Born September 19, 1835 in Ireland, William McCandless was the son of Irish immigrants who died while William was a boy. He was reared by his uncle, Philadelphia policeman John McCandless; attended public schools, apprenticed as a machinist at Norris Locomotive Works, and later ran a locomotive for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Ignored for promotion, he read law and joined the Philadelphia bar in 1858, developing a lucrative practice. On May 27, 1861, he enlisted as a private with Capt. Mealy’s first responders, his unit forming part of the 2d Pennsylvania Reserves, 31st Regt., PVI, in October 1861. At the new regiment’s organization, McCandless received a promotion to Major, and by October 22, 1861 – Lt. Colonel.
The “Second” saw considerable action during its three-year service: Washington to 2d Manassas, Mechanicsville and the Peninsula Campaign (where he commanded the regiment), South Mountain and Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse. McCandless received a promotion to full Colonel on Aug. 1, 1862, preceding 2d Manassas. He suffered a bullet hole through the groin during the battle, Aug. 30, 1862; recuperated in 60 days and joined General Burnside at Antietam.
In Mechanicsville, according to Gen. McClellan, McCandless’s troop, hopelessly outnumbered, repulsed three assaults at fixed bayonet, “Col. McCandless gallantly leading the charge.” At Fredericksburg, Dec. 1862, Gen. Meade approached Col. McCandless for pleasant conversation and a report on the condition of his 31st Regiment. “Meade pointed to his shoulder straps” and questioned: “a (brigadier general’s) star this morning, William?" Just as McCandless replied, a Confederate artillery shell gutted the colonel's horse – with Buck in the saddle. An irritated McCandless dusted himself off and responded, “More likely a wooden overcoat (coffin).” At Gettysburg, the Colonel commanded Samuel W. Crawford’s First Brigade, leading the right flank of the famous Plum Run counter-attack that secured the Wheatfield (aka “Valley of Death”). Crawford recommended Buck for promotion to Major General, however the Col. declined. Again, at the Wilderness (Spotsylvania) as Division commander, McCandless led another heroic charge, this time suffering capture. He escaped and led his unit toward Spotsylvania Court House, where he received another serious wound, as canister shrapnel broke his left arm and rendered the limb partially disabled. Notwithstanding his injuries, General Grant recommended another promotion to Brigadier General, May 13, 1864. McCandless again refused the promotion, returning to private life, yet was referred to as “General” for the rest of his life. The New York Herald noted, “As an officer he had won great distinction, and was a favorite with his companions in arms, who now deeply feel his departure.”
After the war, Col. McCandless was a member of the state Senate, 1866-1869; toured Europe in 1870; studied European warfare; married, 1871, Annie McCandless; made an unsuccessful bid for state Auditor General, 1871; elected Secretary of Internal Affairs, 1874; and later stood as a Democratic state convention nominee for Governor of Pennsylvania. He was defeated for Congress in 1878. Senator McCandless passed away on June 17, 1884, at his home in Philadelphia. He was buried at Moriah Cemetery five days later.
Erie Observer, July 13, 1871; also: Philadelphia Inquirer, June 18-23, 1884; (Top) Col. McCandless, 1864, Barrett Collection, USAMHI; Portrait: Senator McCandless, from (likely) 1868 Senate composite, RG42S-HBCWRT2.27, USAMHI