William Byrd, lawyer, soldier, and politician, was born at Cottage Farm, Clarke County, Virginia, on September 9, 1828, the son of Richard Evelyn and Anne (Harrison) Byrd. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute on July 4, 1849, and afterward took a degree in law at the University of Virginia. By March 1853 he was practicing law in the Travis County, Texas, community of Webberville, and by 1854 was popular enough to be chosen orator at the annual Fourth of July barbecue. The Austin Texas State Gazette (see AUSTIN STATE GAZETTE) referred to him as "a young lawyer spoken of highly by his friends," and declared his address "to have been quite eloquent and credible to that young gentleman." A clipping from an unidentified newspaper in Byrd's scrapbook, now preserved at the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin, quotes the 1854 speech in full. Its spread-eagle oratory praises the creed of the Young America movement and attacks the North for "tramping on the constitution" and for "substituting for the wisdom and virtue of their patriotic fathers, the fatuity and villainy of unprincipled fanatics deliberately [inaugurating] a series of legislative acts against slavery."
In August 1854 Byrd moved to Austin, where he formed a partnership with T. Scott Anderson. He was elected city treasurer and in 1857 ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature. He was a delegate to the Travis County convention that in June 1859 endorsed the nominations of the state convention for governor and lieutenant governor. In Austin on September 12, 1859, Byrd married Jennie Rivers of Colorado, Texas, the daughter of Robert Jones Rivers. They had nine children. When William Marshall returned to Mississippi in November 1860 to be with his ailing wife, Byrd became editor of the Texas State Gazette and in its pages in December called for a secession convention in Texas.
He was appointed adjutant general by Governor Edward Clark on May 11, 1861, and was responsible for putting the Confederate state of Texas on a war footing. In a series of general orders he provided for the recruiting of 11,000 volunteers into infantry companies. As "a well organized citizen soldiery is the strength of a free country," Byrd oversaw the formation of the new companies into battalions, regiments, and brigades at eleven new camps of instruction in various parts of the state. These were commanded by Augustus Buchel, Thomas Green, Hugh McLeod, Joseph L. Hogg, James H. Rogers, W. C. Young, W. H. Parsons, C. C. Herbert, M. F. Locke, R. M. Powell, and C. L. Cleveland. Each camp was to accommodate 1,000 recruits for a period of forty days, beginning on July 2, and was to be supplied with food by voluntary subscription from local citizens. This requisition Byrd reckoned at 45,000 pounds of flour, 37,000 pounds of beef, 7,500 pounds of bacon, 2,000 pounds of coffee, 2,400 pounds of sugar, 6 sacks of salt, and 1,600 pounds of soap per camp. "Our citizens will not be less cheerful in contributing to prepare our troops, to uphold our honor and liberties, than our Northern enemies in lavishing their gold, to hire mercenaries to enslave us," he opined.
Byrd served for a time as state ordnance officer during the fall of 1861 before being elected on November 26, 1861, as lieutenant colonel of Col. Edward Clark's Fourteenth Texas Infantry, a regiment that saw action in the Red River campaign as a component of Walker's Texas Division. Byrd, however, was detached from the regiment to command Fort DeRussy on the Red River, some three miles above Marksville, Louisiana. Capt. E. P. Petty described the fort as "a strong work and there are some fine guns there but it is incomplete. . . . When completed no gunboat will be able to pass and they can only be taken by land attack." The fort was garrisoned by some 400 soldiers detached from the regiments of Walker's division. On March 14, 1864, it was surrounded by Union troops and taken by bombardment and assault. Byrd was at first reported killed but was in fact taken prisoner. He was exchanged at Red River Landing, Louisiana, on July 22, 1864, returned to his regiment, and was stationed at Hempstead at the war's end. Thereafter he returned to Winchester, Virginia, to practice law. He died in May 1898. William Byrd was the grandfather of aviator and explorer Richard Byrd, Virginia governor Harry Byrd, and World War I hero Tom Byrd.