Samuel Gibbs French was born in Gloucester County, New Jersey, on 22 November 1818. He graduated from West Point in 1843 and served in garrison duty as an artillery lieutenant until the Mexican War, where he fought in several battles and won two brevet promotions. French was severely wounded in the thigh at Buena Vista in February 1847. He was appointed to the Quartermaster’s Department in January 1848 and remained in that post until 1856, when he resigned from the army to manage a plantation along Deer Creek near Greenville, Mississippi. In 1853 he married Eliza Matilda Roberts, the daughter of a prominent Natchez banker, helping to facilitate his entry into the planter elite. They had one child before her death in 1857. When Mississippi seceded, Gov. John J. Pettus appointed French chief of ordnance for state forces. In the spring of 1861 he accepted a commission as major of artillery in Confederate service, and in October Jefferson Davis offered him a brigadier general’s commission and summoned him to Richmond.
French saw duty in Virginia and North Carolina between late 1861 and May 1863, winning promotion to major general and working to strengthen defenses at Richmond and Petersburg. Secretary of war James A. Seddon solicited information from French in 1863 about defending the Mississippi River, and French wrote a detailed report that undoubtedly came too late to be of value during the Vicksburg Campaign. Nevertheless, the report may have convinced Davis that French would prove useful in defending Mississippi, and he was dispatched there in May 1863. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston suggested that French’s northern background might arouse prejudice and hinder his acceptance, but Davis tartly replied that French had been a wealthy Mississippi planter and cited his service to the state after secession.
Illness compelled French to take a leave of absence from early August to October 1863. He remained in Mississippi until the spring of 1864, when he and his division joined Johnston’s army in North Georgia. French’s command fought in various engagements during the Atlanta Campaign and maneuvered north of the city after it fell to Federal forces in September 1864. French attacked a Union supply depot at Allatoona on 5 October 1864 but disengaged after learning of the impending arrival of reinforcements from William Tecumseh Sherman’s army. During John Bell Hood’s disastrous Tennessee invasion, two of French’s brigades suffered dreadful casualties at Franklin on 30 November 1864. French reported that more than one-third of his men engaged were killed, wounded, or missing. French subsequently suffered an infection that severely damaged his eyesight and relinquished command to Claudius Wistar Sears, remaining on sick leave until February 1865. He fought in the defense of Mobile that spring and surrendered and was paroled near the city in April.
In January 1865 he married Mary F. Abercrombie, the daughter of a US general in the War of 1812. They went on to have three children. French labored to rebuild his ruined Mississippi plantation before moving to Georgia in 1876 and Florida in 1881. French published a memoir, Two Wars: An Autobiography of General Samuel G. French (1901), in which he criticized Governor Pettus and Confederate generals William J. Hardee, Hood, and Leonidas Polk. According to a modern assessment of the memoir, the apparently unreconstructed French “blasts the Yankees for nearly everything wrong in civilization,” and “the bitter partisanship of many passages mars the work’s credibility.” French died on 20 April 1910.
- Confederate Veteran (May 1910)
- David J. Eicher, The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography (1997)
- Howard Barclay French, Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas French, vol. 2 (1913)
- Charles Hooker, Confederate Military History: Mississippi, ed. Clement A. Evans (1899)
- Dunbar Rowland, Mississippi: Comprising Sketches of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons, Arranged in Cyclopedic Form (1907)
- Jack D. Welsh, Medical Histories of Confederate Generals (1995)