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General William Birney (1819-1907)
Son of James G. and Agatha (McDowell) Birney. Includes some family histories.

1904 biography. - Added Jan., 2010.

The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Vol 1, 1904


Abolitionist, was born near Huntsville, Ala., May 28, 1819, the second son of James G. Birney.

He was educated at Centre and Yale colleges and was admitted to the Ohio bar, practicing law at Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York city, and in Florida. At the age of eighteen he was an antislavery lecturer. He passed five years in Europe, beginning with 1847, in the prosecution of advanced studies in law, languages and history, supporting himself meanwhile by writing for the New York and London journals, and for the English magazines. In 1848 he was a successful candidate at a government competitive examination, for one of the new professorships of English literature in the University of France and performed its duties for one year in the Lyce'e at Bourges. He then resigned and went to Berlin to pursue his studies. In the French revolution of February, 1848, being in Paris and a member of a student's political society there, formed to promote Republican ideas, he commanded at a barricade in the Rue St. Jacques, and was one of the first to enter the Tuilleries after the flight of Louis Philippe.

Having returned to this country he raised, at the outbreak of the civil war, a volunteer company in New Jersey, was elected captain and rose through all the grades to the rank of brevet major-general. For the last two years of the war he commanded a division which was gradually increased to sixteen regiments. In 1863, having been detailed by the war department to organize colored troops, he enlisted, equipped, drilled and sent to the field seven regiments, in doing which he opened three slave prisons in Baltimore and freed a large number of slaves belonging to Confederate officers. His numerous enlistments left few able-bodied slaves in Maryland, and hastened the abolition of slavery in that state. After the defeat of the Union troops at Olustee, Fla., being placed in command of that district, he made a secret and rapid movement by Black Creek to the rear of the Confederate stronghold at the Baldwin railroad crossing, forced the troops holding it to retire by night into Georgia, and took the works with military stores and arms. He took part in numerous skirmishes and in the principle battles in Virginia, including the first and second Bull Run, Petersburg, Fredericksburg, Chantilly and Chancellorsville. In the army he was known as a skilful tactician, a vigilant and trustworthy officer, and a disciplinarian, effecting the best results by strictness without severity.

In 1853 he founded and for two years edited the Register, a daily paper at Philadelphia, and led the successful movement for the consolidation of the numerous separate “liberties” of that city in one municipal government. He appeared about that time on the lecture platform in the best courses in several of the large cities. He was for about four years attorney for the District of Columbia, Washington, D. C. His numerous anonymous contributions to the press include the fortnightly letters from Washington, signed “Escott Holt,” published for several years in the New York Examiner. He was a collaborator in “Waite's History of the Church, for the First Two Centuries of the Christian Era.” In January, 1890, he published “James G. Birney's Life and Times, the Genesis of the Republican Party,” a politico-biographical work.

Reference to Gen. Birney and colored regiment. - Added Jan., 2010.

Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Times,
by Allen Thorndike Rice, 1909

Page 361.

Not long after this talk with Mr. Stanton, the gallant General William Birney, came into Maryland to recruit for a negro brigade, the first authorized. I directed Birney to recruit slaves only. He said he would be glad to do so, but wanted authority in writing from General Schenck. I tried my general, and he refused, saying that such authority could come only from the War Department, as Birney was acting directly under its instructions. I could not move him, and know that he had a leave of absence for a few days, to transact some business in Boston, I waited patiently until he was fairly off, and then issued the order to General Birney. The General took an idle government steamer, and left for the part of Maryland where slaves were most abundant. Birney was scarcely out of sight before I awakened to the opposition I had excited. The Hon. Reverdy Johnson appeared at head-quarters, heading a delegation of solid citizens who wanted the Union and slavery saved, one and separable. I gave them scant comfort, and they left for Washington. That afternoon came a telegram from the War Department, asking who was in command at Baltimore. I responded that General Schenck, being absent for a few days only, had left affairs in control of his chief of staff. Then came a curt summons, ordering me to appear at the War Department. I obeyed, arriving in the evening at the old, somber building. Being informed that the Secretary was at the Executive Mansion, I repaired there, sent in my card, and was at once shown into the presence, not of Mr. Stanton, but the President. I do not care to recall the words of Mr. Lincoln. I wrote them out that night, for I was threatened a shameful dismissal from the service, and I intended appealing to the public. They were exceeding severe, for the President was in a rage. I was not allowed a word in my own defense, and was only permitted to say that I would countermand my order as well as I could. I was saved cashiering through the interference of Stanton and Chase, and the further fact that a row over such a transaction at that time would have been extremely awkward.

My one act made Maryland a free State. Word went out, and spread like wildfire, that “Mr. Lincoln was a callin' on de slaves to fight foh freedum,” and the hoe-handle was dropped, never again to be taken up by unrequited toil. The poor creatures poured into Baltimore with their families, on foot, on horseback, in old wagons, and even on sleds stolen from their masters. The late masters became clamorous for compensation, and Mr. Lincoln ordered a commission to assess damages, Secretary Stanton put in a proviso that those cases only should be considered where the claimant could take the iron-bound oath of allegiance. Of course no slaves were paid for.

  • Full document available at [Google Books]
  • Note: From book "Letters from Port Royal written at the time of the Civil War (1908)" - William Birney, Brigadier-General and Commander of the Post at Beaufort during one of Saxton's absences, had, on March 30, issued an order to the effect that in all cases the negroes were to be left in possession of the land they claimed as theirs. (1864)

    1864 correspondence with Gen. Butler. - Added Jan., 2010.

    Private and Offical Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. 5, 1917


    Page 597.

    From General Birney to General Butler.

    Head Quarters, Separate Division, Wilson's Landing,
    James River, April 19th, 1865

    GENERAL: I have sent up informally an application to be relieved from duty in the Department of Virginia, and to be ordered to report to Washington for a new assignment. Any aid that you may be able to give me in this will be appreciated as a great favor.

    My reasons I will give in full when I have the pleasure of meeting you. I cannot believe that the War Department is aware of what has been going on in this Department since you left it.

    Very truly, Wm. Birney


    Page 600.

    From General Birney to General Butler.

    Private. Pittsburg, Pa., Aril 23, 1865

    GENERAL: A few days since, I forwarded you a request to aid in getting me relieved from duty with Gen. Ord. As the General has been relieved, the reason for my request fails, and I wish to withdraw it. My earnest desire is to resume command of the 2nd Division, 25th Corps, a command for which I was selected by you and which I have not failed to deserve. In the hurry of the campaign, and just after negotiations with Lee had begun, I was assigned to the command of a “separate division,” which consisted of the ports of City Point, and the force at the two other points named were under command of Gen. Carr, who was not relieved, and who is my senior in rank. Of course, I had no command at all!! My division had been intended for Theodore Read, a Lt. Col. lately brevetted Brigadier, but not assigned to duty as of his brevet rank. Read had had no experience except in the Adj.'s department and as staff officer. But Read was killed, and my division was turned over to Lt. Col. Jackson, the Inspector lated brevetted Brigadier, but also not assigned. Jackson has never had command of infantry to my knowledge, but stood well as Inspector, his only fault being getting very drunk at frequent intervals.

    My removal was due to the same cause that had led to the removal of Foster, Heckman, Shepley, Harris, and Wild, to the sequestration of Ludlow, to the innumerable changes in Provost Marshal staff officers of every grade and department, and the attempts to displace Maj. Gen. Weitzel. After you left, it was understood that to be a “Butler man” was to be doomed, and that term included every man who had too much generosity not to kick a lion supposed to be dead. Gen. Weitzel's chief Quartermaster and Chief Commissary, both excellent officers, were summarily removed, without notice to the General or consultation with him. My removal was deferred, as it was understood that my hold on officers and men was a good one, and pains were taken to lull my suspicions by complimentary speeches, praises of my division, etc. A few days before the 27th ult., one of Gen. Ord's staff officers took occasion to repeat what General Ord has said, that “whoever else might be removed, General Birney would not be touched.” At that very time, my division had been promised to Read! Such duplicity in the service deserves exposure, and I am gathering the evidence in order to prefer charges of unofficerlike conduct.

    It is strange that a man so flighty and eccentric as Gen. Ord should have been permitted to hod a position of so much influence. His life in barracks may have fitted him for small intrigue, but certainly not for the command of an army.

    His discrimination against the colored troops has been so marked as to attract general attention. In the recent campaign, he threw them behind hand, threw them out on the flank, gave them the hard work to do, encamped them where there was no water, separated them unnecessarily from their supply train, and kept them back upon the front whenever he could. He was much chagrined at my getting into Petersburg first and censured me for it – although I should have been severely censure if I had permitted the town to fall into the hands of pillagers.

    The only military exploit undertaken by Gen. Ord on his own responsibility was the sending out the 123rd Ohio, 54th Pa., and 4th Mass. Cavalry to detroy High Bridge, just in front of Lee's army. They were all killed or captured, except a few who swam the river and escaped.

    I write you freely but hurriedly, as I am on my way west. Please write me at Morris, Illinois, where I expect to be until the 28th prox., and where I expect to live after the war. I wish to get back my old division, but if I can be of service to the Government in any capacity, I am ready. I need not assure that I am radical and no sentimentalist.

    Very truly yours, Wm. Birney.


    From General Butler.

    May 3/65
    Brig. Gen. William Birney, Morris, Illinois.

    MY DEAR BIRNEY: I did not get your letter withdrawing your first letter until my return home to-day. I took your letter, went with it to Stanton, stated the fact as I understood them, and recommended you for the position of Military Governor of Florida.

    This seemed to please the Secretary, and he took it into consideration. Whether he intends to do anything about it I do not know. I hope you may be selected for that post; no one within my knowledge is so well qualified for this as yourself.

    Ord has shown that he thought the lion was dead, but will find that he was not even sick. He is a foolish person, and by his shortsightedness for his own interest shows that he ought not to be entrusted with the interest of others.

    He has not been relieved, so that I think you had better press for the place I have named.

    Truly yours, [Benj. F. Buler]

    Family members and later life. Added Feb., 2010.

    Semi-centennial Historical and Biographical Record.
    Yale University, Class of 1844. (1892)

    Willam McDowell Fitzhugh.

    Page. 227.

    At the close of the war, his health being somewhat impaired by the constant strain of large responsibilities, he became a stock farmer in Illinois, but finding winter on the prairies too severe, he purchased a large plantation in Alachua County, Florida, and lived there four years, becoming County Judge. The office of Attorney General for the State was offered to him, but he declined it. Having regained his health, he removed in 1873 to Washinton, D. C., where he has since been practicing lawm with success. For about four years he was Counsel for the District of Columbia. He is in easy circumstances.

    His first wife was Catherine Hoffman, whom he married at Cincinnati, November 13, 1846. She was of a distinquished New York family, a cousin of the poet, Charles Fenno Hoffman, and herself author of the biography of "The Sisters Grimke," published by Lee & Shepard, Boston.

    Of the seven children of this marriage who reached mature ages, six are now living.

    • His eldest son, Ulric H., formerly City Attorney of Cleveland, Ohio, removed to Texas for his health, and died there in 1880.
    • Arthur A., a graduate of the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Law School, is junior partner int he firm of Birney & Birney. He married November 3, 1875, Helen Townsend Conway, of Baltimore, and has nine children.
    • His daughter Florence was married in December 1876, to R. P. Getchell, Edq., and resides in Chattanooga, Tenn.
    • William V. is a genre painter in New York City.
    • Katherine married Albert N. Seip, and lives in Washington, D. C.
    • Theodore W. is a lawyer in Atlanta, Ga.
    • Herman H. is a physician in West Philadelphia, and married.

    His second wife was Miss Mattie C. Ashby, of Virginia, a near relative of the famous Confederate General Turner Ashby, and a member of the numerous connection, highly influential in Virginia and Maryland.

    He is by preference a Unitarian, though he attends the Episcopal Church of his wife.

    He has always been a writer for the press on matters of current interest, using his leisure for that purpose. Very few if any of his articles have been published with his name. He has lectured often in public. His lecture on "Art Education" before the Washington Art Club in 1878, was published by the Club, and won high praise from competent critics.

    In 1890 he published a politico-historical octavo of 440 pages, entitled "James G. Birney and his Times." The book attracted to a remarkable degree the attention of the reviewers, literary critics, historical writers, and statesmen, and is regarded as a valuable contribution to the history of the struggle for and against slavery in this country. It was witten on the principle that the abolition of slavery was neighter an accident nor a miracle, but the result of the evolution of the free principles of our republican institutions.

    In 1891, he presented to John Hopkins University a valuable collection of over one thousand volumes and pamphlets on the history of slavery.

    "General Birney is a hale septuagenarian, with clear eyes and florid complextion, and may be seen any fair afternoon, on the most frequent roads in the District of Columbia, mounted on a noble steed or driving a pair of Kentucky thoroughbreds. His natural force does not appear to be abated. He is at his office desk or in court in business hours, is a frequent attendant on literary and scientific societies or the best lectures and amusements, likes social life with his friends, and is always ready to lend a helping hand to any good cause.

    "He has no plans for what remains of life, except to do what duty may come to him and to cross Black River only when he comes to it."

    He is the senior partner in the firm of Birney & Birney. His office is at 458 Lousiana avenue, N. W., and his residence 1901 Harewood avenue, N. W., Washington, D. C.

    Son, Arthur Alexis (1852-1873). - Added Jan., 2010.


    Source: Michigan Alumnus Vol 23, October, 1916 – August, 1917

    Page 50.

    Arthur Alexis Birney, '73, a lawyer of Washington, D. C., and since 1878 a Professor in the law department of Howard University, died suddenly on Sept. 4, 1916 on the golf links of the Washington Country Club. Mr. Birney was United States Attorney for the District of Columbia from February, 1893, to February, 1897. He was a member of the Phi Delta Phi Law Fraternity, and kept up an active interest in the University and the fraternity during his whole life. He is survived by two sons, Dion S. Birney and William M. Birney.


    Source: Case and Comment, Vol. 23, June 1916 to May 1917

    Death of Former U. S. District Attorney.

    Page 436.

    Arthur A. Birney, one of Washington's most prominent lawyers, died of heart failure while playing golf on the links of the Washington Country Club, Jewell Station, Va., on Sept. 4.

    Mr. Birney was born in Paris, France, of American parents in April, 1852.

    He was the son of Gen. William and Mrs. Catherine Birney, and the grandson of James G. Birney, a prominent abolition agitator at the time of William Lloyd Garrison wrote his articles on slavery in America. James Birney ran for President of the United States on the abolition ticket in 1840 and in 1844. William Birney was a professor of languages in a French university at the time of the birth of Arthur Birney, and also was a veteran of the Civil War.

    Arthur Birney was a graduate of the University of Michigan, and during the administration of President McKinley was United States attorney for the District of Columbia. He was a resident of Washington for about forty years, and was connected with a number of civic and social movements.

    Son, William Verplanck (1858-1908). - Added Feb., 2010.

    Who's Who in America, Vol. 4, 1906

    BIRNEY, William Verplanck, artist genre painter and painter of portraits; b. Cincinnati, 1858; son of Gen. William B., now of Washington; g-son of James G. Birney, the abolistionist (Free-Soil candidate for President of the United States (1840, 1844); studied in Boston under Walter Smith at Mass. Normal Art School; in Phila., under Thomas Eakins, at Pa. Acad., and at Royal Acad., Munich, under Julius Benzur and Wilhelm Lindenschmidt. Estabished in New York, 1884; instr. Cooper Inst. 3yrs; exhibited at Paris Exp'n, 1889, World's Columbian Exp'n, 1901; constant exhibtor at standard exhb'ns throughout U.S.; del to Fine Arts Federation; asso. Nat. Acad.; bronze medal La. Purchase Exp'n St. Louse, 1904; member N.Y. Water Color Club, Salmagundi Club and Artists' Fund; life mem. Lotos Club; ect. Address: 318 Ind. Av., Washington.

    Son Theodore Weld (1864-1897). - Added Feb., 2010.

    Genealogy of the Hoffman Family (1899)


    Seventh child of Kate Hoffman and General William Birney, was born May 8, 1864.

    He graduated from Lehigh University, and from the Georgetown Law School, taking the essay prizes each year of his course at the law school.

    He went to Atlanta, Ga., practicing law there until his brother was in 1893, appointed United States District Attorney for the District of Columbia, when he returned to Washington and associated himself with him in practice of law.

    During a fishing and hunting trip Theodore Birney contracted a severe cold which developed into consumption. In December, 1896, he went to Arizona, and in March, 1897, to California, he returned to Washington, where he died at the residence of his brother, Arthur A. Birney, July 24, 1897. He was a young man of great personal popularity, highly esteemed, and had already attained great prominence in his profession.

    He married, January 1893, in Atlanta, Mrs. Alice M. Wright (nee McLellan) and had two children: Catharine Birney, born October 11, 1893; Lillan Birney, born January, 1895.

    Mrs. Theodore W. Birney is the founder of the Mothers' Congress, which meets annually in different cities for conference on subjects of interest to mothers.

    Additional Notes:

      1870 - Census Alachua, Florida.

    • Birney, William, age 51, planter
    • Kate H., wife, age 43, house keeper
      -- Note: maiden name, Catharine Hoffman.
    • Richard C., age 19, farmer
    • Arthur, son, age 17
    • Florence, daughter, age 15
    • Katherine, daughter, age 13
    • William, son, age 11
    • Theodore, son, age 6
    • Herman, son, age 4
    • Elizabeth, daughter, age 2

      1880 - Census Washington D.C.

    • Birney, William, b. 1819 Ala.
    • Catherine H., wife.
    • Children: Katherine, William V., Theodore W., Herman H., Arthur A., Richard C., Margaret M., Edith S.

      1900 - Census Washington, D.C. (318 Indiana Ave., N.W.)

    • McKenson, Nancie, head,
    • Birney, William, boarder, b. May 1819 Alabama
    • Birney, Mattie, boarder, b. June 1833 Virgina
      -- Note: William's second wife, Mattie C. Ashby.
  • Related Notes & Pages

    Gen. William Birney

    Related Pages:
    Birney, Wm., Bio.
    Birney Family History.
    Other Pages:
    *Bay Co. Civil War History
    People Referenced
    Ashby, Mattie C. (2-wife)
    Ashby, Turner Gen.
    Benzur, Julius
    Birney, Arthur A. (son)
    Birney, Catharine (g-dau)
    Birney, Dion S. (g-son)
    Birney, Elizabeth S. (dua.)
    Birney, Florence (dau.)
    Birney, Herman H. (son)
    Birney, James G. (father)
    Birney, Katharine (dau.)
    Birney, Lillian (g-dau.)
    Birney, Margaret M. (dau.)
    Birney, Theodore W. (son)
    Birney, Wm. (subject)
    Birney, Wm. V., Jr. (son)
    Birney, Wm. M. (g-son)
    Birney, Richard C. (son)
    Birney, Uric (son)
    Butler, Benjamin F.
    Conway, Helen T.
    Eakins, Thomas
    Garrison, Wm. L.
    Getchell, R.P.
    Hoffman, Catherine (1-wife)
    Hoffman, Chalres F.
    Johnson, Reverdy
    Carr, Eugene A.
    Foster, John G.
    Jackson, Lt. Col.
    Harrison, William J.
    Hoffman, Kate
    Lee, Robert E.
    Lindenschmidt, Wilhelm
    Lincoln, Abraham
    Ludlow, Benjamin C.
    Ord, Edward O.C.
    Philippe, Louis
    Read, Theodore
    Seip, Albert N.
    Shepley, George F.
    Stanton, Edwin M.
    Schenck, Robert C.
    Weitzel, Godfrey
    Wild, Edward A.
    Wright (McLellan), Alice M.
    Subjects Referenced
    2nd Div., 25th Crops
    4thy Mass. Cav.
    54th Pa.
    123d Ohio
    Alachua Co. FL
    Atlanta, GE
    Baltimore, MD
    Centre College
    Chattanooga, TN
    Cincinnati, OH
    Baltimore, MD
    Berlin, Germany
    Birney & Birney firm
    Cincinnati, OH
    Civil War
    Huntsville, AL
    Jewell Station, VA
    John Hopkins Univ.
    Lehigh University
    Mother's Congress
    Morris, IL
    New Jersey
    New York, NY
    New York Examiner
    Ohio bar
    Olustee, FL
    Paris, France
    Philadelphia, PA
    Register newspaper
    Univ. of France
    Univ. of Mich.
    War Department
    Washington Art Club
    Washington, DC
    Yale College
    Family Photos

    Gen. William Birney

    Mrs. Theodore Birney
    (Alice J. McLellan)
    Alice was previously married to Alonzo J.White.

    Catherine Weld, daughter of
    Mr. & Mrs.Theordore Birney

    Harriet Lilian, daughter of
    Mr. & Mrs.Theordore Birney
    Internet Resouces
    [Art Education] Google Books: Lecture given by Wm. Birney on Feb. 6, 1878 before Washington Art Club.
    [Gen. Birneys Answers to Libels...] Google Books. Written by James Shaw, Jr.
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.