James Bell (James Franklin Bell)

James Bell

James Bell was born to John Wilson and Sarah Margaret Venable (Allen) Bell in Shelbyville, Kentucky. His mother died when he was young. Thereafter, two most important women in his life were the black woman who looked after him as a child and the white woman who became his step mother. During the Civil War, Shelby County was split between Union and Confederate factions. The extended Bell family was strongly in favor of the secession. After the firing on Fort Sumter, John Wilson Bell and his brothers drew lots to determine who would remain at home to look after their parents and who would join the Southern armies. John lost and remained at home. Young James Franklin, “Frank” as he was known to family and friends, thus grew up in a milieu in which slavery was not only accepted and practiced but strongly defended. James Bell attended the public schools in Shelbyville. Until he was sixteen, he also worked on his father’s farm six days a week with breaks only for school and the Sabbath. In the process, he developed a strong physical constitution that stood him in good stead for the remainder of his life. In 1872 he began working as a clerk in a general store owned by one of his uncles. His chief recreations were baseball and horse racing. One neighbor later remembered Frank and a friend tearing down country lanes on horseback “as if the Devil” was after them. Working in a general store did not appeal to such a high spirited young person, and in 1874 he secured appointment to West Point. During his four years at the Military Academy, he excelled in art, horsemanship, demerits, and making friends. He graduated 38th in a class of 43. The War Department assigned him to the 9th Cavalry, one of the black units formed after the Civil War. Then in Kentucky on home leave, Bell attempted to resign his commission. This, in fact, was illegal, but someone at the War Department understood the attitudes that were behind this action and assigned him to the all-white 7th Cavalry. He joined the unit at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, on October 1, 1878.

James Bell became an instructor of military science and tactics and taught mathematics at Southern Illinois University, a position held from 1886 until 1889. While in Illinois, he read law and passed the Illinois bar. In 1889, he returned to the 7th Cavalry. Although the regiment participated in the battle of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Bell was on personal leave and did not participate. He was promoted to first lieutenant December 29, 1890, and participated in the Pine Ridge, South Dakota campaign in 1891. Later that year, the 7th Cavalry was posted to Fort Riley, Kansas and Bell joined the staff of the Cavalry and Light Artillery School. He soon became adjutant, then secretary of the school. In November 1894, Bell became aide-de-camp to General James W. Forsyth and posted to the Department of California. He was transferred to Fort Apache, Arizona Territory in July 1897 and then to Vancouver Barracks, Washington in February 1898. At the outbreak of the Spanish–American War, Bell was acting as adjutant to General Forsyth, then commanding the Department of the West, with headquarters at San Francisco. He was immediately commissioned Colonel of Volunteers, and authorized to organize a regiment. This regiment was ordered to the Philippines and, under his command, saw service in the Philippine–American War. After a few months in the Philippines, Bell was promoted from his commission of captain in the Regular Army to brigadier-general in the Regular Army, outranking many officers previously his senior. James Bell was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions of September 9, 1899 near Porac on Luzon Island in the Philippines. According to the official citation, “while in advance of his regiment [Bell] charged 7 insurgents with his pistol and compelled the surrender of the captain and 2 privates under a close fire from the remaining insurgents concealed in a bamboo thicket.” Bell failed the physical examination required for active service overseas. When the doctors decreed that he would not take his division to France, Bell was again given command of the Department of the East, and returned to his old headquarters, Governors Island, which command he held until his death, January, 1919.

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Born

  • January, 09, 1856
  • USA
  • Shelbyville, Kentucky

Died

  • January, 08, 1919
  • USA
  • New York, New York

Cemetery

  • Arlington National Cemetery
  • Arlington, Virginia
  • USA

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