William Birney, elder brother of General David Bell Birney and son of antislavery leader James G. Birney, was born on his father's plantation in Madison County, Alabama, on May 28, 1819. The family moved first to Huntsville, Alabama, and subsequently to Cincinnati, where William began the practice of law. For a period of five years, including the revolutionary year of 1848, he resided on the Continent and in England, contributing numerous articles to English and American newspapers. Returning to the United States, he established the daily Register at Philadelphia in 1853, and on May 22, 1861, entered Federal service as a captain of the 1st New Jersey Infantry. In September, 1861, he became major of the 4th New Jersey and its colonel on January 13, 1863. With these two regiments Birney took part in all the battles and campaigns of the Army of the Potomac up through Chancellorsville, during which the 4th New Jersey acted as guard to the Federal trains. On May 22, 1863, Birney was simultaneously appointed colonel of the 22nd U. S. Colored Infantry and brigadier general of volunteers. In this dual capacity he enlisted seven Negro regiments, freed the inmates of the Baltimore slave prisons, expedited emancipation in Maryland, and served in Florida after the battle of Olustee (Ocean Pond). During the latter part of the war he commanded a division of Negro troops in the X Corps, and during the Appomattox campaign, a division of the XXV Corps under General Godfrey Weitzel, with which he was present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Bre-vetted major general on March 13, 1865, General Birney was mustered out in August and resided in Florida for several years. He then moved to Washington where he practiced law, served for a time as United States attorney for the District of Columbia, and wrote prolifically on a variety of subjects including history and religion. His best-known work was a biography of his father, published in 1890. The general died at his home in Forest Glen, Maryland, on August 14, 1907, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown, D. C.
Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.