J. Franklin Bell

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James Franklin Bell
Gen. J. Franklin Bell, in uniform LCCN2014683390 (cropped).jpg
Born(1856-01-09)January 9, 1856
Shelbyville, Kentucky, US
DiedJanuary 8, 1919(1919-01-08) (aged 62)
New York City, US
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1878–1919
Rank Major General
Commands held Chief of Staff of the United States Army
Philippine Department
Department of the East
77th Infantry Division
Battles/wars Indian Wars Philippine–American War
World War I
Awards Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Medal
Signature Signature of James Franklin Bell.png

James Franklin Bell (January 9, 1856 – January 8, 1919) was an officer in the United States Army who served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1906 to 1910.


Bell was a major general in the Regular United States Army, commanding the Department of the East, with headquarters at Governors Island, New York at the time of his death in 1919. He entered West Point in 1874, and graduated 38th in a class of 43 in 1878, with a commission as second lieutenant of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, a black unit.

Early life

Bell was born to John Wilson and Sarah Margaret Venable (Allen) Bell in Shelbyville, Kentucky. His mother died when he was young. Thereafter the 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. [1]

During the American 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.

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. [2]

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. [3]

Indian Wars

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 Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota, Bell was on personal leave and did not participate. He was promoted to first lieutenant on 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.

Spanish–American War

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.

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." [4]

Service in America

In July 1903, Bell was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he headed the Command and General Staff School until April 14, 1906; Bell was promoted major general, and was appointed Chief of the Army General Staff. He served for four years, under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Bell was the first chief officer of the United States Army in 45 years who had not served in the American Civil War.

Major General Bell, circa 1915) Major General J. Franklin Bell.jpg
Major General Bell, circa 1915)

When the United States military forces of the Western Pacific concentrated in the Philippines, he returned to Manila in 1911, as military commander, until war with Mexico seemed imminent. He was then ordered home to take command of the 4th Division. The 4th Division remained in Texas City as reserve and, although at several times he seemed about to cross the Rio Grande, he was never a part of the Mexican expeditionary force.

After the Mexican situation quieted, Bell was relieved of the 4th Division, and placed in command of the Department of the West. He remained in command at San Francisco, where he had once been acting adjutant, until the United States entered World War I.

In the early spring of 1917, Bell was transferred to the Department of the East at Fort Jay, Governors Island, in New York City, and as commander of that department, assuming responsibility for Officers' Training Camps created by his predecessor, Leonard Wood, at Plattsburgh, Madison Barracks, and Fort Niagara. Bell's aide, Captain George C. Marshall, was most directly involved in the logistical support for these camps, battling a lethargic army supply system to properly equip the volunteer citizen soldiers. These camps, in August 1917, graduated the large quota of new officers needed for the new National Army and, to a large extent, to officer the new divisions of the east and northeast.

In the same month, Bell was offered and promptly accepted the command of the 77th Division of the National Army, to be organized at Camp Upton, New York. The division was intended to primarily manned by draftees from New York state and featured the Statue of Liberty on its unit patch. Bell commanded the division when the first newly appointed officers climbed the hill and reported to their first assignment, through that formative stage when barracks were thrown together at a miraculous speed, and being filled at the same rate. Then, in December, he sailed for France to make a tour of the front, and observe, first hand, actual fighting conditions. He did not return until the latter part of March 1918.

On his return, Bell failed the physical examination required for active service overseas. When the doctors decreed that he would not take the 77th 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 in January 1919.

Awards and decorations

Medal of Honor citation

Rank and organization: Colonel, 36th Infantry, U.S. Volunteers. Place and date: Near Porac, Luzon, Philippine Islands, September 9, 1899. Entered service at: Shelbyville, Ky. Born: January 9, 1856, Shelbyville, Ky. Date of issue: December 11, 1899.


While in advance of his regiment 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.

Dates of rank

U.S. Military Academy COA.png United States Military Academy Cadet – class of 1878

Union army 2nd lt rank insignia.jpg Second Lieutenant June 1878 Regular Army
Union army 1st lt rank insignia.jpg First Lieutenant 29 December 1890Regular Army
Union army maj rank insignia.jpg Major 17 May 1898 Volunteers
Union army cpt rank insignia.jpg Captain 2 March 1899Regular Army
Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel 5 July 1899Volunteers
Union army brig gen rank insignia.jpg Brigadier General December 1899Volunteers
Union army brig gen rank insignia.jpg Brigadier General 19 February 1901Regular Army
Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Major General 3 January 1907Regular Army

See also

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  1. Ltr, Maj Gen J. Franklin Bell to Maj Gen Hugh L. Scott, September 30, 1915, Hugh L. Scott Mss., Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  2. Shelby News, May 10, 1906; E. A. Garlington, "James Franklin Bell," Fiftieth Annual Report of Association of Graduates, United States Military Academy (Saginaw, Mich., 1919), pp. 162–63.
  3. Ltr, 2d Lt J. Franklin Bell to The Adjutant General, August 9, 1878, Adjutant General Correspondence, 1890–1917, 3773 Appointment, Commission, Promotion (ACP) 78 filed with 937 ACP 79, Record Group (RG) 94, National Archives and Records Service (NARA), Washington, D.C.; Ltr, 2d Lt J. Franklin Bell to Col E. F. Townsend, November 19, 1890, 6842 ACP 90 filed with 937 ACP 79, RG 94, NARA.
  4. CMH Archived June 7, 1997, at the Wayback Machine at www.army.mil
  5. Military Times Hall of Valor Archived 2014-07-14 at the Wayback Machine – Bell was the first person to earn both the MOH and the DSC

Further reading

Military offices
Preceded by
John C. Bates
Chief of Staff of the United States Army
Succeeded by
Leonard Wood
Preceded by
Charles W. Miner
Commandant of the Command and General Staff College
Succeeded by
Charles Badger Hall