Maj. Gen. J. Franklin Bell (1856-1919), Shelby County’s Forgotten Hero, Part 2: A royal welcome

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By Ron Van Stockum

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the Friday, Nov. 6, issue I republished the first of my two-part series about Maj. General J. Franklin Bell that appeared in The Sentinel-News in 2008. Winner of the Medal of Honor in the “Philippine Insurrection,” he was Shelby County’s greatest hero and highest ranked military officer. It seems timely on Veterans Day to republish the second part.


Bell was promoted to Brigadier General in February 1901. He returned from the Philippines in 1903, by way of Europe. On 4 June 1903, he visited his hometown on his way to take command of the General Services and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and was given what the Shelby Record headlined as a “Royal Welcome.” Trains brought soldiers and bands from Louisville and Frankfort. A parade, led by a platoon of mounted police, followed by firemen in fire-fighting regalia, formed at 1st Street and moved up Main Street. Next came the Louisville Drum and Trumpet Corps, followed by marching troops and a regimental band. Then came carriages carrying distinguished political and community leaders, followed by a “beautifully decorated float containing twelve most charming young ladies all gowned in white.”

After passing up the entire length of Main Street to the town limits, the parade returned to the speaker’s stand at Fountain Square. There, Mayor Luther C. Willis introduced Col. W. C. P. Breckinridge, the orator for the occasion. William Campbell Preston Breckinridge, a member of a distinguished Kentucky family, who had served the Confederacy as colonel of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, had later represented his state as a Member of Congress. Known as “The Silvered Tongued Orator,” he did not disappoint his audience.

General Bell was then introduced and “the cheers were deafening.”

He spoke with some frankness about the recent action in the Philippines:

“It is the soldier’s lot to be loyal to his government and to carry out its will, irrespective of personal views. It is his part to do, not help determine, what must be done. The Philippine question has never yet emerged from the realms of controversy, and is still in the hands of our national statesmen.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, General and Mrs. Bell were entertained at the beautiful home of Mr. and Mrs. George A. Armstrong at 1165 Main Street. Later, he and his wife were honored with a grand ball given by the Shelby Hop Club at Layson Hall, a large and grand structure, which still graces the corner of 7th and Main. Erected in 1869, it was a center for conventions, political events, professional performances, and the site of the old Crescent Theater.

A generous gesture and a presidential response

Within a year, Bell was back in Shelbyville to spend the last days with his father, who died on 3 January 1904. John Wilson Bell had not handled his funds well, including those of significant value left in trust by his first wife to Frank and his brother. General Bell insisted that he would not allow those who had given bond for this trust to cover the losses, which they were legally obligated to do. A few days after his father’s death, Bell wrote Colonel John Worden Hardin, one of the prominent citizens who had given bond, committing himself to pay his father’s debt of $140 owed to Hardin and also that due other bondsmen. On 12 January, Colonel Hardin wrote his friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, forwarding Bell’s letter, to inform him of this generous gesture.

Roosevelt promptly replied on 19 January 1904, “I have always thought very highly of Gen. Franklin Bell, but now I think more highly than ever of him. If the opportunity does not come to promote Gen. Bell while I am President, I shall show these letters to my successor.”

Chief of Staff, United States Army

In 1906, President Roosevelt did have an opportunity to promote Bell, who served from April 1906 to April 1910 as Chief of Staff of the United States Army, being promoted in June 1907 to the rank of Major General. The Chief of Staff is in fact the military head of the Army. Bell was the fourth chief of staff of the Army, but the first to serve a complete four-year term.

The 11 May 1906 issue of the Shelby Record prominently reprinted a recent article in the Louisville Times in which George L. Willis quoted the exchange of correspondence between Hardin and the President, opining that this may have been instrumental in Roosevelt’s appointment of Bell as Chief of Staff.

Again, while serving in this top Army military position, Bell was honored by his hometown. He stayed at Allen Dale, the home of his cousin Sue Henning, from 16 to 22 June 1906, while en route to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His remarks in the Allen Dale Guest Book: “I am sore and stiff with pleasure and satisfaction & will never be well again until I return.”

In March 1910, in Washington, while still serving as Chief of Staff in Washington, D. C., he suffered injuries when his chauffeur-driven automobile collided with a trolley car. His passenger died almost immediately and great anxiety prevailed for a time in Shelbyville because of initial reports that he had been fatally injured. Dr. Raines has written me to highlight Bell’s accomplishments as Chief of Staff and I quote from his comments:

“He [Bell] coordinated the Army’s efforts to send troops and supplies to San Francisco in the wake of the devastating earthquake in 1906. In that same year he directed the planning for and coordinated the movement of troops to Cuba during the second intervention there (and actually went to Cuba and commanded the occupation forces from October 1906 until January 1907).

He championed the introduction of machine guns as part of the standard armament of all infantry and cavalry regiments.

During the war scare with Japan in 1907, the General Staff at his direction developed plans to mobilize one million men in one year in the event of war, the first time the Army had worked up such plans in peacetime. Finally, he had a huge bureaucratic brawl with Admiral Dewey over the location of the main naval base in the Pacific. Dewey wanted Subic Bay, which Bell argued was indefensible against Japan with the number of troops we would have available to station there in peacetime. Eventually, the Navy selected Bell’s favored site--Pearl Harbor. It was an eventful four years.”

After completing his tour of duty as Chief of Staff, Bell, still only 55, returned to Manila to serve as Department of the Philippines commander from 1911 to 1914. He was subsequently given other positions of high command in the Army in the United States. While he made an observation mission to France in 1918, he was not assigned command in the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) because of deteriorating health.

Bell died on 8 January 1919, while still on active duty in New York City, having represented his country well for nearly 45 years, and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. He was a soldier and a scholar. With today’s enhanced interest in counter-guerrilla warfare, he is receiving renewed national attention by military historians who are taking another look at the records of his extended involvement in the Philippine campaigns. (Available on the Internet is: Ramsey, “A Masterpiece of Counterguerrilla Warfare: BG J. Franklin Bell in the Philippines, 1901-1902,” published in 2007 by the US Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: 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.