William L. Ryan was born on April 15, 1832, in either Leinster or Queen’s County, Ireland.
Although William was reported to have fought in the Mexican War, in fact he did not immigrate to North America until the spring of 1854. (Curiously, one source reported years later that “he had been a soldier in Ireland for a time. . . “) Soon after arriving in North America he first settled in Huron, Canada, staying there but a few months before moving to Grand Rapids and then to Spring Lake, Ottawa County, and in 1857 to Muskegon, Muskegon County.
William was married to Maria O’Hara (d. 1857?), and they had at least two children: William (b. 1854) and Mary Ann (b. 1856).
By 1860 William was a sawyer working in Muskegon and living at the Averill boarding house along with Thomas Waters and George Root (both of whom would also join Company H). His two children were reportedly living with their paternal grandmother Ann and uncles Joseph and Patrick (William L.’s younger brothers) in Walker, Kent County.
According to William as soon as he and Waters heard about the fall of Fort Sumter they decided to enlist together, joining the company then forming in Muskegon. Originally called the “Muskegon Rangers,” this company would be organized under the command of Captain Emery Bryant and become Company H in the Third Michigan Infantry.
William was 29 years old when he was elected Second Lieutenant of the “Muskegon Rangers,” the militia company that was organized in Muskegon in late April of 1861 and whose members would form the nucleus of Company H; he enlisted as Second Lieutenant in Company H, probably in late April of 1861.
On June 13, 1861, the Third Michigan left Grand Rapids for Washington, DC, where it arrived on June 16 and went into camp near the Chain Bridge along the Potomac River just above Georgetown. According to Dan Crotty of Company F, soon after the Regiment reached its camp at Chain Bridge, “We throw ourselves down on mother earth, on the banks of the beautiful and historic Potomac, to rest our weary limbs. Here Lieutenant Ryan, an old soldier, is ordered to lay out a camp, which he does, and we call it, after our Michigan War Governor, Camp [Austin] Blair.” Charles Brittain also of Company H, thought “Bill Ryan” a first-rate fellow.
William was commissioned First Lieutenant on October 28, 1861.
He was shot in the hip on August 29, 1862, at Second Bull Run. He was “badly wounded in the hip,” wrote Crotty some years after the war, “but by good nursing and a strong constitution he may get over it.” William was commissioned Captain of Company H on October 20, replacing Captain Emery D. Bryant.
He returned to Grand Rapids in the fall of 1862 and married Maria Cloonen (1842-1899) on November 11, 1862, at Grand Rapids.
William resigned on account of disability on March 24, 1863, at Camp Pitcher, Virginia.
It is not known if William returned to Muskegon following his discharge.
In the fall of 1864 he entered the Veterans’ Reserve Corps in New Jersey and was commissioned a First Lieutenant in Company C, then in Company E, and transferred to the Thirteenth Veterans’ Reserve Corps as Assistant Mustering Officer and Inspector of Passports at Boston harbor.
In October of 1864 he returned to western Michigan on a short furlough. Captain “Ryan, late of the old Third,” wrote the Grand Rapids Eagle on October 17, “who is now of the Thirteenth Veteran Reserve Corps in command of ‘B’ Street Barracks, Boston, Mass., has just returned on a short furlough. His numerous friends in this city and vicinity will greet him with open arms and warm hearts.” By the end of the month Ryan had left to rejoin his command in Boston.
William was subsequently appointed Assistant commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau in Mississippi, and finally discharged from the Bureau in 1867. (Curiously, his daughter Mary Ann was still living with her grandmother and Uncle Joseph in Walker in 1870.)
After he left the Freedman’s Bureau William returned to Muskegon where he served as City Marshal from 1867-70, and was the first Democratic sheriff in Muskegon County, serving from 1874-78. He had also been a deputy sheriff and constable. On September 4, 1877, the Democrat reported the following story.
Major W. L. Ryan, Sheriff of Muskegon County, was somewhat injured yesterday while conveying a prisoner sentenced for 3 months to the House of Corrections at Ionia. The prisoner, while traveling in custody over the Detroit & Milwaukee railroad about four miles west of Coopersville, suddenly sprang from the sheriff and started for the door, and immediately jumped from the platform while the train was going at a rapid rate, closely followed by the plucky sheriff. This caused considerable excitement on the train, and Conductor Anderson immediately signaled the engineer, and the train backed up to where the prisoner and sheriff alighted. The sheriff was found to be somewhat bruised, and in no very favorable condition to give chase to the scoundrel, who had taken to the brush and was out of sight. Several trackmen who were at work on the road near by started to capture the prisoner, while Sheriff Ryan got on board the train again and went to Coopersville for an officer to assist him in further search for the fugitive. As this is the first case Sheriff Ryan has ever had of an escape of a prisoner, it is to be hoped he may be successful in the capture of the rogue.
William served as a Justice of the Peace in Muskegon from 1879-83, and in 1880 was living in Muskegon’s Third Ward with his wife Maria. In 1881 he was a Police Justice. He was still living in Muskegon in 1882, 1886, 1888, 1890-91 and in fact he probably remained in Muskegon until 1894 when he was admitted briefly to the Michigan Soldiers’ Home in Grand Rapids; by 1895 he was reportedly living in Muskegon.
He was a member of the Old Third Michigan Infantry Association, and at the annual reunions he was known for speaking his mind about the war. For example, at the 1882 reunion of the Association, “W. L. Ryan of Muskegon threw a small bomb into the rather harmonious gathering by jumping up and making three cheers for the expected restoration of Fitz John Porter and said no soldier of the ‘Old Third’ ought to fail to respond.” The Democrat added that General A. T. McReynolds “endorsed the request, several were preparing to object, and a stormy time was imminent when the meeting was suddenly adjourned.”
William was also the charter commander of Grand Army of the Republic Kearny Post No. 7 in 1879 in Muskegon, a staunch Democrat, and a Roman Catholic.
In 1870 he testified for the prosecution in the second trial of George Vanderpool, formerly of Company H, who had been charged with murdering his business partner in Manistee.
Ryan suffered for many years from “rheumatism,” and he sought a variety of cures for the chronic illness. On April 26, 1892, Ryan told a reporter for the Democrat
that for more than 20 years he had been fighting the dreaded disease, but its grip grew stronger each succeeding year. For 12 months past he has been confined to his room, and it is two years since the Major could walk without assistance. Four weeks ago he began a course of treatment with Madame Debanshaw. At that time he had to be fed like a child, and was so completely helpless that he could not move in his chair without aid. But since the beginning of these treatments his general health has improved rapidly, his rheumatism with every pain is gone and today he is around again among his friends. He recommends Madam Debanshaw's magnetic remedy very strongly to those suffering from the same disease. Madam's office is located at 87 Western Avenue, Muskegon.
William reportedly entered the Michigan Soldiers’ Home in Grand Rapids in February of 1864, and for a time his wife and daughter lived in rooms on Fountain Street in Grand Rapids while he was treated for sever “rheumatism” in the Home. According to his death certificate, William entered the Home January 17, 1895.
He died of heart failure and epilepsy at the Home hospital on Friday morning, January 31, 1896, and the funeral service was held at 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning, February 3, at the Home hospital; his wife was living at 17 North Lane Avenue in Grand Rapids. There was a funeral mass at St. Andrews Church, and William was buried in St. Andrews cemetery: New section 2 lot 35 grave 2.
In 1863 William applied for and received a veteran’s pension (no. 88354). His widow applied for and received a dependent widow’s pension (no. 437458).