Campbell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 12, 1843 to parents who had emigrated from Ireland. His writing career began at the age of fifteen in 1858, when he took a job as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post. He later became a drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and eventually founded the Pittsburg Evening Mail and the Southern Monthly Magazine.
Campbell's playwright career began in 1871 with the play Through Fire, which ran for four weeks and motivated him to quit journalism. He wrote numerous plays for Pittsburgh's theatres which garnered him national attention. He was quite successful and is often noted as the first American to earn a living solely as a playwright; however, there is some debate about whether or not he was truly the first.
His other plays include: Peril, Fate, Risks, or Insure Your Life (written for John Dillon), The Virginian, The Big Bonanza, My Partner, The Galley Slave, The White Slave, Siberia, and his final play, Paquita.
Although his works contain language and situations that would be considered politically incorrect today, theatre troops performing his plays can still be found over a century later.