Governors of Illinois

William Henry Bissell-First Catholic Governor of Illinois

Part of my ongoing series on the governors of Illinois down to the end of Reconstruction at the blog Almost Chosen People that I run with Paul Zummo.  William Henry Bissell, the eleventh governor of Illinois, was the first Catholic governor.  Bissell was born on April 25, 1811 near the town of Painted Post in New York.  Studying medicine, he opened a practice in Monroe County in Illinois.  Eventually at the age of 30 he shifted careers from medicine to the law.  In 1840 he was elected to the state legislature as a Democrat.  Passing the bar he was appointed by the legislature as prosecuting attorney for the judicial circuit in which he lived.

During the Mexican War he was elected as Colonel of the Second Illinois infantry regiment and commanded that unit at the battle of Buena Vista.  He earned the praise of General Zachary Taylor that day: “Colonel Bissell, the only surviving colonel of the three (Illinois) regiments, merits notice for his coolness and bravery on this occasion (Buena Vista).”

After the War he was elected as a Democrat to Congress.  He was an ardent foe of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and became identified with the new Republican party.  In 1850 he almost fought a duel with Jefferson Davis.  Bissell had defended the courage of Northern troops who fought at Buena Vista and accused Southerners of attempting to hog the glory of that day.  Davis, who had commanded the Mississippi Rifles at Buena Vista, thereupon challenged him to a duel.  Bissell, who never lacked courage, accepted and designated the weapons for the duel as army muskets loaded with balls and buckshot.  President Taylor, the former father-in-law of Davis threatened Davis with arrest, and a peaceful resolution was reached between Bissell and Davis. Continue reading

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