The Major General Who Wasn’t

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

If at first you don’t succeed, find a career in something that you’re good at. This rewording of the old aphorism applies to the person who did the painting that is often called Whistler’s Mother, namely James Whistler. Before he became the painter who is familiar to many, Whistler tried his hand at the art of warfare. Had he been successful at this, he very likely could have been someone who was part of the Civil War. But Whistler failed with the sword and instead made his mark in history with a paintbrush.

James Whistler

From a very early age, Whistler showed an interest in drawing and painters. At age 11, while he was living in St. Petersburg, Russia with his family, Whistler received private art lessons at a fine arts academy and was considered very promising by some of the artists he came to meet there. A few years later Whistler informed his father of his desire to pursue a career in art. However, his progress in this path was derailed when his father passed away. After the family’s return to the U.S., Whistler was enrolled in a school where his mother hoped that her son would become a minister. But Whistler soon realized that this career path was not for him, and he decided to apply to the U.S. Military Academy.

Although James Whistler’s most famous painting is commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, it was Whistler’s deceased father who was most instrumental in Whistler being accepted to the U.S. Military Academy. Whistler’s father, George Washington Whistler, graduated tenth in the West Point Class of 1819 and had served for a short time as a highly regarded instructor at the Academy. But James Whistler inherited none of his father’s desire for the military, nor did he have a suitable physique or temperament. He was frail, self-willed, and openly sarcastic, traits that military instructors do not find particularly desirable in their students. In his first year at West Point Whistler accumulated 190 demerits, which put him close to expulsion. However, his demerits were typically for minor infractions, such as inattentiveness, tardiness, and wearing his hair too long. Whistler also received poor grades in nearly every subject, drawing being the one exception. A Whistler West Point anecdote points out how poor his grades were. On one occasion Whistler was thrown over his horse’s head, and the instructor remarked, “Mr. Whistler, I am pleased to see you for once at the head of your class.” In spite of his poor record, Whistler was very popular with both classmates and faculty. Whistler’s roommate referred to him as “one of the most indolent of mortals,” but added, “But his was a most charming laziness, always doing that which was most agreeable to others and himself.”

Robert E. Lee

Eventually Whistler’s demerit total required that his record be reviewed by the West Point superintendent for possible expulsion. The superintendent at that time was someone who had no personal experience with demerits; the superintendent was Robert E. Lee, who in four years as a cadet never received a demerit. Lee dismissed enough of Whistler’s demerits to allow him to continue at West Point. But Whistler’s military career came to a halt in his third year at his chemistry final exam. For one question on the oral exam, the instructor asked Whistler to describe the element silicon. According to several accounts, Whistler began his answer, “I am required to discuss silicon. Silicon is a gas…” “That will be all,” the instructor interrupted. As anyone who remembers high school chemistry knows, silicon is a solid at ambient temperatures. This time Robert E. Lee could not salvage the military career of James Whistler, and the Academic Board voted to expel him.

Jefferson Davis

Whistler appealed the expulsion to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who referred the matter to Lee. In spite of his penchant for leniency, Lee had to acknowledge that Whistler’s combination of poor grades and high number of demerits justified expulsion. Lee wrote to Davis, “I can therefore do nothing more in his behalf, 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 affirmed Lee’s opinion, and Whistler was expelled. Given the two individuals who made Whistler’s expulsion official, it can be argued that Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were instrumental in James Whistler becoming a painter.

Whistler’s classmates at West Point included some men who became cavalry officers in the Civil War, such as David Gregg and William Averell, and the class ahead of Whistler included Custis Lee (the son of Robert E. Lee), Oliver O. Howard, Jeb Stuart, Stephen D. Lee, and some others who served in the Civil War. In other words, a number of people who were educated at the U.S. Military Academy during the time that Whistler was there were officers in the Civil War, and Whistler may likewise have been one had he graduated and pursued a military career. Later in life Whistler looked back fondly on his time at West Point and sometimes joked, “If silicon had been a gas, I would have been a major general.”

Three West Point graduates in the class ahead of Whistler’s who became generals in the Confederate army: Custis Lee (sitting left), Stephen D. Lee (sitting right), and Jeb Stuart (standing)

In the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, one of the characters is a tragically ineffective junior officer. This officer becomes so overwrought at his failure in his chosen career that he commits suicide by jumping overboard. At the ceremony memorializing him, the ship’s captain begins by saying, “The simple truth is, not all of us become the men we once hoped we might be.” In the context of the movie, this comment has a negative tone. This comment also applies to James Whistler, but in his case the comment is much more positive. While it is true that Whistler did not become the man he once aspired to be, the fact that he failed at this led directly to his becoming the man whom we know as one of the great American painters. If at first you didn’t succeed, James Whistler, you found a career in something in which you were superb.