The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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27th February 2003 - Death of William McNeill Whistler

James Whistler's younger brother, William McNeill Whistler, died on this day in the year 1900. From the mid-1860s onwards he had lived and worked in London as a doctor, and was admitted a Member of the College of Surgeons of England and to the Royal College of Physicians in 1876. Until his death he was Senior Physician at the London Throat Hospital. However, the route William Whistler took to Britain was an interesting one, coming as he did straight from the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.

In 1898 William Whistler wrote down his war experiences in a letter to a former colleague, Robert R. Hemphill (GUL Whistler W1017). It describes William's wonder over the fact that 'the four months furlough given me, as you say, to come abroad would have left me here still after nearly 33 years.' He then mentions how he made his escape through enemy lines, entrusted with a despatch from his superiors: '...finding a Treasury Department train just starting for Virginia ... I stowed myself 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 down and rested as best I could in the bitter cold, for it was snowing.' Once off the train he still had to avoid General Grant's army and transverse Maryland: 'I started in an Ambulance waggon, having secured a place in it for 500 dollars... That night we found shelter in a lonely farmhouse... [The next day] I determined to go across country to the Chesapeake Bay, and try my luck by the Eastern Shore... My refuge that night was [a] mill. It was the only shelter its owner could give me. The negro boy, who showed me to my bedroom, to my surprise and annoyance locked me in at once, and that without any light.'

William Whistler eventually reached the shore, and amongst the folks waiting to cross there was 'Captain J', a Marylander in the Confederate Army had lost his leg at Antietam and who now had a steel one (he was heading off to Philadelphia to have it replaced). Whistler describes the crossing: 'There were four of us in a canoe... 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 of a Northern Gunboat. At dawn we groped our way along the shore to our place of landing.'

After a few further close calls, William finally sailed from New York to Liverpool, 'under a somewhat altered name'. He delivered his despatch to a government agent in that city, and heard just a week later of the surrender at Appomatox. He therefore made his home in Britain, and did not return again to the United States of America.