Background post – Yorktown Square: York has produced its fair share of high-ranking naval officers.
Many leading Civil War generals who were quite famous in the 19th Century have slipped into obscurity, and today are only remembered by hard-core Civil War buffs. Ignored by the popular media, their contributions are largely forgotten. One such man was Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, a York native who rose by the autumn of 1862 to be one of the most powerful men in the Army of the Potomac, and yet, by the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, was an backdrop to the unfolding action.
General Franklin is the subject of an excellent book published in 2002 by another York native, Dr. Mark Snell, the chair of Shepherd University’s Civil War Studies program. This outstanding biography, From First to Last: The Life of William B. Franklin, brings Franklin’s contributions (and failures) back to life for the modern reader.
William B. Franklin was born in York on February 27, 1823. His father Walter S. Franklin was a powerful local politician who served as Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. Through his dad’s influence with Senator James Buchanan, Franklin received an appointment to West Point, beating out several other interested persons including Granville O. Haller.
Franklin graduated first in the Class of 1843, and, as usual for such high-ranking students, was offered a coveted assignment in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Among his assignments was as Chief Engineer of the construction of the U.S. Capitol building’s dome, a task that went unfinished due to the outbreak of war. He fought in many of the early battles in the Eastern Theater, from Bull Run to Fredericksburg, where he commanded half the Army of the Potomac (the Left Grand Division). Franklin was the leading scapegoat for the disastrous attack at Fredericksburg and was reassigned to the backwaters of the war. He was wounded and captured by Rebels during the ill-fated Red River Campaign and never received another assignment after being paroled.
Franklin was in York during the early phases of the Gettysburg Campaign and offered counsel to the borough’s Committee of Safety, a group of ward officials and leading citizens who were charged with developing plans to defend the town should Confederates arrive.
He resigned his commission in 1866 and began a lucrative career as a vice-president in the Colt Firearms Company in Harford, Connecticut. He died in 1903 at the age of eighty and was buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery in York.
Dr. Snell’s fine book is well balanced and unbiased. He presents a view of a general who had many skills, particularly at the brigade and division level, but whose flaws and lack of political savvy essentially cost him his career in the wake of Fredericksburg. It’s well worth a read. Copies can still be ordered on-line from various companies, or the book can be found in some local libraries. Some of Franklin’s personal effects from the Civil War are in the collection of the York County Heritage Trust. The library of YCHT also has files and information on this controversial general.