William Wallace Smith Bliss
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William Wallace Smith Bliss (August 17, 1815 – August 5, 1853) was a United States Army officer and mathematics professor. A gifted mathematician, he taught at West Point and also served as a line officer.
He received an A.M. from Dartmouth College in 1848. In December 1848 Bliss married Mary Elizabeth Taylor, youngest daughter of the newly elected President Zachary Taylor, whom he would serve as Presidential Secretary. Five years later Bliss contracted yellow fever in New Orleans and died at the age of 37.
Having become interested in the various Native American tribes, Bliss learned a number of their languages and studied their cultures. He was a member of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries of Copenhagen, Denmark, and an Honorary Member of the American Ethnological Society. Gifted at languages, he was fluent in at least thirteen.
Early life and education
Bliss entered the United States Military Academy on September 1, 1829. He showed very great mathematical gifts while a student. He graduated July 1, 1833 (not yet 18 years old) as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Regiment. It was his choice to serve in the infantry.
He served in the Fort Mitchell army garrison in Alabama from 1833 to 1834. During 1835 he was involved in operations against the Cherokee during Indian Removal, which removed most of them to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
From October 2, 1834 until January 4, 1840, Bliss served as Assistant Professor of Mathematics at West Point. As a Captain, he served as Chief of Staff from 1840 until 1841 to Brig. Gen. Walker Keith Armistead, the Commanding General in the Seminole Wars. He served at Fort Smith, Arkansas and at Fort Jesup, Louisiana.
In 1845 Bliss took part in the United States military occupation of the Republic of Texas, prior to its annexation. Between April 1846 and November 1847, he took part in the Mexican War, including fighting in the Battle of Palo Alto on May 8, 1846. His performance gained a promotion to major on May 9, 1846. He fought in the Battle of Buena Vista and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in February 1847 for gallant and meritorious service.
During his service in Texas and in Mexico he served under Major-General Zachary Taylor. Bliss was noted for his efficiency and skills as a high-level aide. His writing was simple, elegant, vigorous, and picturesque. He was cheerful and popular with the public.
He earned an A.M. from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in 1848. He was a member of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries of Copenhagen, Denmark and an Honorary Member of the American Ethnological Society. He was gifted at languages, and was fluent in at least thirteen. George Perkins Marsh, the philologist, said that Bliss was the best linguist in America.
Marriage and family
Taylor appointed Bliss as Private Secretary to the President (he was able to take leave from the Army for this assignment).
As the President's wife took no part in formal social events, she delegated the social role to their daughter Mary Elizabeth Bliss, who effectively became the First Lady of the White House at the age of 22. The popular young couple seemed destined to become powerful figures in Washington.
The President died suddenly in July 1850. Bliss and his wife Mary accompanied her widowed mother to Pascagoula, Mississippi. She died there in 1852, at the home of another daughter.
Bliss was assigned as Adjutant-General of the Western Division of the Army. Following a summer visit to New Orleans on behalf of University of Louisiana, Bliss contracted yellow fever. He died at Pascagoula on August 5, 1853, aged 38. He was buried at Girod Street Cemetery, New Orleans. Mary Taylor Bliss lost her father, mother, and husband in little more than three years. Five years later, she remarried.
Legacy and honors
- 1849 the State of New York presented him with a Gold Medal for his bravery in the Mexican-American War, at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey and Buena Vista.
- March 8, 1854, the Post of El Paso was renamed in his honor as Fort Bliss.
- A twenty-foot memorial, made of Italian marble, was erected in his honor in the Girod Street Cemetery, New Orleans. It noted him as "a finished scholar, an accomplished gentleman and a gallant soldier." In 1955, the cemetery was condemned for highway construction. The remains of Colonel Bliss and his monument were moved to the Fort Bliss National Cemetery.
- Carl Sferrazza, America's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House, Lisa Drew Books
- The Bliss Family History Society[dead link]
- Fort Bliss National Cemetery
- Fort Bliss, The Post Opposite El Paso, Austin[dead link]
- My Southern Family, Rootsweb
- Military biography of William Bliss, from the Cullum biographies