Samuel Gibbs French: a Northern-Born Confederate General
In a recent post, we talked about Parmenas T. Turnley, a Southerner who served the Union in the Civil War and a graduate of West Point’s famous class of 1846. He wrote a memoir for his family that spoke candidly about many Civil War figures.
Now we bring to your attention Samuel Gibbs French, a Northerner who became a Confederate General in the Civil War. French was a graduate of West Point, Class of 1843, which included future Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Other Northerners in the class that fought for the Confederacy were Ohio-born Roswell Sabine Ripley and New York-born Franklin Gardner.
Like Turnley, French kept a diary that he published in book form late in life. “Two Wars: An Autobiography of Gen. Samuel G. French.” He dedicated it to his wife and children, and to the Confederate soldiers “who battled with the invading foe to protect our homes and maintain the cause for which Oliver Cromwell and George Washington fought.” French was married twice: to Eliza Matilda Roberts of Mississippi. They had two children, Matilda French, and a boy who died in childbirth with his mother. in January 1865 he married Mary F. Abercrombie of Alabama. They had 3 children: Samuel Gibbs French, Jr., Ada Mary French and Robert Abercrombie French.
Samuel G. French was born on November 22, 1818 in Mullica Hills, New Jersey, in the County of Gloucester. He talks about his childhood glowingly, learning about the American Revolution from its veterans, as well as tales of Napoleon Bonaparte from a French immigrant, the local shoemaker. “New Jersey was a slave State when I was born,” he says, “In 1820 slavery was abolished; but there were two hundred and thirty-six slaves for life in 1850 in the State, because it did not emancipate a slave then in being. It only set free the unborn babes. You see the difference between abolition and emancipation?” After switching his sympathies to the South, the General recalls that he was hung “in effigy” in Woodbury, NJ “by its fanatical people” at the beginning of the Civil War, but that they later repented the action.
“The class of 1843 is remarkable in one respect,” French writes, “So far as my investigations have extended every one of the class living in 1861 entered the military service except Father Deshon; all obtained the rank of general save one. In no class did all the graduates enter the service, nor did those in the armies obtain uniformly such high rank as the Class of 1843.” French recalls that everyone knew Ulysses S. Grant’s “real name was U.H. Grant but “the appointment called for U.S. Grant, and he entered the Academy as U.S. Grant, and was usually called ‘Uncle Sam’ Grant.” The “Two Wars” French writes about are, of course, the Mexican War and The Civil War.
French writes of these events that occurred in 1859: “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publication of an imaginative work ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ Hinton Helper’s pamphlet called a manifesto, and John Brown’s raid in Virginia to raise an insurrection among the slaves and to kill the whites like distant thunder, presaged the coming storm.”
Stowe’s brother is also mentioned in this section: “After the war began, many unusual expedients were resorted to designed to increase the wild frenzy of the people North. Among them was the spectacle of Henry Ward Beecher selling slaves from the pulpit stage of his Plymouth Church, Brooklyn. So noted was this exhibition that it is related as one of the eight notable events of the nineteenth century.* I attribute this act of his to heredity.”
Beecher’s auctions, held as early as 1848, purchased a slave’s freedom. A 2009 book, “Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City” notes that “Beecher was such an object of respect that Southern slave owners and brokers were willing to send their slaves to Brooklyn, trusting Beecher to return them if they did not fetch the agreed-upon price.” After embracing the abolitionist movement the preacher was widely disliked in the South.
Like his classmates, Ripley and Gardner, French married a Southerner. However, French does not cite his marriage as his motivation for taking up his sword for the South. French gives the names of 26 Northerners** who held high rank in the Confederacy (including himself), twelve of them having been educated at West Point, and writes: “They believed in the right of States to secede, and, owing allegiance to the States where they lived or wished to reside. they cast their lot with the South.” Thus, French was a citizen of Mississippi when it seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861. The following month, Governor John Jones Pettus appointed him chief of ordnance and a lieutenant colonel in the army of Mississippi. In October of the same year, Jefferson Davis asked him if he would accept an appointment as brigadier general. He did, noting that he had been already appointed a major of artillery in the regular Confederate army on April 2, 1861. In August of the following year, he became a major general.
Among his war stories, one sneak attack on the Union Army that gave him “real amusement” occurred at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia in late July 1862. General French’s men sneaked up on McClellan’s camp by hiding in the fields and it gave French great pleasure to know that this contributed to General George McClellan being relieved of his command. Throughout his life, he remained close friends with West Point classmate and Union General Rufus Ingalls, who later wrote “You don’t know, dear Sam, how near you came killing me that night, which, had it happened, would have been a great sorrow to you.”
Abraham Lincoln, French says, “was not an abolitionist from principle and there is very much evidence that he was not in favor of emancipation; his proclamation set free (on paper) only the slaves in a part of the Confederate States, leaving slavery untouched in the United States. That is, the Yankees retained slavery in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri and part of Louisiana and tried to abolish it where they could not, and maintained it where they could have abolished it….”
After President Lincoln was “foully murdered,” French relates that Andrew Johnson, the new President, “would have arrested Gen. R.E. Lee and other Confederate army officers and punished them if possible, had not Gen. Grant declared that they could not be molested without violating the paroles he had given them and so prosecution was abandoned and persecution substituted…”
General French squarely places the blame for the Civil War on Northern greed. He believed it could have been prevented by compensating the Southern slave owners, which he says the government had an obligation to do. “England compelled the abolition of slavery in her colonies and she paid in compensation for services to the slave owners the sum of one hundred million dollars. Out of this for instance, Cape Colony obtained fifteen million dollars which was about four hundred dollars per slave. If slavery was believed to be fatal to the permanence of the Union it could have been removed by compensation as in the case of England and not by hatred and fanaticism.”
Many Southern slaves, he charges, were purchased from Northerners: “The fanatical crowd came down South, and took the slaves that they once owned and sold from the purchasers, and forced the States to set them free without compensation,” calling it “the greatest robbery ever committed on earth.” Additionally, French deplores the Union Army’s looting of everything they could get their hands on. During the war with Mexico, he says, “I was with Gen. (Zachary) Taylor from Corpus Christi to Buena Vista, and during that period heard of but one case of robbery… a soldier stole a chicken.” The offender was reprimanded and placed under guard and Gen. Taylor personally paid the old Mexican woman who owned the chicken. Gen. French believed that in time, after passions had cooled down, impartial historians would one day vindicate the South.
However, David J. Eicher, author of The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography (1997), says French’s indictment of the North is more than a little over the top: “French blasts the Yankees for nearly everything wrong in civilization, and the bitter partisanship of many passages mars the work’s credibility…. the casualty figures he quotes in many instances are wildly inaccurate. The lengthy appendix, relating French’s ideas on numbers and statistics is worthless. What does remain useful in this work are the author’s diary accounts and recollections of the military campaigns and battles he witnessed.”
Whatever opinion one might have of such a man as Gen. Samuel Gibbs French, his memoirs contain much information about the 19th century that is not taught in schools.
*The 8 great events of the 19th century:
- When Jenny Lind sung in Castle Garden.
- When Henry Ward Beecher sold slaves in Plymouth pulpit.
- When the Prince of Wales was in America.
- When Henry Clay bade farewell to the Senate.
- When Grant went around the world.
- When Lincoln was inaugurated.
- When Kossuth rode up Broadway.
- When Mackay struck the great bonanza.
**Men of Northern birth who held high rank in the Confederacy:
- James L. Alcorn, general, Governor of Mississippi, U.S. Senator), Illinois;
- Albert G. Blanchard, general, Massachusetts:
- Charles Clark, general and Governor of Mississippi, Ohio;
- John R. Cooke, general, Missouri;
- Samuel Cooper, general, New Jersey;
- Julius A. DeLagnel, New Jersey;
- Johnson K. Duncan, general, Pennsylvania;
- Samuel G. French, general, New Jersey;
- Daniel M. Frost, general, New York;
- Franklin Gardner, general, New York.
- Josiah Gorgas, chief of ordnance, Pennsylvania;
- Archibald Gracie IV, general, New York;
- Bushrod R. Johnson, general, Ohio;
- Danville Leadbetter, general, Maine;
- William McComb, general, Pennsylvania;
- John C. Pemberton, general, Pennsylvania;
- Edward Aylesworth Perry, general, Massachusetts;
- Albert Pike, general, Massachusetts;
- Daniel H. Reynolds, general, Ohio;
- Roswell S. Ripley, general, Ohio;
- Daniel Ruggles, general, Massachusetts;
- Francis A. Shoup, general, Indiana;
- Martin L. Smith, general, New York;
- Hoffman Stevens, general, Connecticut;
- Walter H. Stevens, general, New York; and
- Otho French Strahl, general, Ohio;