August 18: William McDowell Birney (1907)

William Birney was a Union Army general during the Civil War who was noted for encouraging thousands of free black men to join the Union Army. Birney’s father was a prominent Southern abolitionist leader and was a two-time presidential candidate for the anti-slavery Liberty Party. The younger Birney attended Centre College in Kentucky and Yale before beginning a law practice in Cincinnati. He then lived for five years in Europe. He was a professor of English literature and took an active part in the revolutionary movement in France in 1848. Returning to the United States, he established a newspaper in Philadelphia. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Birney became captain of a company which he had raised in New Jersey. He served until the close of the war, rising regularly through all the grades to Brevet Major General of Volunteers. He was appointed as one of three superintendents in charge of enlisting colored troops and in that capacity organized seven regiments.

Birney resided in Florida for several years after the war before moving north in 1874 to establish a law practice in Washington, D.C. He served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and was also a school board trustee. Shortly after removing to the nation’s capital, Birney and his family became associated with Epiphany. Birney’s mother-in-law was buried from the church in 1873. Two teenage daughters were baptized and then confirmed there two weeks later. One of those daughters, Florence Hallowell, married Randolph Getchell at the church in 1876.

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