Bissell, William H.

Born: 1811-04-25 Hartwick, New York

Died: 1860-03-18 Springfield, Illinois

William H. Bissell was a physician, state legislator, army officer, U.S. representative, and governor. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia in 1834. After graduation, Bissell practiced medicine in Painted Post, New York. Around 1837, he moved to Monroe County, Illinois, where he taught school and practiced medicine. Moving into politics, Bissell won election, as a Democrat, to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1840. He served in the Illinois House from November 1840 to March 1841. Bissell read law and gained admission to the Illinois bar in 1841. He formed a partnership with attorney James Shields in Belleville. In 1844, Bissell earned a law degree from Transylvania University and became prosecuting attorney for Illinois’ Second Judicial District. Volunteering for military service upon the commencement of the Mexican War, Bissell served as colonel of the Second Regiment of Illinois Volunteers. His unit saw heavy action at the Battle of Buena Vista, suffering severe casualties. Returning to Belleville after leaving the army, Bissell won election, as a Democrat, to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848. In February 1850, Bissell delivered a speech denouncing southern threats of secession and promising that Illinois would raise troops to quell efforts at disunion. Bissell also questioned the supposed superior military prowess of southerners. Southerner representatives countered that Mississippi forces under Jefferson Davis had carried the day at Buena Vista, which Bissell denied, claiming that northern units had thrown back the Mexicans. Angered at Bissell’s remarks, Davis challenged Bissell to a duel. Third parties prevented the duel, but the affair won Bissell national fame. Voters returned Bissell to the U.S. House in 1850 and 1852, and he served in that body until March 1855. Bissell favored the Compromise of 1850, but he broke with the Democratic Party over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He declined renomination in 1854 because of a physical disability that impaired his mobility and may have been the result of syphilis. In 1856, delegates to the Illinois Anti-Nebraska Convention nominated Bissell as their candidate for governor. He won the gubernatorial election, becoming the first Republican elected governor of Illinois. He died from pneumonia ten months before the end of his term.

Bissell married twice. In November 1840, he wed Emily Susan James, with whom he had two children before her death in 1844. In 1851, he married Elisabeth Kintzing Kane.

Illinois Daily State Journal (Springfield), 19 March 1860, 2:1-2; David L. Lightner, “Bissell, William Henry,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2:843-44; Governors of Illinois: 1818-1918 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1917), 23; Robert P. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors, 1818-1988 (Springfield: Illinois Issues, Sangamon State University and Illinois State Historical Society, 1988), 109-15; Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1949 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1950), 852-53; Illinois Statewide Marriage Index, Monroe County, 12 November 1840, Illinois State Archives, Springfield, IL; John Clayton, comp., The Illinois Fact Book and Historical Almanac, 1673-1968 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), 209; Gravestone, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, IL. Illustration courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL.