George Newman Bliss

Biography of Major George Newman Bliss

Major George Newman Bliss, son of James Leonard and Sarah A. (Stafford) Bliss, was born at Eagleville, Tiverton, Rhode Island, on July 22, 1837. He was one of an old family which numbered among its members Dr. James Bliss, great-grandfather of Major Bliss, who was a hospital steward in the Revolutionary War, and Thomas Bliss, the pioneer American of this branch of the Bliss family, who accompanied Samuel Newman from Weymouth when he founded his church at Rehoboth.

With the exception of six months of school life in Tiverton, he received his elementary schooling in Fall River. In 1854, his family moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and in September of that year, he prepared for college at the University Grammar School in Providence, Rhode Island. After attending Brown University two years, he went to Union College, Schenectady, New York, graduating in June, 1860, with the degree of Bachelor of Arts. In May, 1861, he received the degree of Bachelor of Laws from the Albany Law School and was admitted to the bar of the State of New York, May 15, 1861.

At his country’s call, in September, 1861, he enlisted as a private soldier in Troop B, 1st Regiment, New England Cavalry. In March, 1862, the name was changed to 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. He was appointed quartermaster-sergeant of Troop B, and acting quartermaster for the regiment for three months, and was mustered into service December 14, 1861, was appointed first lieutenant by Governor Sprague, and left Providence for the seat of war March 12, 1862. He served in the engagements at Warrenton Junction, Virginia, April, 1862, Columbia Ridge, June 4, and started for the Rappahannock, August 1, 1862 under General Banks in the 2d Army Corps. He was appointed captain of Troop C, August 4, was in the battle of Cedar Mountain, August 9, North Rappahannock, August 21, Catlett Station, August 21, Rappahannock Station, August 23, Sulphur Springs, August 26, Groveton, August 28, Second Bull Run, August 30, Chantilly, September 1, White’s Ford, October 12, Mountville, October 31, Fredericksburg, December 13, Hartwood’s Church, February 25, 1863.

In the latter engagement, he was in charge of a line of pickets about eight miles in length, having orders to hold his position if the enemy made their appearance, which he did by a ruse, placing his available men—twelve in number, in single rank across the road on the top of a hill, facing toward the enemy, who supposing the men were the head of a regiment, withdrew, and two Union soldiers escaped from the one-hundred and fifty the rebels were taking to the rear.

On April 29, he was in battle near Kelley’s Ford: Rapidan, May 1; Ellis’ Ford and Chancellorsville, May 4; Middleburg, June 17, where his command quickly formed in line, charged and drove every rebel from the field. On August 11, 1863, he was sent to New Haven, Connecticut, to receive the troops at the conscript camp there. He served on three courts-martial, in one of which he was judge-advocate, the findings in all of his cases being approved. May 16, 1864, he rejoined his regiment at Belle Plains, Virginia, was in the skirmish at White House Landing, June 20; Chickahominy, June 21; delivered a spirited and patriotic oration to the soldiers, July 4, 1864; was in the battles of Deep Bottom, July 28, Berryville, August 13, near Front Royal, August 16, Opequan (Winchester) September 19, Luray, September 24, Waynesboro, September 28, when the regiment was camping on the outskirts of the town.

About three o’clock in the afternoon, Major Farrington directed Captain Bliss to enter the town and order the Provost Guard to prohibit the soldiers from plundering private property while passing to and from the watering places. He had delivered his orders and was returning to his post, when a sudden charge of the rebels in force was encountered. Captain Bliss with a small force led the charge upon the rebels, the 3d New Jersey Cavalry, Colonel Lowell following. After marching a short distance, Colonel Lowell drew to one side, and Captain Bliss, unaware of any change in his support, pressed on towards the enemy in front, shouting to his men— “Come on boys, they are running,” and dashed in among the rebels only to find himself making the attack single-handed. As he rode, he kept his sabre swinging, striking six blows, right and left. He succeeded in wounding four of the enemy, and broke through the files, entering a side street in safety. Suddenly a bullet hit his horse, which fell with a plunge that left Captain Bliss lying upon the ground. Before he could rise, two rebel cavalrymen struck at him, one with a carbine and the other with a sabre. He could parry but one, and with his sabre stopped the crushing blow from the carbine at the same instant that the sabre gave him a cut across the forehead. Staggering to his feet, he exclaimed, “For God’s sake, do not kill a prisoner.” “Surrender then,” said the rebel. “I do surrender,” answered Captain Bliss. At that instant, a rebel horseman stabbed him in the back with a sabre, but through ignorance of sabre drill, he failed to make the half-turn of the wrist necessary to give the sabre smooth entrance between the ribs. He saw at this moment, another soldier taking aim at him with a revolver. He called for protection as a Freemason, and Captain Henry C. Lee, the acting adjutant-general of the enemy’s force, at once came to his assistance, ordering a soldier to take him to the rear and see that his wounds were dressed. He was afterwards taken to Charlottesville Hospital, where he was very kindly treated. December 6, 1864, he was placed in a cell in Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia, as a hostage for a rebel sentenced to be hung under Burnside’s famous death order in East Tennessee. February 5, 1865, he was exchanged, and after thirty days’ sick leave of absence, was placed in duty as president of a court-martial at Annapolis, Maryland, in which position he remained until mustered out of service, May 20, 1865, having served under Generals McDowell, Pope, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, Meade and Sheridan.

One of the few Congressional Medals of Honor, awarded by the government for personal bravery during the Civil War, was given to Captain Bliss. The citation accompanying the award reads:

The Congressional Medal of Honor for Most Distinguished Gallantry in action at Waynesboro, Virginia, September 28, 1864. While in command of the provost guard in the village, he saw the Union lines retiring before the attack of a greatly superior force of the enemy, mustered his guard, and without orders joined in the defense and charged the enemy without support.

During the war, over the signature of “Ulysses,” he forwarded to the Providence papers many valuable sketches of the deeds of valor performed by Union soldiers. About ten years after the war closed, he was one of the leaders in forming the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Historical Society of Rhode Island, and for many years edited and wrote many of the booklets of the series, “Personal Narratives of the Rebellion,” which have been widely distributed and which constitute the only material of its kind in existence. In one of these, “How I Lost My Sabre in War and Found It in Peace,” he recounts his later friendship with the four men he wounded at the time of his capture.

After the war, he returned to Rhode Island and in 1865, associated himself with Joshua B. Addeman in the practice of law (under the name of Bliss and Addeman). He was a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 1868-l & 73 > was elected by the Legislature in 1869, a commissioner of Shell Fisheries for five years, and reelected for five years in 1874. In 1884, he was elected to the State Senate and served three terms there. In 1874 he served as town solicitor in East Providence. In 1872, he began the fifty years of uninterrupted service as trial justice and judge of the East Providence District Court. When he retired in 1922, he had tried over 24,000 cases.

Besides his judicial duties, Judge Bliss found time to take an active part in civic and municipal affairs. For twenty-five years he was a member of the East Providence School Committee, and served as superintendent of schools for thirteen years. The Watchemoket Public Library owed its beginning to his efforts.

In 1879, he was elected major of the 1st Battalion of Cavalry in the Rhode Island Militia. He served in this capacity four years. He was a member and Past Commander of Bucklin Post, No. 20, Grand Army of the Republic; Past Commander of Rising Sun Lodge of Free Masons, of which he was a charter member and first Master; he was given, October 11, 1861, the Master Mason’s degree in Union Lodge, No. 10 of Pawtucket, Rhode Island; member of Pawtucket Chapter, No. 4, Royal Arch Masons, and was for many years the oldest Past High Priest of Holy Sepulchre Commandery, Knights Templar, and of the Grand Lodge of the State of Rhode Island.

Mr. Bliss married, January 1, 1872, Fannie Amelia Carpenter, who was born in Seekonk, Massachusetts, February 1, 1850, daughter of William A. and Mary (French) Carpenter. There were six children: four sons and two daughters. The daughters and one son, William C. Bliss, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Rhode Island, survive.

On August 29, 1928, Judge Bliss died in his ninety-second year. His wife died in March, 1930. Both were active in founding the United Congregational Church of East Providence. The passing of Judge Bliss was marked by tributes of respect to his remarkable service to Nation, State and community.

Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.

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