Everyone knows — or at least has seen — James McNeill Whistler’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, who was immortalized in her son’s 1871 oil painting Arrangement in Grey and Black. But few remember Whistler’s father, George Washington Whistler, who in his day was one of the most famous engineers in America.
George W. Whistler’s father, Major John Whistler, was a British soldier of Irish birth who served under Burgoyne at Saratoga, and after he was discharged returned to America to join the U.S. Army. George was born in 1800 in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where his father was post commander. When he was 14 he was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from Kentucky. Young Whistler excelled at his studies and graduated tenth in the Class of 1819.
Whistler later partnered with his West Point friend William Gibbs McNeill, and worked on some of the first major railroad projects in America, including establishing the route for the Baltimore and Ohio. (Most of the pre-Civil War rail and canal routes were laid out by West Point graduates.) In 1833, Whistler resigned from the Army to work at the Locks and Canals Company in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he designed canals and aqueducts and built locomotives. He designed the first American locomotive equipped with a steam whistle, which coupled with the coincidence of his last name, lead to the belief that he had invented it (it was actually invented in Britain).
Whistler also laid out the route for the Western Railroad linking Boston and Albany, a route so difficult it was said that it would be like laying “a railroad to the moon.” But Whistler completed the project, constructing what was at the time the longest and highest railroad in the world. He constructed the first keystone arch railroad bridges in America, which are not only still intact, but several remain in use.
Whistler married Mary Roberdeau Swift, the younger sister of his classmate William H. Swift, the Goat of their class (i.e., the cadet who graduated at the bottom). After his first wife died, George Whistler married his partner William McNeill’s sister, Anna Matilda. Their first child was born in 1834, the future artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler
In 1842, George Whistler accepted an invitation from Russian Tsar Nicholas I to build a railroad between St. Petersburg and Moscow, and moved his family to Russia. The project presented an engineering challenge since the Tsar had decreed that the railroad run in a perfectly straight line between the two cities. Legend has it that he placed a ruler on a map and drew the line himself. However, his thumb bumped the pencil, causing a slight jog in the line, which planners faithfully recreated rather than dare question the Tsar’s hand-drawn route. The work was difficult, mostly because of the intrigues and jealousies of the Russian Court, which Whistler was ill-disposed and ill-equipped to handle. He remained steadfastly American in spirit, refusing to address the Tsar as “your majesty” and refusing a high ranking commission in the Russian army. He labored on for seven years under difficult conditions, finally succumbing to cholera in St. Petersburg in 1849, two years before the project was finished. When the railroad was finally completed by lesser hands, the first two trains to travel it collided head-on.
James M. Whistler, 15 at the time of his father’s death, was offered a chance to enter the Russian Imperial School for Pages. His mother decided instead to return to her home in Connecticut and seek admission for her son to West Point. In December of 1850, Whistler’s tutor, Roswell Park, the top man in the Class of 1831 and a former West Point chaplain who went on to become a noted clergyman, wrote an appeal to President Millard Fillmore seeking an At Large appointment for the boy, which was granted. “Little Jimmy” Whistler entered West Point July 1, 1851, ten days shy of his seventeenth birthday.
But unlike his accomplished father, James Whistler took a relaxed view of Academy life. His roommate, Henry M. Lazelle, called him “one of the most indolent of mortals. But his was a most charming laziness, always doing that which was most agreeable to others and himself.”“ During the day he would rather make sketches than attend to his lessons. During evening study sessions, Lazelle would look up from his book invariably to find Whistler sitting upright, asleep.
Whistler was bold in his occasional ignorance. At a history exam he was asked the date of the Battle of Buena Vista, and confessed that he did not know. “What!” the instructor said, “You do not know the date of the Battle of Buena Vista? Suppose you were to go out to dinner and the company began to talk of the Mexican War, and you, a West Point man, were asked the date of the battle. What would you do?”
““Do?” Whistler replied with hauteur, “Why, I should refuse to associate with people who could talk of such things at dinner!”
Whistler’s forte at the Academy was drawing. He had begun sketching at the age of four, and quickly established himself as a talent, ranking at the head of his drawing class. He was fond of his own work, and not given to having it altered. One day Whistler was sketching a peasant girl in art class, and the drawing professor, noted Hudson River School artist Robert Weir, stopped to examine the composition. He then went to his desk and filled a brush with ink — Weir was an inveterate editor of his students’ work — and moved back towards Whistler. Whistler saw him coming, raised his hands and said, “Oh, don’t sir, don’t! You’ll spoil it!”
Whistler became known among the Corps of Cadets for his comedic sketches. He would take the opportunity to make drawings wherever he went, on loose paper, in books, on tent flaps, desks, or stools. George Ruggles, USMA 1855, breveted four times in the Civil War and present at Appomattox, recalled Whistler’s “keen sense of the ridiculous. In the recitation room, at church and almost everywhere… he would sketch, in a second or two, cartoons full of character and displaying the utmost nicety of appreciation of its ludicrous points.” In the summer of 1852 he produced a four-frame sequence entitled On Post in Camp. In the first drawing, “First half hour,” a cadet stands at attention with his musket shouldered; the second half hour shows him leaning against a tree; in the third half hour he sits at the base of the tree; and in the last half hour he is sound asleep.
Whistler was popular with cadets and faculty alike, and the son of a West Point legend. But no cadet can escape the consequences of low grades and high demerits. In his plebe year Whistler ranked in the bottom ten of his class overall, though was in the top ten in French. He had 190 demerits, which brought him close to expulsion. His offenses were for the most part not serious — inattentiveness, lateness, carelessness: the kind of thing one would expect. Fate struck in his third year. At the final chemistry examination, Whistler was asked to discuss silicon.
“I am required to discuss silicon,” he began. “Silicon is a gas…”
““That will be all,” the instructor said, and Whistler was marked deficient. The Academic Board voted to expel him. Whistler was mortified. He wrote a lengthy letter to the secretary of War, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, asking for a re-examination. He said that after three years at the Academy, “all my hopes and aspirations are connected with that Institution and the Army, and that by not passing, all my future prospects are ruined for life.”
The matter was referred to the West Point Superintendent, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. Lee reviewed Whistler’s record and found that his combination of low grades and high demerit totals was too much to overcome. “I can therefore do nothing more in his behalf,” Lee wrote, “nor do I know of anything entitling him to further indulgence. I can only regret that one so capable of doing well should so have neglected himself and must now suffer the penalty.” Davis concurred, and Whistler’s expulsion stood. When Whistler departed West Point, Professor Weir observed that “with only the most ordinary industry [he] would make a name as an artist.”
Whistler always looked back fondly on his experience at West Point. He said he looked “dandy in gray,” and spoke highly of Academy discipline and the honor code. After he became famous, he presented a book to the West Point library inscribed, “From an Old Cadet, whose pride is to remember his West Point days.” Later in life he reflected on the examination that had cost him his military career. “If silicon had been a gas,” he said, “I would have been a Major General.” Whistler’s classmate Marcus Reno noted that if Whistler had been commissioned, no one would have heard of his mother. But maybe more people would have remembered his father.
--James S. Robbins is author of Last In Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point, from which this essay was adapted.