Maj. Gen. J. Franklin Bell (1856-1919), Part 1: Shelby County’s forgotten hero

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By Ron Van Stockum

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As Veterans Day approaches it seems timely to publish again my story of Shelby County’s greatest hero and highest ranked military officer, Medal of Honor winner, Major General J. Franklin Bell. This column, the first of a two-part series, appeared in the Sentinel-News on August 6, 2008.


I embarked aboard the naval transport, “USS J. Franklin Bell,” on 10 December 1942 for participation in amphibious training exercises off the coast of California in preparation for combat in the Pacific.

I was not then aware of the individual for whom the ship had been named, but I know him now as the most prominent military officer in our county’s history. Once a popular hero whose name was taken in 1923 by the newly formed local American Legion post, he is remembered today by few in our community.

Early life in Shelby County

James Franklin Bell was born on 9 January 1856 on his father’s farm in Shelby County, at the intersection of Zaring Mill Road and Pope’s Corner Road, directly across from present Allen Dale Farm. His father was John Wilson Bell. His mother, Sarah Margaret Allen Bell, was a daughter of Dr. Joseph Fawcett Allen, whose brother, John Polk Allen, was then the owner of Allen Dale Farm. There are ruins of his birthplace on the old Bell farm, now owned by the Insco Family.

Tragedy struck the Bell household in 1864. Frank, as he was called by his friends, was eight years old when his mother died after being thrown by a horse. In 1869, when he was 13, his father married again, this time to Jane Hardin Logan. The marriage took place in “Marcardin,” close to Grove Hill Cemetery, where the family took up residence. It had been built ten years earlier by Colonel Mark Hardin, grandfather of the bride, one of the original stockholders of the “Shelbyville Cemetery Company.”

In Shelbyville, Frank, while attending school, clerked at his uncle’s general store, Bell Brothers, before obtaining an appointment to the U. S. Army Military Academy at West Point.

United States Army Military Academy

Over a number of years, I have been in personal contact with Edgar F. Raines, who published in the 1986 “Register” of the Kentucky Historical Society [Volume 83, No. 4] “Major General J. Franklin Bell, U. S. A., The Education of a Soldier, 1956-1899.” Much of my information about Bell’s military career is based directly upon this article, supplemented by correspondence with Dr. Raines. He describes Bell during his four years at West Point, as excelling in five areas: “art, horsemanship, high jinks, collecting demerits, and inspiring lifelong friendships. Good looks, superabundant energy, and an inability to take himself, the army, or life too seriously made his contemporaries at the academy remember him with great affection.” In 1878 Bell graduated thirty-eighth in his class of forty-three. I have often been impressed with the lack of correlation between class standings and career success.

The 7th Cavalry

Shortly after gradation Bell was assigned to the famous 7th Cavalry, Custer’s old command, at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory. In 1881 he married Sarah Buford of Rock Island, Illinois, niece of two Union Civil War generals. The Bells had no children. From 1886 until 1889, he served as an instructor in military science at Southern Illinois University and in his spare time read law and was admitted to the Illinois bar.

In 1889, he rejoined the 7th Cavalry, but was on personal leave when that unit participated in 1890 in the controversial battle of Wounded Knee, against the Lakota Sioux Indians.” On 29 December 1890, having served as a second lieutenant for a dozen years, Bell was promoted to first lieutenant. After the 7th returned to Fort Riley, he was appointed secretary of the Cavalry and Light Artillery School, then being established. He served, in effect, as chief of staff for the school’s commandant, Colonel J. W. Forsyth, contributing significantly to the development and publication of tactical doctrine. In 1895 Forsyth, then a brigadier general, described Bell, now his aide-de-camp, as follows: “I consider him the best all around young officer in the United States Army – well equipped for any duties that may be entrusted to him.”

The Philippines

Shortly after the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898, Bell received orders to join the Philippine Expeditionary Force, sailing from San Francisco with the second contingent on 15 June 1898. He became head of U. S. Army intelligence in the Philippines, with the responsibility of conducting negotiations with Aguinaldo, who was leading the Filipino forces in revolt against Spanish rule.

After the Spanish governor surrendered Manila to Commodore Dewey, with the terms excluding the entry of Filipino forces into the city, tensions developed with Aguinaldo. These were intensified when the Philippines were ceded by Spain to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. Bell was present when hostilities broke out with the Filipinos on 4 February 1899. The resulting “Philippine Insurrection,” more recently called the “Philippine-American War,” controversial at the time, is still controversial today. It was a bloody struggle, with atrocities being alleged by both sides. While it was brought to an official end on 4 July 1902, resistance continued until 1913.

Medal of Honor

Bell distinguished himself in the fighting around Manila and was made chief of scouts of the 2nd Division, commanded by his patron and supporter, Major General Arthur MacArthur, father of General Douglas MacArthur of World War II fame. The War Department later appointed Bell as commander of the 36th U. S. Volunteer Regiment. Bell was recommended three times for the Medal of Honor, finally receiving this highest award for his actions on 9 September 1899. His citation reads:

“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.”

Personal note: Charging Filipino insurgents while armed only with the .38 Long Colt revolver, standard in those days, was an extremely hazardous undertaking. On being issued a Colt .45 Pistol in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1937, I had been told that it had replaced the old .38, which had been found almost useless against hard charging Moros armed with bolo knives, in the Philippines.


Sergeant Reginald G. Bareham (1894-1916) and The Battle of the Somme, has been accepted for sale at the 2015 Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort on November 14. It is a compilation of my 19 columns about the short life of my father, who was killed in battle on July 1, 1916, a week before I was born. My previous books
— Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, Remembrances of World Wars, and Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place — have all been sold at previous book fairs.

I can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. All my books, may be purchased locally at Sixth and Main Coffeehouse and Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center, or from Amazon.com.