The highest ranking Civil War officer from York, Pa. — Maj. Gen. Wm. B. Franklin
William Buel Franklin, shown above in this photo from the archives of the U.S. Military Academy, was the highest ranking soldier in the entire Civil War from York County, Pa. Franklin reached the rank of major general and commanded two corps during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.
According to his Wikipedia biography, Franking was born in York on February 27, 1823. His father Walter S. Franklin was a noted local politician who served on the national stage from 1833 until his death in 1838 as the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of Franklin’s great-grandfathers, Samuel Rhoads, served in the First Continental Congress during the American Revolution.
Future President James Buchanan, then a U.S. senator, appointed young Franklin to West Point in June 1839. Four years later Franklin graduated first in his class, earning a coveted appointment to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He went west to the Rocky Mountains to survey the region as part of the Stephen W. Kearny Expedition before being assigned to administrative duty in Washington, D.C. Franklin then served under Philip Kearny in the Mexican War and received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant at the Battle of Buena Vista.
Upon his return from Mexico, Franklin served as a professor at West Point for three years before supervising the construction of several lighthouses along the Atlantic Coast in New Hampshire and Maine. In 1852, he married Anna L. Clarke, a daughter of Matthew St. Clair Clarke who had preceded his father as Clerk of the House of Representatives. The couple had no children. In March 1857, he was named the supervisor of the Light House Board and oversaw the construction program across the nation.
In November 1859, he replaced Montgomery C. Meigs as the engineer supervising construction of the United States Capitol Dome. In March 1861, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, he was appointed as the supervising architect for the new Treasury Building in Washington.
Soon after the beginning of the Civil War, Franklin was appointed colonel of the 12th U.S. Infantry, but three days later, on May 17, 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. He led a brigade at First Bull Run, and afterwards became a division commander in the newly-created Army of the Potomac. In March 1862, the army was formed into corps, and Franklin appointed to head of the VI Corps, which he then led in the Peninsula Campaign. He was promoted to major general on July 4, 1862. During the Northern Virginia Campaign, Franklin stayed with the main army and did not participate in it. At Antietam, his VI Corps was in reserve and he tried in vain to convince Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner to allow his corps to exploit a weakened position in the Confederate center. Franklin was a staunch ally of Army of the Potomac commander George McClellan, part of the reason he was not considered for command of the army following the latter’s dismissal in November 1862. At Fredericksburg, he commanded the “Left Grand Division” (two corps, under Maj. Gens. John F. Reynolds and William F. Smith), which failed in its assaults against the Confederate right, commanded by Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside blamed Franklin personally for this failure, although he appears to have executed his orders exactly.
As political intrigue swept the Union Army after Fredericksburg and the infamous Mud March, Franklin was alleged to be a principal instigator of the “cabal” against Burnside’s leadership. Burnside caused considerable political difficulty for Franklin in return, offering damaging testimony before the powerful U.S. Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and keeping him from field duty for months. When Joseph Hooker took command of the army that February, Franklin resigned his command, refusing to serve under him. During the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, Franklin was home in York, Pennsylvania, and assisted Maj. Granville Haller in developing plans for the defense of the region versus an expected enemy attack.
Franklin was reassigned to corps command in the Department of the Gulf and participated in the ill-fated 1864 Red River Campaign. He was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Mansfield in Louisiana. Returning from the field with his injury, he was captured by Maj. Harry Gilmor‘s Confederate partisans in a train near Washington, D.C., in July 1864, but escaped the following day. The remainder of his army career was limited by disability from his wound and marred by his series of political and command misfortunes. He was unable serve in any more senior commands, even with the assistance of his West Point classmate, friend, and future president, Ulysses S. Grant.
Following the Civil War, General Franklin relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, and became the Vice-president of the Colt Firearms Manufacturing Company until 1888, as well as a director on the boards of several manufacturing concerns. He supervised the construction of the Connecticut State Capitol Building, and served on various boards and commissions, where his engineering experience proved helpful in expanding Hartford’s public water service.
After the Civil War, General Franklin became a member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. In 1887 he joined the Aztec Club of 1847.
In 1872, Franklin was approached by a Pennsylvania and New Jersey faction of the Democratic Party to run against Horace Greeley for the party’s nomination as President of the United States, a task he declined, citing a need for party unity. He was vice president of a Hartford area insurance company, and a delegate to the 1876 Democratic National Convention. In June 1888, after his retirement from Colt Firearms, he was named as the U.S. Commissioner-General for the Paris Exposition of 1889.
William Franklin died in Hartford, Connecticut in 1903 (one of relatively few general officers from the Civil War who lived to see the 20th century) and is buried near his birthplace in York, Pennsylvania, in Prospect Hill Cemetery. The York Country Heritage Trust preserves many of his papers and personal effects from the Civil War.
Franklin is buried in Section H of the Prospect Hill Cemetery. Color photos by Scott Mingus; taken in April 2013.
Dr. Mark A. Snell of the George Tyler Moore Civil War Institute of Civil War Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia is the acknowledged expert on the life and times of William B. Franklin. He wrote an excellent biography of the general a few years ago, one that nicely balances Franklin’s military career with his antebellum and postbellum activities.