By RONALD S. CODDINGTON
Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
Shortly after the Civil War broke out, Dr. William McNeill Whistler, scion of a storied Anglo-American military family and brother of the artist James McNeill Whistler, arrived in Richmond, Va., to lobby Confederate leaders for a medical officer’s commission. Described as a genial, refined man with a soft and pleasant voice, the 25-year-old, Massachusetts-born Whistler was firmly determined to put his medical training to use.
William A. Turner collection: William McNeill Whistler donned his Confederate uniform for this postwar portrait taken circa 1866 in France by the studio of Paris photographer Étienne Carjat.
Even after he gave up on the medical staff itself and applied for a clerk’s position instead, he wrote in his application, “Being a physician by profession, I felt that the only true position for me was on the medical staff, as the want of any military education disqualified me for any other office.” By war’s end, though, he would find himself following more closely in his family’s footsteps than he could have imagined.
Dr. Whistler’s grandfather, John Whistler, had served in the British Army during the Revolution. He later immigrated to America, became a United States Army officer, and fought the British in the War of 1812. Dr. Whistler’s father, George Washington Whistler, graduated from West Point and become a well-respected civil engineer during the early years of the railroad boom. He died unexpectedly in 1849 while overseeing the planning and construction of a Russian railroad, after which his widowed wife (and future world-famous portrait subject), Anna, and children, including 12-year-old William Whistler, returned to America. Even William’s older brother, the acclaimed artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, attended West Point (though he didn’t graduate).
William Whistler, however, broke from the West Point tradition, earning a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1860. Later that year he married the Georgia-born Florida Bayard King — affectionately known as Ida — later that year. Dr. Whistler’s mother, who hailed from North Carolina, embraced “precious Ida” with love and affection. She noted a few months after the Civil War began that the newlyweds “seem perfectly well and happy. Ida has made Willie a thorough secessionist thus verifying the saying ‘A man forsakes all, for his wife.’”
The couple settled in Richmond, where Whistler failed to find a medical officer’s commission and they ran into money problems. A year passed before his luck finally changed: in the fall of 1862, Confederate authorities commissioned Dr. Whistler as assistant surgeon and assigned him to duty in the Richmond area. But while his career prospects rose, Ida’s health declined. Dr. Whistler’s mother traveled to Richmond to care for her, but after an early and encouraging rally, Ida died in March 1863.
The loss devastated mother and son. Months later, a bereaved Mrs. Whistler wrote of Ida to a friend, “Each day I feel more sensibly what Willie & I have lost, she was such a rare combination of brightness & gentleness, so loving so confiding, just like one of my own little ones.”
Whistler remained on duty in the vicinity of Richmond until April 1864, when he received a field assignment as an assistant surgeon in the veteran First South Carolina Rifles. The hard-fighting regiment was also known as Orr’s Rifles after its original commander, Col. James Orr, a onetime speaker of the House of Representatives who resigned from the Army to serve in the Confederate Congress. Whistler served with Orr’s Rifles on the front lines in Virginia as the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on Richmond in April 1864. “He was a total stranger to us,” wrote Sgt. Maj. Robert Hemphill in a postwar memorial to Dr. Whistler. “The veterans of three years looked with discerning eyes upon the new assistant surgeon to see of what mettle he was made.”
Library of CongressThe Bloody Angle, labeled on this circa 1865 map as the West Angle, is part of the Mule Shoe Salient on the Spotsylvania battlefield.
Dr. Whistler proved himself the following month during the Battle of Spotsylvania and the intense fighting in an area that came to be known as the Bloody Angle, some of the worst combat of the war. Driven, perhaps, to fill the void left by the death of his wife, Dr. Whistler proved fearless on the battlefield, even in the face of unrelenting enemy fire. “When the artillery opened,” recalled Major Hemphill,
Dr. Whistler ordered his servant to take his horse to the rear and out of danger, while he remained with the line of battle until it entered the Bloody Angle, and he was detained to look after such as had fallen in the charge. He thus established himself in the hearts of his comrades, and made a reputation for cool courage and fidelity to duty.
During the rest of the campaign, according to Major Hemphill, “Dr. Whistler was constantly on the line, sharing the hardships, dangers, and scant rations of the men. The humblest private received the same professional attention from him as did the highest officer.” Major Hemphill included an anecdote that illustrated Dr. Whistler’s compassion for the men in the ranks. During a raid outside Petersburg in December 1864, “The roads were covered with snow and ice, and the suffering of the men was great, for many were without shoes, and the broken ice lacerated their feet most painfully. Dr. Whistler gave up his horse to one of these wretched men, and marched on foot with the line. He walked for miles by the side of the writer.” Whistler entertained his companions with stories of his boyhood adventures in Russia and other experiences. “In bivouac and camp he was a most agreeable comrade, his conversation being full of reminiscence, anecdote and philosophy,” Major Hemphill added.
But the rigors of campaigning eventually compromised Dr. Whistler’s health. He received a leave of absence in February 1865 and traveled to Richmond. He left soon after to join his mother, who had since departed for London to visit her artist son, James. Not letting an opportunity overseas go to waste, the Confederate government entrusted Dr. Whistler to deliver “certain dispatches of importance” to England. Dr. Whistler set out for South Carolina with the intention of crossing the Atlantic on a blockade-runner out of Charleston. He ran into elements of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s federal army, and changed course to Wilmington, N.C. There, the presence of Union forces foiled his plans again. He next traveled to the North under an assumed name and dressed in civilian clothes; he made his way through Philadelphia to New York, from where he sailed for England. He arrived in Liverpool and delivered the dispatches, then joined his family. One week later, Dr. Whistler learned that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.
Dr. Whistler never returned to America. He wandered through Europe for about a year, and worked for a time in Paris, where he most likely posed for his carte de visite photograph wearing his Confederate uniform, perhaps for the last time. He eventually settled in London and rose to prominence as a physician and academic. In 1876 he married a Greek citizen, Helen Euphrosyne Ionides. She survived her husband after he died of influenza at age 63 in 1900.
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