Napoleon Bonaparte French Historical Marker
Napoleon Bonaparte French played a prominent role in Mercer County history, both as a Whig politician and Confederate officer. French served in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate. Most notably, French was as a member of the Virginia Convention of 1861, where he voted against secession. French nevertheless served as a captain in the Confederate army in the first years of the Civil War. He died in 1899. In 2019, West Virginia History and Archives placed a historic wayside marker to acknowledging French's role in local history.
Backstory and Context
Born in 1811 to the prominent French family of Southwest Virginia, grandly named Napoleon Bonaparte French pursued a career in farming, shop-keeping, and politics in Mercer County. In the 1850s, Napoleon won election to the Virginia House of Delegates and subsequently the Virginia State Senate as a Whig. A liberal political party, the Whigs favored government support for banking, infrastructure projects, education, etc. Yet the Whigs' inability to form a cohesive policy regarding the increasingly divisive issue of slavery ultimately eroded their political party (and helped give rise to the Republican Party).
In 1861, Napoleon French participated in the most personal and heated election of his political career. Perhaps sensing the Whigs' weakness and in favor of secession, Napoleon's brother William Henderson French switched partisan lines and joined the Democratic Party. William's defection occurred on the eve of the Civil War, as Virginia determined whether it should remain in the Union or join the Confederacy. William supported secession, while Napoleon believed Virginia should remain in the United States. The two brothers ran against each other for the right to be Mercer County's representative of the Virginia secession convention in February, 1861. After a bitter campaign, Napoleon triumphed by a 300 vote majority. Although Napoleon French voted against secession, the outbreak of Civil War following the firing on Fort Sumter propelled Virginia to secede and join the Confederacy.
Like many Southerners who initially opposed secession, French accepted it once it had occurred. Despite his advanced age and lack of military experience, French accepted a position as captain of the local Mercer Artillery Battery (often referred to as "French's Battery") in the Confederate army. His military career was luckless and relatively brief. Falling ill in 1862, French was absent when his battery was captured with the Confederate garrison at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. Rather than reconstituting, French's Battery was subsequently folded into the newly created 30th Battalion Virginia Sharpshooters in August, 1862. Unable to keep up with an infantry unit at age 52, French resigned his commission in November.
After the war, Napoleon continued to run a store and post office in Frenchville (now Oakvale), West Virginia. He died in 1899 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Princeton, Mercer County. In 2019, as part of a wider program to memorialize the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the creation of West Virginia, a state historic marker was placed in Princeton in remembrance of Napoleon's contributions within Mercer County history.
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Elizabeth Reed-Eanes, Find A Grave Website