The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Documents associated with: Harte, Bret
Record 7 of 7

System Number: 07028
Date: [29 November 1898][1]
Author: William McNeill Whistler[2]
Place: London
Recipient: Robert R. Hemphill[3]
Place: [Abbeville, SC]
Repository: Glasgow University Library
Call Number: MS Whistler W1017
Document Type: ALdS[4]

(p. 1)[5]


My dear Hemphill -

My brother[6] came over from Paris a short time since, & brought me your letter to him. I have never received any message that has touched me more deeply, or given me such delight. To be so kindly remembered by my old Comrades carries me back still more vividly to past times when we were fellow Campaigners in the "Old Cause"; days which I never [p. 2] forget, & which I cherish among my fondest memories. Often do I recall my association with Orr's[7] rifle regiment as the brightest of my recollections of the War. How time has gone by since I parted (for a short time as I then supposed) with our regiment, in February 1865. I little thought that the four months furlough given me, as you say, to come abroad would have left me here still after nearly 33 years. On reporting in Richmond after leaving the front at Petersburg [p. 3] I was entrusted with despatches to deliver in England, which made my lines getting through the lines a somewhat more anxious undertaking. I had arranged to run the blockade from Charleston. On reaching Columbia however, I found myself stopped by Sherman's[8] advance; & so I had to beat a very hasty retreat from there back again towards Richmond. Here I bid good bye to my old friend Dr John Caldwell[9] of our brigade who - on leave - had travelled with me this far. Sherman's [p. 4] camp fires were lighting up the night, just across the river, & the whole town was in a bustle of excitement & preparation. Every man was being ordered to immediate duty. All trains were full for the time being under the control of the Department, and passenger traffic was temporarily suspended.

I saw at once that this was no moment for showing papers or entering into explanations as to the undertaking I had to fulfil. So finding a Treasury Department train just starting for Virginia - its occupants being ladies engaged in the Treasury - I stowed myself [p. 5] away, unknown to anyone in an empty break van. Here I climbed in the dark to an upper shelf just under the roof, and laid myself[10] down and rested as best I could in the bitter cold, for it was snowing.

Fortune however smiled on me before the journey was over, and a friend whom I unexpectedly met at a station where we stopped, rescued me from my stowaway position, and transferred me to a car where all was bright & cheery, with with lovely ladies, whose kind reception I shall never forget. So we went on to Richmond, stopping for a day at Charlotte - N. Carolina, where I met our Colonel McDuffie Miller[11] & Mr [p. 6] Mullally[12], our Chaplain, who were making their way to South Carolina on furlough. Our ordinance officer Captain Thompson[13] of McGowan's Staff also joined me here.

I found it impossible, next, to run the blockade from Wilmington, and so had to give up all chance 'idea' of getting out by sea. The only course open to me was to get round Grant's[14] lines as best I could, & make my way through Maryland. I am amused when I recall that the travelling suit, required for a disguise so to say, cost me 14 00 dollars, and that the bundle of notes needed to meet the damage 'expense' was so bulky, that I got a darkey to tote it to the tailor.

To effect my plans was not so easy, [p. 7] and it was not until the 4th of March that I got fairly off. I started in an Ambulance waggon, having secured a place in it for 500 dollars.

This being done, I may add that I walked nearly all the way, owing to the state of the roads. The driver had not long left "Castle Thunder[15]" as near 'far' as I 'can' remember; and my other companion was a man going with him on foraging duty. They were rather rough diamonds, but as you know we 'we' all of us had got well used to roughing; and so, for the few days we jogged along together, I got on very jollily with them on our risky journey. We were making our way [p. 8] towards the Rappahanock, my intention then being to get over to Maryland in that direction, en route to 'for' New York. This plan of mine was frustrated by Stanton's expedition[16]. It was on the fourth day, while journeying along, that the sound of distant distant guns, which proved to be the shelling from the gunboats on the Rappahanoc Rappahannock, burst suddenly upon the still air of the bright spring morning. We learned learnt further that all the boats that had been in use for crossing were seized or hidden away. To me therefore this means of exit was closed.

That night we found shelter in a lonely farmhouse. Our host was an old [p. 9] gentleman dwelling alone with his faithful negro servants. Going over the complicated situation together that evening, before wrapping ourselves up in our blankets on the floor, we decided that here we should have to part, and shift 'each one' for ourselves 'himself'. My friends elected to remain, and watch their opportunities, while I determined to go across country to the Chesapeake Bay, and try my luck by the Eastern Shore.

I was told I had some 80 miles to get over in order to do this, and I started the next morning, alone & on foot to take my chances of reaching Europe. However I got an unexpected lift, such as it was, for part of this tramp. [p. 10] It was at a country store, at a cross roads where towards sunset I stopped for a short rest, that I managed to get a horse after much difficulty. Poor beast, I did not gather from the man who sold it to me how unfit it was, or I would never have taken it away.

What a funny store that was I have often since thought, reminding me of some of Bret Harte's[17] descriptions, where business gave way to gossip, & the chief, neglecting all notion of profit, sought only to be the cheerful host to the daily frequenters. The sun was about an hour high when I rode away into parts unknown to me. The company congregated on the piazza to see me off. I can see the picture now as they waved their hands in token of good luck. The only road instructions I could get were, to start on a certain branch of the fork, and after that to keep my eyes well to the front for [p. 11] the Northern cavalry scouts that were scouring the country.

I must have been born under a lucky star, for I escaped any such interruption. But oh the loneliness of this ride! Not a person did I meet to speak to. I passed by the charred ruins of more than one deserted village, that marked the raids of the enemy through this land. I often wished as I rode along that I might be back with my comrades in the field.

After many a weary mile, I came at last, in the night, upon a hollow where a party 'of men', who proved to be good Southern friends were taking their meal by the roadside, under shelter of their waggon, in the rain. On one [p. 12] side there was a mill, and on the opposite bank the house of the Miller.

After looking after 'seeing to' my horse, who had so far had borne me so bravely, I joined the party I had so luckily met. My refuge that night was the mill. It was the only shelter its owner could give me. The negro boy, who showed me to this my bedroom, to my surprise and annoyance locked me in at once, and that without any light. On my remonstrating with him through the door, he said these were his Master's orders as the raiders had always set fire to the mills of anyone who had sheltered Confederates, and this one was the only mill left. I had noticed before the [p. 13] lantern was withdrawn, that there was only one window, and that opened on the mill stream. But the boy was gone and there was no room for further argument; so I picked out a meal bag for a pillow, and slept the sleep of weariness, not even heeding the rats - my usual abhorrence - until I was roused at break of day and turned out to push my on in the rain and mud, walking by the waggon; I leading my horse who was utterly worn out, and '. He' died later on the road. It took nearly two more days of this [p. 14] trudging to reach the Chesapeake Bay - our daily experiences being much the same.

You can well imagine that my toilet had been sorely disarranged by all this rough exposure, so that I was scarcely presentable in polite society -

Certainly I was not in a state to pass unnoticed among the masters of the northern towns I had still to pass through; & this was an important matter if I were'was' to get safely to the end.

Here the hospitality ever to be met with in Virginia came [p. 15] to my aid. Had it not have been for the cordial & warm reception given to me in a most lovely home in Gloucester I feel convinced that I should never have succeeded 'to get' further.

I spent several days with this charming Virginia family. The gentleman & his wife, with their two daughters, doing all 'they could' to make my stay with them delightful - The advice of my host who interested himself very greatly in furthering my plans proved most valuable; & the rest & general renovation set me once more on my feet. It was with true regret that I bid them good bye to find my way to [p. 16] the shore, & take sail across the Bay. The unexpected seemed always to happen. So at the shore I was delighted to find a very old friend waiting like myself 'me' to get across. Captain J[18], also a Marylander in the Confederate Army had lost his leg at Antietam, & while a prisoner of war had had this replaced by a steel one 'made' of most ingenious device. This had become rusty & worn in subsequent campaigning after his exchange; & he was going on leave to the original maker in Philadelphia to get 'for' a new one 'in order' that he might be ready for duty in the next campaign. We did not find it an easy matter to get a passage even now for boats were scarce, & it was not [p. 17] until late in March that we got away. There were four of us a in a canoe, called by the Bay boatmen, a "Cunner" Capt J, The Skipper, his Assistant; & myself. It was a small craft about thirty feet long, rigged with leg of mutton sails - the skipper steering with a paddle. It was a black & stormy night, but we had a skilled helmsman and the boat weathered the storm without disaster. We lay under cover, hiding from view all the next day, in a creek on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Then, under cover of darkness, we set sail again for the Maryland shore which we reached in the small hours of the morning, mooring under the bank of a swamp. In doing this we passed undetected close under the stern [p. 18] of a Northern Gunboat. At dawn we groped our way along the shore to our place of landing. Here, at last, we knew where to go for safe keeping, so Capt J & I took leave of the others, who were returning that night to Virginia; & we made our way to the country seat of a friend who took every care of us until we could find safe means of pursuing our journey. The risks, to us, to do this 'for that' were now much greater & we ran many narrow shaves to escape 's of' capture, as the conscription in was being rigidly 'carried out' by the Enrolling officers of the Northern Army at every point. We got across country, as best we could, by waggon - at one time passing as oystermen from the Bay, until we reached Delaware, where we slipped into the train for Philadelphia, at a way station where, fortunately, time did [p. 19] not allow for the scrutiny of "passes". We got to the Quaker City late that evening, where we made but a short stay, though sufficiently long to ferret out the maker of the artificial leg who with every all dispatch met the requirement of my friend. This was a very dangerous moment for us, but we discharged every carriage that we took, calling others in turn, to avoid pursuit as we found we were being closely watched; & so we caught the midnight train to New York. I confess that I was seized with panic, almost, at the railway depot, when I was confronted at the ticket office by two sentries, with sword bayonets fixed posted one on either side of the window. I had all had all along a great dread of being recognised by some Northern soldier who might have been in the Libby prison, where I had [p. 20] at one time been on duty. But they let me through without a challenge; whether it was that at that late hour, they were sleepy, or that I looked too nonchant nonchalant or & too innocent to be questioned.

You can judge of the relief from the terrible strain we had been under, which we felt when we reached the "Empire City[19]", where we were, comparatively speaking, in safety at last.

From this port I sailed on the City of Manchester, of the Inman line, under a somewhat altered name. As soon as I landed in Liverpool I delivered my despatches to the Confederate, Secret Service, Agent there; & glad enough I was to do so, for this package had been a source of great anxiety to me.

All this time no news of any reverse to Lee's[20] army had reached me; & so with a light heart I hastened to join my [...][21] [p. 23] Mother[22] & brother in London. I learned only a week later when tidings travelled slowly the sad news awful tidings of the surrender at Appomatox[23] & the down fall of the Confederacy - then all the sad events that followed. After this I had nothing [p. 24] to return to, so I remained here with my family - then I went to join my elder brother[24] in Russia which had been an early home to me as a when in my boyhood. For over a year I travelled about in this way for pleasure. Then I grew tired of idleness & took up my abode in Paris, to work in the hospitals; & in the School of Medicine. as a Post Graduate student (in anatomy & surgery: Returning to London All this time I had intended to return home

[p. 25] What with busy private practice, Hospital, & other public duty it has [been?] been more & more difficult to get my holiday to America, which I am always promising myself. When I do manage it I shall delight in coming to see all my old friends - & you may rest assured I shall look you up. If I have not written before, it is that I did not know [p. 26] after the war was over, where a letter would find any of you. I have now written many things in my letter that may seem to you ancient history - but I love to think of the old days, & so I have jotted down in answer to your letter what happened to me after I left the regiment.

But I want to hear of the others -

Is Colonel Miller alive. I sincerely [p. 27] hope so; & Dr Evans-McLanglin[25] & his brother too.

My sincerest & warmest regards to all,
Always sincerely Yours

W. McNeill Whistler.

This document is protected by copyright.


1.  [29 November 1898]
Dated from the original (see below).

2.  William McNeill Whistler
William McNeill Whistler (1836-1900), physician, JW's brother [more].

3.  Robert R. Hemphill
Robert R. Hemphill (b. ca 1840), sergeant in W. McN. Whistler's unit (Orr's Rifles) in the Confederate Army [more]. See his letter to JW, 12 October 1898, #02119.

4.  ALdS
There is a typewritten copy of this letter at #07029. The original letter is in the Hemphill Family papers, Special Collections, Duke University, and is dated 29 November 1898.

5.  (p. 1)
The sheets of paper (up to p. 20) are all numbered in the top right corner. Each sheet has two pages of text: for this transcription the author's sheet no. '1' contains our pp. 1-2, the author's sheet no. '2' contains our pp. 3-4, etc. The printed letterhead appears on each sheet.

6.  brother
That is, JW. JW had returned to London by 28 October 1898 (#04743).

7.  Orr's
Orr, Confederate army Rifle Regiment Commander [more].

8.  Sherman's
Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), Federal General, Commander of the Army of the Mississippi [more].

9.  Dr John Caldwell
Dr John Caldwell, a member of Orr's rifle regiment, Confederate army, in 1865.

10.  myself
Many of the additions to the text from this point on have been made in pencil in another hand, above the original ink script. This was probably done before a fair copy was made in typescript for possible publication (#07029).

11.  Colonel McDuffie Miller
George McDuffie Miller (d. 1899), Confederate officer, commander of Orr's Rifle Brigade, South Carolina Rifles [more].

12.  Mullally
Rev. Mullally, army chaplain.

13.  Captain Thompson
C. Gratiot Thompson, ordinance officer, Confederate army [more].

14.  Grant's
Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822-1885), Union General, 18th U. S. President from 1872-1880 [more].

15.  Castle Thunder
A building in Richmond, VA, a block away from Libby Prison, the Union prison camp, was used to house civilians accused of disloyalty to the Union, CSA military offenders, and Union deserters.

16.  Stanton's expedition
The Potomac River flotilla of the Union Navy sent several boats up the Rappahannock on 6 and 7 March 1865 to destroy tobacco stored near Fredericksburg. Stanton must have been one of the officers in command.

17.  Bret Harte's
Francis Bret Harte (1836-1902), writer [more].

18.  Captain J

19.  Empire City
New York City.

20.  Lee's
General Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870), Superintendant of USMA, West Point, and later Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate States of America [more].

21.  [...]
At this point in the letter a new type of sheet is used and the story jumps back a few pages; it is likely that pp. 21-27 were part of an earlier draft version and were not originally meant to be the conclusion of this document. For the sake of clarity, the transcription picks up the story at the correct narrative point, overlooking some of the draft material; the omitted draft material is as follows: [p. 21] 'I confess that I was seiz seized with panic, almost, at the depot when I was confronted at the ticket office by two sentries with sword bayonets fixed posted one on either side of the entrance to it. window I had had all along a wholesome great dread of being recognised by some Northern soldier who might have been in the Libby prison, where I had at one time been on duty. But they let me through without a challenge, whether it was that at that late hour they were sleepy - or that I looked too innocent to be questioned. [p. 22] You can judge of the the relief from the terrible strain we had been under, which we felt when we reached the "Empire City" - where we were in comparatively [capacities?] safety at last. at the home of From this port I sailed on the City of Manchester of the Inman line, under a somewhat altered name. As soon as I landed there in at Liverpool I delivered my despatches to the Confederate Agent there & glad [p. 23] enough I was to do so - for this package had been a source of great anxiety to me. All this time no news of any [deserts?] reverse to Lee's army had reached me, & so with a light heart I hastened to join my.'

22.  Mother
Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), née McNeill, JW's mother [more].

23.  Appomatox
General Robert E. Lee, commander of all Confederate armed forces, surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, on 9 April 1865.

24.  elder brother
George William Whistler (1822-1869), engineer, JW's half-brother [more].

25.  Dr Evans-McLanglin
Dr Evans-McLanglin, Confederate army doctor.