James Franklin Bell was born Jan. 9, 1856 in Shelbyville, KY. He grew up in a slave-holding family, working on the family farm. As a boy, he enjoyed baseball and horseracing. In 1878, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy was assigned to the African-American 9th Cavalry. Bell objected to the assignment and was assigned to another unit. He married Belle Buford in 1881; they had no children.
In 1889, Bell was admitted to the Illinois bar. He served on the staff of the Cavalry and Light Infantry School. During the Philippine-American War, Bell was award the Medal of Honor in a battle on Luzon Island. During this time, Bell was promoted from captain to brigadier general.
From 1903-1906, Bell commanded the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS. He commanded the Department of the West until the beginning of World War I. Bell was in charge of officer training and his aide in this effort was Capt. George Marshall. Bell toured the front in France and observed combat, but due to bad health was not permitted to lead troops into battle. Bell died Jan. 8, 1919, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.