Major General Zenas Randall Bliss was born in the Johnston village of Simmonsville on April 17, 1835. He passed a comfortable youth in a middle class family until he won a direct appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1850, at the age of fifteen. At West Point Bliss graduated near the bottom of the class of 1854 and was immediately dispatched to Texas to serve with the Eighth United States Infantry.
Promotion to first lieutenant came in 1860, as Bliss continued with his peacetime duties of policing the frontier. In 1861 in the midst of the secession crisis, Brigadier General David Twiggs surrendered all Federal forces in Texas to Confederate authorities. Now Captain Bliss, found himself in captivity until April of 1862 when he was exchanged. He immediately returned to Rhode Island and accepted command of the Tenth Rhode Island Volunteers for a three-month tour of duty in the Washington defenses.
In August of 1862, Governor William Sprague appointed Bliss colonel of the Seventh Rhode Island Volunteers. Colonel Bliss brought his regiment south where he trained them in his own image. The result would be the finest combat regiment produced by Rhode Island during the Civil War. At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Colonel Bliss took the Seventh into action in a desperate assault against a fortified enemy position. One soldier later recalled, “Colonel Bliss was everything that could be asked for. He took a rifle and went right in with the men.” Despite forty percent of his regiment being killed or wounded and without the aid of any other staff officers, Bliss singlehandedly took command of the Seventh, despite a slight injury, and led them to within fifty yards of their objective. For his courageous actions Bliss not only received universal praise from his commanders, but also the Medal of Honor, a brevet majority in the Regular Army, and nomination for promotion to brigadier general.
Colonel Bliss again led the Seventh with vigor during the Mississippi Campaign in the summer of 1863, earning another nomination for promotion. In the spring of 1864, he led a brigade with distinction at the Wilderness, earning another brevet promotion. He was injured by a fall from his horse at Spotsylvania the following week, but was well enough to return to action later that summer.
After being mustered out of his volunteer rank in the summer of 1865, Bliss reverted to the rank of major in the Regular Army. After a brief recruiting tour, he was sent west and assigned to command the Buffalo Soldiers, with whom he spent twenty-one years. His long tour of duty with these African-American soldiers made him an early advocate for their widespread use in the army.
Bliss eventually rose to command the Department of Texas. Promotion to brigadier and major general came in 1892 and 1895 respectively. He officially retired in 1896 after forty-six years of active duty. General Bliss died on January 1, 1900, his demise hastened by the effects of his many years of service on the plains. Fittingly, he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.