General was veteran of four U.S. wars

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

August 18, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

A little boy's fascination with his great-grandfather, Gen. William Henry Bisbee, and his military decorations and service to the nation, has not dimmed with the passing of the years.

"I remember going into my grandmother's house at 3216 Elmora Ave., off Belair Road, and there they were, 13 medals -- including two Purple Hearts -- on a velvet background, framed and hanging above a piece of furniture near the front door. This was in the early 1940s," said Cornelius M. Shipley Jr. of Middle River. "My grandmother, Katherine Feffel, was Bisbee's daughter."

Shipley, who was born in Baltimore and raised on West North Avenue and Forest Park, never got to know the man he so revered.

"I was five when he died in 1942. He was 102. My grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles went to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, but none of the children. It was wartime, and getting to Washington wasn't as easy as it is now," Shipley said.

"I do remember looking at and holding the empty shell casings the firing squad had used in the salute, but I have no idea what happened to them," he said.

The decorations that he had spent hours admiring also disappeared.

"An uncle in Boston borrowed them, and they were never returned. I was very sorry and upset when they didn't come back," he said.

Through the years, Shipley, who has visited his great-grandfather's grave many times, has gathered biographical material and pictures of Bisbee, who was born Jan. 28, 1840, in Woonsocket, R.I.

As a youth, Bisbee had been apprenticed to several merchants, and had taken jobs in Philadelphia and Delaware. He was working in Columbus, Ohio, when the Civil War broke out.

On Sept. 2, 1861, he enlisted in the 18th U.S. Infantry. He fought at the siege of Corinth and the battles of Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Rocky Face Ridge, Atlanta, Jonesboro and Lookout Mountain.

It was after the Battle of Stones River in 1863 that he was commissioned as a second lieutenant by Abraham Lincoln.

Wounded three times during the war, Bisbee decided to make the Army his career. At the end of 1865, he was sent to Fort Kearny, Neb., where he fought several engagements during the Indian wars.

Bisbee, who was later promoted to captain and major, served in Oklahoma until the war with Spain broke out in 1898, and he led a regiment in Cuba during the siege of Santiago, and the battles of El Caney and San Juan.

In 1899, Bisbee was sent during the Philippine Insurrection to serve with Gen. Arthur MacArthur Jr., a Civil War Army officer and the father of World War II Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Bisbee, who had been promoted to colonel, served in the Philippines as a military governor for subdistricts in Pangasinan and Nueva Ecija provinces.

"My own personal knowledge of Col. Bisbee is extended over many years, during which time his uniform efficiency has always been a matter of public knowledge," wrote Arthur MacArthur.

"Wherever he has commanded, from a company up, his personal characteristics have manifested themselves through the complete training of his command ... and [he] has a great aptitude for command and administration," he wrote. "His many acts of good soldiership and intrepidity are not only set forth in the accompanying memorandum, but are of record in the archives of the War Department."

Bisbee retired as a brigadier general in 1902, concluding 41 years of active military service.

Bisbee, who traveled and visited Baltimore often, according to Shipley, settled into a quiet life in Brookline, Mass., where he wrote articles for The Army and Navy Journal. In 1931, he wrote Through Four American Wars: The Impressions and Experiences of Brigadier General William Henry Bisbee as Told to His Grandson William H. Bisbee, which was published by Meador Publishing Co. in Boston.

In the early years of World War II, when the old general was asked for his views on the progress of the war, he was known to quip, "I leave it to those who are better qualified."

"Shortly before his death, the old campaigner's many years in the Army were termed an `inspiration to the soldiers who fight for democracy today' by Gen. George C. Marshall, United States Army Chief of Staff," reported The Sun in 1942, "who, upon learning of General Bisbee's illness, wired: `Your expression of confidence that the democracies will emerge victorious from this great struggle is characteristic of a brilliant soldier who gave so many years in the service of his country."

Bisbee died at his home in Brookline on June 11, 1942.

Shipley's daughter was able through an inter-library loan to obtain a copy of Bisbee's book, and she made a Xerox copy for him as a Christmas present.

"It's an extremely rare book, and she wasn't able to take it out of the library and had to make the copies there," he said.

Shipley made copies of his Bisbee file for his nephew, Ryan Shipley, an Army Ranger, before he headed for Iraq.

"He never knew of his great-great-grandfather's military exploits, and because he's a military boy, I thought it was important that he did," Shipley said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com.

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