William Henry Bisbee – Brigadier General, United States Army

William Henry Bisbee (January 28, 1840-June 11, 1942)

William Henry Bisbee of Brookline, Massachusetts, for his last 35 years, had always been a New Englander. Born at Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and was the son of William Orson and Harriet Miriam Ballou Bisbee.

At 15, was apprenticed to a company of Woonsocket merchants, learning various trades and retailing skills.  He followed these opportunities to Philadelphia, to Delaware and to Ohio, by which time — that war summer of 1861 — he was already 21. In fact, he'd recently been roughing it in the West, prospecting for gold with but traces of success.

In response to Lincoln's second call, he enlisted on September 2, 1861 by joining the Regular Army –the 18th U.S. Infantry then organizing at Columbus, Ohio. The 18th would be with the Army of the Ohio until November 1862, and then with the Army of the Cumberland. As a common soldier  he saw plenty of sharp action that resulted in 218 killed and 252 lost to disease in his unit. His nearly 4 years of Civil War realities included such indelibles as Siege of Corinth (April 29-May 30, 1862), Pursuit of Bragg (August 21-September 26, 1862), Battle of Perryville, Kentucky (October 8, 1862), Battle of Stones River (December 30, 1862-January 3, 1863), Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-21, 1863), Battle of Chattanooga, Rocky Faced Ridge (1864), Atlanta Campaign, Battle of Jonesboro (July 1864), and duty at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, until July 1865.

For bravery at Murfreesboro (Stone's River) he won several citations and a promotion – a commission as a Second Lieutenant from President Lincoln. He did acquire three wounds for his daring before peace returned. Having this lieutenancy, he chose an Army career. Accordingly he was sent to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, from which point he fulfilled several tours of frontier service during the Indian Wars. As a Captain and as a Major during the 1890's, he led numerous details in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

When War with Spain came along early in 1898, he led a regiment in Cuba at the Siege of Santiago, at El Caney, and then at San Juan, Puerto Rico. In recognition of these frontline efforts he was rewarded with a Colonelcy. Within few months was in a transport to the Philippines with General Arthur MacArthur, a fellow ex-Union Army officer. There, as a military governor, he ruled over sub-districts in Pangasinan and Nueva Ecija Provinces during and just after the Insurrection.

On completion of this unchoice overseas tour of duty, as a Brigadier General in 1902, retired on some 41 active duty years, making him one of longest such career officers of Civil War vintage. Only a few of his generation retired later than he, chief among whom were Major General John L. Clem (August 13, 1851-May 13, 1937), who retired on his birthday in 1914, reputedly the last Civil War veteran on Active List of Commissioned Officers, being, at that juncture, senior in longevity of service, at least in the Army. However, if we notice the career of Admiral of the Navy George Dewey (December 26, 1837-January 16, 1917), “the Hero of Manila Bay,” who was made exempt from compulsory retirement by Congress and never did actually retire, then we notice Dewey was second only to Rear Admiral Reginald F. Nicholson (December 15, 1851-December 19, 1937), who first served as orderly-messenger-waiter under his father, Somerville Nicholson, aboard USS State of Georgia in early 1864, who was Chief Navigation Officer on the USS Oregon during her historic end-run around Cape Horn, March 19-May 24, 1898, and who retired twice, the last time in 1918 after being recalled to head up Navy Missions to Chile, Peru and Ecuador in World War I.

During 1903-07, he traveled widely with his family. He established his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he enjoyed a long victorious retirement, reading extensively and writing articles for The Army and Navy Journal. His retentive memory served him well in studies and frequent discussions. Having quite enough of the military atmosphere, he remained outside the ample ranks of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), though he did have an honorary membership in and contact with the Order of the Loyal Legion (a Union Army officers' brotherhood) who, by 1930, were becoming what you might call “rather quiet.” For the luminary he was among late Bay State Civil War survivors, he preferred to relegate his own visibility to that of the aging Grand Army.

Publicity came to him in retreat anyway. In 1940 “surrounded” by three later Bisbee generations at his 100th birthday, he was decorated with the Order of the Purple Heart by Major General James A. Woodruff of the First Corps Area. Bisbee's  “repeated acts of bravery 80 years ago” were commended in letters from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of War Harry Woodring. By his 102nd milestone, he was being hailed as “eldest retired officer” and again withstood a heavy barrage of congratulatory messages, including President Roosevelt's. Major General Thomas A. Terry of First Corps Area, “brought up for support” in person the Army's felicitations.

He left a son, Raymond B. Bisbee, of Albany, New York, and a daughter, Mrs. Thomas Fefel, of Baltimore, and their progeny. A funeral was held in Brookline. His burial, with full military honors, took place at Arlington National Cemetery.

During the “Big One,” WWII, perhaps wisely, though an avid student, whenever invited to assess the situation, the old general, whose name appeared on various Army rolls for nearly 81 years, would usually quip, “I leave it to those better qualified.”

The General was buried with full military honors in Section 3, Grave 1872, of Arlington National Cemetery.  His wife Lucy Katherine Bisbee (1842-1917) is buried with him.

Our story begins with Organization Day at Fort Devens on 3 May 1941. Organization Day is the day when the Regiment remembers it's beginnings and celebrates the long and proud history of the 18th Infantry Regiment, a practice that is still followed by units of the Regiment to this day. The guest of honor on that Organization Day was retired Brigadier General William H. Bisbee. At that time, he was 101 years old. Bisbee had enlisted in the 18th Infantry during the Summer of 1861, just a few months after President Lincoln called for the organization of the Eighteenth Regiment of United States Infantry. The Regiment's Civil War history began, and Bisbee was a part of it. Bisbee rose through the ranks to Sergeant and Sergeant Major, then receiving a commission. After the war, he continued in his military career until he was promoted Brigadier General during the Philippine Insurrection and retired with more than 40 years active service. Still alive in 1941, Bisbee provided the Organization Day ceremonies with a special flavor of the honor and pride engendered by the Eighteenth's 80 years of service.

Through Four American Wars: The Impressions of Brigadier General… as Told to his Grandson….. William H. Bisbee. 281 pgs. Meador. Boston. 1931.

The oldest Compatriot and also the oldest retired officer of the U.S. Army died at the age of 103. Compatriot General William H. Bisbee of the Rhode island Society passed away on June 11, 1942 (National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution)


Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment