William Henry Purnell

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William Henry Purnell
Comptroller of Maryland
In office
Personal details
Born (1826-03-04)March 4, 1826
Worcester County, Maryland
Died March 30, 1902(1902-03-30) (aged 76)
New Castle County, Delaware
Resting place St. Anne's Church (Annapolis, Maryland)
Political party Know Nothing
Alma mater University of Delaware
Occupation lawyer, educator, Soldier, politician
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch Maryland Maryland National Guard
Years of service 1861-1862
Rank colonel
Battles/wars American Civil War

William Henry Purnell (March 4, 1826 – March 30, 1902) was a Maryland lawyer who served as the Comptroller of Maryland (1856–1861), Union officer during the American Civil War and later as President of the reorganized University of Delaware and of Hood College.[1]

Early and family life[edit]

Born in Worcester County, Maryland to Moses Purnell and his wife, the former Maria Bowen in 1826. In 1846, Purnell received a degree from Delaware College (now the University of Delaware), which he would come to lead later in his career. After graduation, he moved to Snow Hill, Maryland to read law with Judge Franklin.[2] On June 13, 1849, still in Snow Hill, he married Margaret Neill Martin. They would have ten children, including four daughters and a son before 1860.[3]


Purnell was admitted to the Maryland bar and practiced law, eventually becoming associated with the Know-Nothing Party. In 1856 Maryland voters elected Purnell to statewide office as comptroller and he moved his family to Annapolis. Re-elected in 1860, Purnell would quit that office in 1861 as newly elected President Abraham Lincoln appointed him as post master of Baltimore, a key patronage appointment.

Purnell Legion MD Cavalry p98

As the United States Civil War began and after the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run made clear that the war would not end quickly, Purnell resigned his federal position and recruited troops from Baltimore, the northern Chesapeake Bay Counties and Maryland's Eastern shore at Pikesville, Maryland under the special direction of the Secretary of War. The unit was nicknamed "Purnell's Legion", and included nine companies of infantry, two companies of cavalry, and two batteries of light artillery, all assigned to Dix's Division.[4] Its first assignment was on Maryland's Eastern Shore, to break up a potential Confederate encampment. Although the units would continue to serve for three years (and many til the war's end), Purnell resigned from the military, holding the rank of colonel, in February 1862 and resumed the position of post master of Baltimore. This resignation was endorsed by Major General John Adams Dix.[5] The legion then became a regiment of infantry, two independent companies of cavalry and two independent artillery batteries. The infantry would then be assigned to Pope's Army of Virginia and later to the Army of the Potomac, and while held in reserve at the Second Battle of Bull Run, fight in the Maryland Campaign and Battle of Antietam, then the actions around Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia, before being amalgamated into the 1st Maryland Infantry at war's end. One of the cavalry units, dismounted, would earn distinction at the Battle of Gettysburg.[6]

From 1864-1866, Purnell was chairman of the Union Party's Central Committee. President Andrew Johnson then appointed him assessor of internal revenue for Baltimore. He retired from politics in 1867 and resumed his legal practice in Baltimore.[7]

In 1870,[8] Purnell became the president of Delaware College, and moved to New Castle County, Delaware with his family.[9] He was the institution's first president after its revival as a Land Grant College.[10] Purnell was a strong supporter of co-education[11] but after a fifteen-year trial, Delaware College stopped accepting female students by a vote of the board on June 24, 1885.[12] At the same meeting, the board accepted Purnells resignation as college president, but he continued as a trustee.[13] Purnell than accepted the presidency of Hood College, a female seminary in Frederick, Maryland, and later of New Windsor College in Carroll County, Maryland, only to return to his alma mater in 1897 as an instructor in oratory, which position he held until his death.

Death and legacy[edit]

Purnell died in 1902 and was buried in the cemetery of historic St. Anne's Church close to Maryland's statehouse in Annapolis, Maryland.[14] In addition to the historical markers erected on battlefields to honor Purnell's legion, in 1972, the University of Delaware dedicated a building in his honor, specifically recognizing his efforts to educate women.[15]


  1. ^ "William Henry Purnell (1826-1902)". Spotlight on the Comptroller of Maryland. State of Maryland, Treasury Department, Office of the Comptroller. Retrieved 2011-01-29. After serving as a trial lawyer, Purnell's career as Comptroller was notable for the disputed 1861 election. Purnell won the election with "riots and frauds" in Baltimore, but resigned to serve as a postmaster and then a Union general early in the Civil War. Prevented from entering post-war politics, he became a college president in Delaware and then in Frederick and New Windsor, Maryland. 
  2. ^ Seaford Leader, Seaford, Delaware article photo on findagrave.com
  3. ^ 1860 U.S. Federal Census for Annapolis, Maryland
  4. ^ http://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/maryland/purnell-legion-maryland-infantry/
  5. ^ Roger D. Hunt. Colonel in Blue: Union Army Colonels in the Civil War, The Mid-Atlantic States. (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2007) p. 277
  6. ^ http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMBAX1_Purnell_Legion_Co_A_Maryland_Cavalry_Monument_Gettysburg_PA
  7. ^ Seaford article
  8. ^ Munroe, John A. (1986). "Chapter 5: A Coeducational Land-Grant College". The University of Delaware: A History. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. pp. 121–155. Retrieved 2011-01-29. Although the college was not to reopen until September 1870, Purnell was inaugurated as president in the preceding July on the occasion of what was planned to be an annual alumni reunion. In his address he called the Morrill Act the best and wisest statute Congress ever passed. 
  9. ^ 1870 U.S. federal census for New Castle County, white clay hundred
  10. ^ "UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE". The State of Delaware, The Official Website of the First State. Delaware Public Archives. 2009-12-22. Retrieved 2011-01-29. the legislature adopted Delaware College as the official recipient of land grant funds; authorized the sale of scrip or land warrants, and proceeds of which were to be invested in interest bearing bonds; directed the Treasurer to pay the interest from such investments to the treasurer of the board of trustees; and directed the board of trustees to establish a course of study that would "carry out the intent of the act of Congress." 
  11. ^ Hoffecker, Carol E. (1994). "Chapter 1: The Beginnings". Beneath thy guiding hand: A history of women at the University of Delaware. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. Retrieved 2011-01-29. The chief advocate for co-education at Delaware College was the president, William Henry Purnell. A native of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Purnell had graduated from Delaware College in 1846 
  12. ^ Munroe, John A. (1986). "Chapter 5: A Coeducational Land-Grant College". The University of Delaware: A History. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. pp. 153–155. Retrieved 2011-01-29. Purnell personally retained his popularity among the students. What Bush's committee concluded is not known. It reported, finally, to a board meeting on June 24, but the report does not survive. At the same time the board received a note from Purnell dated June 20, asking that his resignation be accepted--and it was, though in doing so the trustees declared that Purnell was a man of character "without stain or reproach, respected and loved by all who know him." They then proceeded to tear his favorite program to pieces, though by no means unanimously. By a vote of 13 to 8 they abolished coeducation, agreeing only to allow those women already in college to complete their studies for a degree. 
  13. ^ Hoffecker, Carol E. (1994). "Chapter 1: The Beginnings". Beneath thy guiding hand: A history of women at the University of Delaware. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. Retrieved 2011-01-29. On June 24, 1885, by a majority vote of thirteen to eight, the board adopted the following: "Resolved: That the system of co-education in Delaware College be, and is hereby abolished; provided that all students already matriculated may at their option finish their collegiate course." At this same meeting, in what must have been a closely related matter, the board accepted the resignation of William H. Purnell as president. 
  14. ^ https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/64865334
  15. ^ Seaford article

External links[edit]