Civil War Wiki
William Selby Harney
Personal Information
Born: 22 August 1800(1800-08-22)
Place of Birth: {{{place of birth}}}
Died: 9 May 1889 (aged 88)
Place of Death: {{{place of death}}}
Birth Name: {{{birth name}}}
Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Participation(s): {{{participations}}}
Branch: United States Army
Union Army
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
Battles: American Civil War
Mexican-American War
Indian Wars
Other work: {{{otherwork}}}

William Selby Harney (22 August 1800 – 9 May 1889) was a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War and the Indian Wars.

Early military career[]

William S. Harney's military career was initiated by his brother, Dr. Benjamin F. Harney, then an Army surgeon in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 and current Commander of the Army of the South, was asked to write a letter to the Secretary of the Navy asking for Harney's acceptance into the Navy. This occurred July 23, 1817. Harney's visit to his brother, where he met high military officers, which he so impressed that he was handed a second lieutenants commission, signed by President James Monroe. William S.Harney chose instead to serve under Andrew Jackson. His first military assignment under General Andrew Jackson was in 1818, as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Infantry. He forced the pirate Jean Lafitte to move his operations to the Spanish Main. He served with distinction during the Seminole Wars and the Blackhawk War.

During the Mexican-American War he was appointed colonel and commanded the 2nd Dragoons. The 2nd Dragoons were attached to John E. Wool's command during the Chihuahua Expedition and the Battle of Buena Vista. Harney joined Winfield Scott's Army as senior cavalry officer. Fighting with distinction at the battle of Cerro Gordo he received a promotion to brevet brigadier general. On May 14, 1849, on the death of Bvt. Major General William J. Worth, Harney assumed command of Military Department Number Five, which comprised almost all of the settled portion of Texas. While on leave in Paris he was recalled to lead an expedition against the Sioux after the Grattan Massacre culminating in the Battle of Ash Hollow in 1855. After the Battle of Ash Hollow, Harney was known amongst the Sioux as "Woman Killer." He was then placed in command of the Department of Oregon. During this time he sent troops under Captain George E. Pickett to San Juan Island precipitating the Pig War. Due to these altercations with the British he was recalled. Briefly in command of troops during the Utah War he was again recalled and placed in command of troops sent to deal with the Bleeding Kansas affair. Promoted to full brigadier general on June 14, 1858 he was one of four general officers in the regular army at the opening of the Civil War.

Civil War[]

Harney commanded the Army's Department of the West at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri at the beginning of the war. Missouri started the war as a "armed neutral" vowing not to send men or money to either side while at the same time remaining part of the Union. The neutrality was put to the test on May 10, 1861, when Union General Nathaniel Lyon paraded captured Missouri State Militia through the streets after he claimed they were attempting to seize the St. Louis Arsenal for the Confederate cause. Lyon's troops fired on the crowd in what is called the Camp Jackson Affair. The incident so enraged the state that the members of the General Assembly voted the next day to authorize the state's militia (renamed the Missouri State Guard) to fight any army north or south that attacked the state.

Harney tried to calm the situation by striking a deal with the Missouri State Guard General Sterling Price that Missouri could remain neutral (called the Price-Harney Truce). Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson (who favored secession) swore allegiance to the Union in the deal.

Politically connected Lyon was not happy with the deal and Harney was called to the Washington, D.C. to discuss the case. He was captured by Confederates en route and was offered a command by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He refused and was released to continue on to Washington, where he was relieved of his command and replaced by Lyon, who was to drive the elected governor Claiborne Jackson in a series of battles before being killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek while pursuing the governor. Harney retired in 1863, and was breveted to Major General in 1865, in recognition of his long and distinguished career. President Lincoln said that the removal of General Harney was one of the greatest mistakes of his administration.

Peace negotiator[]

Though a then-well-known cavalry officer of the Indian Wars, William Harney worked for peace with the Indians by advocating a good neighbor policy and strove throughout his career to improve the nation's treatment of the native population, vainly seeking to have them treated fairly. The Crows gave him the name "Man-who-runs-like-the-deer" after he challenged them to foot races outside the walls of the fort. After the Civil War he was a key figure in the Indian Peace Commission that negotiated treaties with all the Plains Indians in 1867-68, and urged Congress to honor past treaties. After his death in Orlando, Florida, the Sioux changed his name to "Man-who-always-kept-his-word".


Harney was known for having a particularly brutal streak. Harney commanded the US troops at the Battle of Ash Hollow in 1855, which some view[who?] as a massacre rather than a battle, and which resulted in the killing of roughly 85 men, women and children. He was also court-martialed by the army four times, as well as tried in a civilian court in St. Louis, Missouri for bludgeoning his female slave Hanna to death for losing his keys[1] — he fled the state when a mob pursued him, he was ultimately found not guilty.[2] In the Mexican-American war, he oversaw the execution of thirty members of the San Patricio Battalion after the Battle of Chapultepec; these were primarily Irish Catholic immigrants who had deserted the US army to fight for Mexico. While overseeing the hangings, Harney ordered Francis O’Conner hanged even though both his legs had been amputated the day before. When the army surgeon informed the colonel that the absent San Patricio had lost both his legs in battle, Harney, in a rage, replied:

Bring the damned son of a bitch out! My order was to hang 30 and by God I’ll do it!

This incident was in violation of the articles of war requiring swift executions.[3] He was never punished for his actions and was promoted to brigadier general shortly after, accompanying the commander in chief in a triumphal march in Mexico City. Harney's actions in regards to the hanging of the amputee were not in fact a crime, in that the order to hang the members of the San Patricio brigade as an example did not originate in his command but in higher ups in the command. Harneys statement is very telling in this sense. Harney refers to his "orders" to hang 30 men. The "war crime" here involves the argument that these men should have been executed via a firing squad as opposed to hung, which it is obvious was not Harney's decision to make. In reference to this controversy read the executions section of the following link, also a wikipedia page,'s_Battalion.


Harney's home in Sullivan, Missouri is privately owned by the Harney Mansion Foundation, a private organization which is seeking funds for the restoration of the structure. The Sullivan Chamber of Commerce cooperates with the foundation and can arrange visits to the home.


  • Harney County, Oregon
  • Harney Lake in Oregon
  • Harney Peak in South Dakota
  • Harney Point in Cape Coral, Florida
  • Harney Gym located on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
  • Lake Harney in Central Florida north of Orlando near Sanford, Florida


  1. Joe Sonderman's YesterdaySTL
  2. L. U. Reavis, The Life of General Harney, pp. 8-12
  3. Hogan(1996)

See also[]

32x28px American Civil War portal
32x28px United States Army portal


fr:William S. Harney