A descendent of the Campbell family of Virginia, William Bowen Campbell was born on February 1, 1807 at Maskers Creek in Sumner County, Tennessee. The son of David Campbell and Catherine Bowen, his lineage included two early Virginia pioneers of Scots-Irish descent. These two individuals were his great-grandfathers, both named David. Captain David “Black” Campbell (who built Campbell’s Station, now Farragut, Tennessee) served as a soldier under the command of General William Campbell during the American Revolution. William’s paternal grandmother was the daughter of David “White” Campbell, a distant cousin of “Black” David and also the cousin of William Campbell of Kings Mountain fame.
Patriots were also found on Catherine Bowen’s side; one of which was her grandfather, General William Russell, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence.
It was William’s daughter, Margaret Hamilton Campbell Pilcher, who later coined the terms “Black” and “White” to describe her ancestors in an effort to distinguish them in family history books. Rather than referring to personalities, the names describe their appearance. “Black” David had a dark complexion and dark hair, whereas “White” David had blonde hair and a fair complexion.
The eldest of six children, William grew up on his father’s farm and received his earliest education from his mother. A woman with a deep interest in books and a strong love for her country, Catherine transmitted both of these traits to her son during his formative years.
When Campbell was 17, the family experienced a major financial setback. William put down his books and went to work helping his father. Taking up axe and maul, he spent the next two years clearing land; then moved to Abingdon, Virginia.
Entering the law office of his uncle, David Campbell, William enrolled in law school. Uncle David later became Virginia’s governor and William returned to Tennessee in 1829 to establish his law practice in Carthage.
Admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1830, Campbell was appointed attorney general for a state circuit in 1831, requiring him to move to Sparta. After serving four years as attorney general, he was elected to a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly. He later resigned this seat to accept a commission as captain in the mounted volunteer company during the Creek and Seminole War.
After serving under Colonel William Trousdale during the war, the two men now faced off in 1837 on opposite sides of the ballot; with Tennessee’s 6th District House seat their goal. This encounter ended with Campbell the victor. Though the campaign was spirited, the two candidates remained friends throughout. In 1839, the process was repeated with the same two candidates, and the same outcome. In 1841, Trousdale thought it better to stay home, leaving Campbell to run unopposed the third time. Campbell would not complete the third term, however, electing instead to return to his law practice in Carthage.
Politics moved to the back burner when the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. Campbell answered the call sent out by Governor Aaron Brown for 2,400 volunteers. On June 3, 1846, Campbell was elected to the position of colonel for the First Tennessee Volunteers and had his regiment in Texas the following month. Later that year his regiment fought in the Battle of Monterrey, during which one-third of the members were killed. This resulted in the unit being dubbed “Bloody First” due to the high level of casualties. During the conflict, Campbell was known for giving the command, “Boys, follow me!”
Campbell served as a state circuit court judge for a brief time following the war, then entered the race for governor. Rekindling his “Boys, follow me!” cry, it became the slogan for the Whig Party during the 1851 gubernatorial campaign. In a case of “same song, third verse”, Campbell’s opponent was again William Trousdale; and as with the prior two “verses”, Campbell was the victor with the vote tally 63,333 to 61,673. He became Tennessee’s sixteenth governor, and the last to serve from the Whig Party.
Many of the campaign comments during the election had focused on the Compromise of 1850 and the fact California was admitted to the union as a free state. Comments were now being made in numerous Southern states which carried a veiled threat of secession if the federal government insisted on banning slavery during the acquisition of new territories. Trousdale had accused Campbell of pandering to northern views, whereas Campbell retaliated by stating the Compromise was a “work of wisdom” and labeled the Nashville Convention as treasonous. While governor, Campbell called for a more rational approach to resolve the strife, and referred to remarks about secession as “insane talk”.
Following his term as governor, Campbell chose to leave politics for a season. He joined a firm of cotton merchants in New Orleans and then returned to Lebanon in 1853 to become president of The Bank of Middle Tennessee. The Whigs nominated Gustavus A. Henry, who lost to Democrat Andrew Johnson. The Whig Party collapsed during the mid-1850s, with the majority of its members, including Campbell, now strong supporters of the American Party.
Unable to remain out of the public eye, Campbell lent his support to the Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, during the presidential election of 1860. Following Lincoln’s victory, Campbell began to campaign throughout Tennessee in an effort to suppress the idea of secession. Pro-secession sentiment had now begun to sweep throughout Middle Tennessee following the attack on Fort Sumter in May 1861. Calls went out from former Whigs and others who were opposed to secession for Campbell to again run for governor. When he declined to do so, Governor Harris offered him a commission in the Confederate Army. He turned that down as well.
After the Union Army moved in and occupied Middle Tennessee in early 1862, Thomas A. Scott, Assistant Secretary of War, recommended Campbell become the state’s military governor; however, Andrew Johnson received the position instead. By May of that year, Campbell was busy chairing a convention of individuals named the Tennessee Unionists, whose efforts were designed to return Tennessee to the Union. A short time later, President Abraham Lincoln offered Campbell a commission as brigadier general in the Union Army and he accepted. He served only a few weeks, however, due to the fact he was suffering from health issues and he did not want to go to war against neighbors and friends.
By 1864, Campbell’s political allegiance was now pledged to the Democratic Party and his support given to George B. McClellan for president. Following Tennessee’s readmission to the Union, Campbell won re-election to Washington in 1866 to serve another term in the House; however, it would be several months before he was seated due to the efforts of Radical Republicans to prevent him from doing so. The following year, President Andrew Johnson faced impeachment hearings and Campbell served as one of the president’s advisors.
William Campbell died on August 19, 1867. He was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Lebanon, Tennessee alongside Frances, who died in 1864.
At the outbreak of World War II, the War Department established an army training camp on the Kentucky-Tennessee border between Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Major General James A. Ulio, then the Adjutant General of the United States Army, named this camp in honor of William Bowen Campbell in an effort to perpetuate the memory of an outstanding soldier, lawyer, judge, and public figure; someone who had dedicated almost 40 years to the service of his state and country. Fort Campbell is now the home of the 101st Airborne Division, commonly known as “the Screaming Eagles”.