American Civil War: Major General David B. Birney

David B. Birney during the Civil War
Major General David B. Birney. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

David Birney - Early Life & Career:

Born in Huntsville, AL on May 29, 1825, David Bell Birney was the son of James and Agatha Birney.  A Kentucky native, James Birney was a noted politician in Alabama and Kentucky and later a vocal abolitionist.  Moving back to Kentucky in 1833, David Birney received his early schooling there and in Cincinnati.  Due to his father's politics, the family later moved to Michigan and Philadelphia.  To further his education, Birney elected to attend the Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.  Graduating in 1839, he initially pursued a future in business before electing to study law.  Returning to Philadelphia, Birney commenced practicing law there in 1856.  Finding success, he became friends with many of the city's leading citizens. 

David Birney - The Civil War Begins:

Possessing his father's politics, Birney foresaw the coming of the Civil War and in 1860 began an intensive study of military subjects.  Though he lacked any formal training, he was able to parley this newly-acquired knowledge into a lieutenant colonels commission in the Pennsylvania militia. Following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Birney commenced working to raise a regiment of volunteers.  Successful, he became lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry later that month.  In August, after some service in the Shenandoah, the regiment was re-organized with Birney as colonel.  

David Birney - Army of the Potomac:

Assigned to Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, Birney and his regiment prepared for the 1862 campaign season.  Possessing extensive political connections, Birney received a promotion to brigadier general on February 17, 1862.  Leaving his regiment, he assumed command of a brigade in Brigadier General Philip Kearny's division in Major General Samuel Heintzelman's III Corps.  In this role, Birney traveled south that spring to take part in the Peninsula Campaign.  Performing solidly during the Union advance on Richmond, he was criticized by Heintzelman for failing to engage during the Battle of Seven Pines.  Given a hearing, he was defended by Kearny and it was determined that the failure was a misunderstanding of orders.

Retaining his command, Birney saw extensive action during the Seven Days Battles in late June and early July.  During this time, he, and the rest of Kearny's division, was heavily engaged at Glendale and Malvern Hill.  With the failure of the campaign, III Corps received orders to return to Northern Virginia to support Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia.  In this role, it took part in the Second Battle of Manassas in late August.  Tasked with assaulting Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's lines on August 29, Kearny's division took heavy losses.  Three days after the Union defeat, Birney returned to action at the Battle of Chantilly.  In the fighting, Kearny was killed and Birney ascended to lead the division.  Ordered to the Washington, DC defenses, the division did not take part in the Maryland Campaign or Battle of Antietam.

David Birney - Division Commander:   

Rejoining the Army of the Potomac later that fall, Birney and his men were engaged at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13.  Serving in Brigadier General George Stoneman's III Corps, he clashed with Major General George G. Meade during the battle when the latter accused him of failing to support an attack.  Subsequent punishment was avoided when Stoneman praised Birney's performance in his official reports.  During the winter, command of III Corps passed to Major General Daniel Sickles.  Birney served under Sickles at the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863 and performed well.  Heavily engaged during the fighting, his division suffered the highest casualties of any in the army.  For his efforts, Birney received a promotion to major general on May 20.

Two months later, the bulk of his division arrived at the Battle of Gettysburg on the evening of July 1 with the remainder arriving the following morning.  Initially positioned at the south end of Cemetery Ridge with its left flank at the foot of Little Round Top, Birney's division moved forward that afternoon when Sickles advanced off the ridge.  Tasked with covering a line extending from Devil's Den through the Wheatfield to the Peach Orchard, his troops were spread too thin.  Late in the afternoon, Confederate troops from Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps attacked and overwhelmed Birney's lines.  Falling back, Birney worked to re-form his shattered division while Meade, now leading the army, funneled reinforcements to the area.  With his division crippled, he played no further role in the battle.

David Birney - Later Campaigns:

As Sickles had been severely wounded in the fighting, Birney assumed command of III Corps until July 7 when Major General William H. French arrived.  That fall, Birney led his men during the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns.  In the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and Meade worked to reorganize the Army of the Potomac.  As III Corps had been badly damaged the previous year, it was disbanded.  This saw Birney's division transferred to Major General Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps.  In early May, Grant commenced his Overland Campaign and Birney quickly saw action at the Battle of the Wilderness.  A few weeks later, he was wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House but remained in his post and commanded his division at Cold Harbor at the end of the month.    

Moving south as the army advanced, Birney played a role in the Siege of Petersburg.  Taking part in II Corps operations during the siege, he led it during the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road in June as Hancock was suffering the effects of a wound sustained the previous year.  When Hancock returned on June 27, Birney resumed command of his division.  Seeing promise in Birney, Grant assigned him to command X Corps in Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James on July 23.  Operating north of the James River, Birney led the successful assault on New Market Heights in late September.  Falling ill with malaria a short time later, he was ordered home to Philadelphia.  Birney died there on October 18, 1864, and his remains were interred in the city's Woodlands Cemetery.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General David B. Birney." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 29). American Civil War: Major General David B. Birney. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General David B. Birney." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).