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