • Attended Centre College, Danville, KY., where his father was a professor.
    • Admitted to bar in Ohio on April 19, 1842.
    • While in doing studies in Europe (Germany/France), he was a writer for New York and London journals, and for the Frasier's Magazine and the Edinburgh Review.
    • After the Civil War he purchased property in Alachua County, Florida, where he lived for four years.
    • First wife, Catharine Hoffman, authored of biography of "The Sisters Grimke'," published by Lee & Shepard, Boston.
    • Authored book on his father, "James G. Birney and his Times."
    • At the time of this books writing, he was senior partner in the firm of "Birney & Birney," with office at 458 Lousiana ave., N.W., and residence at 1901 Harewood ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.

  • Birney Family Menu
    Family Genealogy
    Family Pictorial
    1893 KY Newspaper Articles
    * {1948 Saginaw News (pdf)}

    First family:
    Agatha (McDowell), spouse
    James Birney, 1st child
    William Birney, 2nd child
    David Bell Birney, 5th child
    James G. Birney IV, grandson
    Second family:
    Elizabeth (Fitzhugh), spouse
    Fitzhugh Birney, 1st child
    William M. Birney

    More on Wm. Birney:
    1904 biography
    - Ref. on colored regiment.
    - Obit. on son Arthur.
    Names Referenced
    Ashby, Mattie C. (2nd wife)
    Birney, Albert (son)
    Birney, Arther (son)
    Birney, Arthur A.(son)
    Birney, David (bro.)
    Birney, Dion (bro.)
    Birney, Edith S. (dau.)
    Birney, Elizabeth (dau.)
    Birney, Florence (dau.)
    Birney, James (bro.)
    Birney, Helen T., Mrs.(Arthur's wife)
    Birney, Herman (son)
    Birney, James G. (father)
    Birney, Katherine (dau.)
    Birney, Margaret M.(sister)
    Birney, Richard C.(son)
    Birney, Theodore W.(son)
    Birney, Ulric (son)
    Birney, William V.(son)
    Butler, Benajamin F.(Gen.)
    Dickerson, Jenine
    Hoffman, Catherine H. (wife)
    Kerr, Margaret
    McDowell, Agatha (mother)
    Weitzel, Godfrey (Gen.)
    Subjects Referenced
    1st New Jersey Inf.
    2nd Div, XXV Corps
    3rd Div., X Corps
    4th New Jersey Inf.
    Alachua Co., FL
    Battle of Bull Run
    Danville, KY
    Centre Col., Danville
    Chancellorsville Campaign
    Cincinnati, OH
    Civil War
    Edinburgh Review
    Forest Glen, MD
    Frasier's Magazine
    Huntsville, AL
    Madison City, AL
    Madison Co., AL
    Oak Hill Cemetery
    Paris, France
    Philanthropist newspaper
    Union Army
    Univ. of Paris
    US Attorney, DC
    Washington, DC
    Additional References
    US Congressional Record:
  • Jan. 7, 1864 Sen. Exec. Journal: To be brigadier-generals. Colonel William Birney, of the Second Regiment of United States Colored Troops, May 22, 1863, to command colored troops.
  • Jul. 23, 1866 Sen. Exec. Journal: To be major-generals by brevet. Brigadier-General William Birney, of the United States Volunteers, for gallant and meritorious services during the war, to date from March 13, 1865.
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