William Henry West (1842-1915)

West posing in hat and overcoat with balled fists
Former District of Columbia Policeman William West, September 27, 1908
Courtesy The Evening Star

William Henry West was a Civil War-era African American soldier and later a police officer in Washington, D.C. West was best known for arresting U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. This is the only known record of a sitting United States President being arrested.

West was born enslaved in September 1842 to unnamed parents in Prince George’s County, Virginia. In 1863 West joined the Union Army and fought in the American Civil War. He was a soldier in Company K, 30th United States Colored Infantry, an all-black unit created by the United States War Department on May 22, 1863. The Infantry was composed of African American troops commanded by white officers. After the war West married Kathrine “Kate” Bowie on June 11, 1867, in Washington D.C. and the couple would have six children.

West in policeman's uniform posing on a horse
William Henry West as District of Columbia Policeman, ca. 1888 – Courtesy The Evening Star

On August 1, 1871, West was appointed to the Washington D.C. Metropolitan police force. In 1872 West was on duty at 12th and M Streets where he was tasked with patrolling the streets in response to a series of accidents involving speeding carriages and pedestrians. On the lookout for speeders, West noticed a horse and carriage approaching him. He dashed into oncoming traffic and brought the carriage to a stop. He looked inside the carriage and recognized that it was President Ulysses S. Grant. West gave Grant a warning for speeding his horse and buggy and released him. The next day, West saw Grant again speeding his horse and buggy in the same area and stopped him. This time, however, the D.C. policeman arrested the President of the United States for speeding. West took Grant to the police station, where the President posted a $20 bond and was released. After the incident, West and President Grant became friends.

In his later life, West himself would get into trouble with the police force. In 1884, West and fellow officer, William H. White, were tried before a broad of the Metropolitan Police for neglecting their duties. They were both fined $25. In 1898, West was accused of not paying a debt of $40. He had borrowed money from a local lender known only as a Mrs. Terrell. The loan agreement called for him to pay 10% interest per month until the loan was paid off. West paid $72 in 19 months but then ceased paying prompting Mrs. Terrell to sue him. The case was later dismissed. In 1901, West was arrested for disorderly conduct following an argument. Later that year he retired from the Washington, D.C. police force. William Henry West died on September 15, 1915 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 73.