By Mark Clark
Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County.
In previous articles on the history of Russell County, the heroic lives of two generals who hailed from the Seale community were described. Today, the third will be discussed – John Bacon McDonald. General McDonald is the first of the three to attain the rank of Brigadier General and he served the United States at an earlier time in history than the other two.
Much of what we know of General McDonald’s heroic feats are contained in reports filed by his superior officers – several of which who had witnessed his actions first-hand. Some of the best research of General McDonald can be found in his obituary which appeared in the March 20, 1926 edition of the Army & Navy Journal. It reads as follows:
“Brigadier General John B. McDonald, U. S. A., Retired, an officer of distinguished service against hostile Indians, in Philippine Campaigns, and in Battles during the World War, died at Walter Reed General Hospital, Washington, D.C., March 15, 1926, after being ill since September, 1925.
Two sons and two daughters survive. They are Robert Dyer McDonald, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Lt. John B. McDonald, U.S.N.; Mrs. Gordon McPherson, London, England, and Miss Sue Alston McDonald of Washington. His wife died a little more than a year ago.
General McDonald was born in Alabama, February 8, 1859, and was graduated from the U.S.M.A., in the Class of 1881, when he was assigned to the 25th Infantry. He was transferred to the 10th Cavalry in 1882, and among his many duties he served in the Geronimo Campaign in 1885, and was later on duty with Indian Scouts. He was with the 3rd Cavalry in the field in the Philippines, where he was badly wounded in action. A number of superior officers officially attested the ability he displayed. General Lloyd Wheaton, in an official report made at Manila in April, 19011, paid special tribute to the gallantry of Gen. McDonald, for his conduct in a fight at Barangobong, P. I. He was at that time captain in the 3rd Cavalry.
Gen. Wheaton said: “Capt. J. B. McDonald, 3rd Cavalry, 21 men on the firing line, and one sergeant and six men left with horses, struck and defeated 60, insurgents with rifles and 40 bolomen, under Tinio, in a stiff fight, in which he was severely wounded through the right lung. Capt. McDonald was wounded by the first volley, and is deserving of much credit in not permitting his men to know that he was hurt until after the fight was over, thereby averting what might have been a less fortunate ending. The insurgents were on a high mountain with steep ascent. The troops made their fight after scaling this mountain. His immediate commanding officer in transmitting the report, remarks; ‘There is no braver soldier in the Service than Capt. McDonald.”
He was awarded the D. S. C. and the D. S. M. by our Government, the Croix de Guerre – with palm – by France, the Croix de Guerre by Belgium, and the War Cross by Italy. The D. S. C. citation follows: “For repeated acts of extraordinary heroism in action near Epionville and Gesnes, France, Sept. 26-30, 1914. He was almost continuously present with the leading elements of his brigade, inspiring his troops by his personal bravery and energy under fire. Near Epionville, when his command was about to make an attack and was under heavy artillery fire, this officer by his disregard for personal safety steadied his men and stimulated them to successful assault on the ridge forming part of the German main line of defense. Two days later with one flank exposed by, the withdrawal of the unit on the right, he led his brigade in the attack on and capture of Gesnes”.
The D. S. M. citation says: “For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services while commanding the 181st Infantry Brigade during the advance of the 91st Division from Foret de Hesse, Argonne, France, in September, 1918, he was instrumental in the success achieved. He directed the attack in person, and by his example of personal courage and by his sound tactical orders he so inspired his brigade that it was enabled to capture and hold a most important position”.
Gen. McDonald was retired for age, Feb. 8, 1923. Funeral services were held Mar. 17, 1926, at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Burial was in Arlington National Cemetery with military honors. Honorary pallbearers were Maj. Generals David C. Shanks, Williard A. Holbrook, Benjamin Frank Cheatham, S. D. Rockenbach, Brig. General Benjamin Alvord and Colonel O. B. Rosenbaum, U. S. A.”
McDonald taught Military Science and Tactics from 1888 to 1890 in Auburn before he became quartermaster with the 10th Cavalry in Fort Grant, Arizona 1891. He held the quartermaster position in different Forts, before becoming Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the Military College of South Carolina from 1897 to 1898. He was promoted to Captain in 1898. With the start of the Spanish-American War, McDonald became Lieutenant Colonel with the 1st Alabama Volunteer Infantry and was honorably mustered out after the end of the conflict in October 1898.
During the Philippine–American War in June 1901, Lt. Col. McDonald was injured in a battle in the Santa Lucia municipality. Although he got shot through the lung at the beginning of the fight, he concealed his injury from his subordinates until the battle was over. For this action, he was later awarded the Silver Star.
He became a Major with the 15th Cavalry in 1907 and was appointed as commander for Fort Ethan Allen the next year.
After he had held different commands, Maj. McDonald joined the Inspector-Generals Office in 1914.
In 1917, he got a temporary promotion to Brigadier General and was part of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. He commanded the 181st Infantry Brigade with the 91st Division during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the Battle of the Lys. He returned with his brigade to the United States in April 1919.
After the end of World War I, Gen. McDonald had several posts, including commander of the Pacific Branch of U. S. Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz Island until 1922.
The historic marker honoring Gen, McDonald was erected on Longview Street in Seale near the location of what was once his family plantation.