Rufus Saxton was born October 19, 1824, in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He attended Deerfield Academy and worked on the family farm until he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the age of twenty. He graduated with the Class of 1849 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Artillery Branch.
Before the Civil War, Saxton served in the 3rd Artillery in Florida against the Seminole Indians, and then on General George B. McClellan’s staff surveying the uncharted Rocky Mountains ahead of the Northern Pacific Railroad. From 1855 to 1859, he served at several posts with the Coastal Survey in the East. It was during this period of time he made improvement in the instruments for deep-sea soundings. He patented a self-registering thermostat which bears his name. In 1859, Saxton became an instructor of artillery tactics at West Point.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Saxton was in command of an artillery detachment at the St. Louis Arsenal. After supporting General Nathaniel Lyon in dispersing the Confederate sympathizing Missouri State Guard at Camp Jackson, Saxton became General Lyon’s Chief Quartermaster. Later, he joined General George B. McClellan’s staff in West Virginia and later accompanied the Port Royal Expedition as Quartermaster. He was appointed brigadier general of U.S. volunteers as of April 15, 1862, and commanded the defenses of Harpers Ferry in May and June, where he earned the Medal of Honor for “Distinguished gallantry and good conduct in the defense.” General Saxton was awarded the Medal of Honor on April 25, 1893.
For the remainder of the Civil War, Saxton commanded at various locations in the South with numerous titles. His principal occupation was the enlistment and organization of Negroes, principally ex-slaves, into the Federal Army. At the end of the war, he became acting assistant commissioner for the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in the newly created Freedman’s Bureau. In January 1866, Major General Rufus Saxton was mustered out of the volunteer service. He lived in Washington, D.C., until his death on February 23, 1908. He was eighty-three years old. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and is honored with a private memorial.
He signed his SAR application as “Rufus Saxton, Brevet Major General, U.S. Volunteers,” in January 1893. His SAR National number is 6917 and his District of Columbia Society number is 417. His application lists two SAR patriot ancestors: his great-grandfather David Saxton (Sexton) of Deerfield, Massachusetts, a private in Massachusetts Militia, Magistrate, and Member of the Massachusetts Legislature; and his great-grandfather Salmon White of Whately, Massachusetts, a sergeant in the 6th Massachusetts, later an ensign and lieutenant in the Massachusetts Regiment.