Theodore Winthrop

This obituary for Union army officer Theodore Winthrop ran in place of the dispatch he had been working on for the Atlantic when he was killed in action

[Read Theodore Winthrop's June 1861 dispatch, Our March to Washington and his July 1861 dispatch, Washington as a Camp]

Theodore Winthrop's life, like a fire long smouldering, suddenly blazed up into a clear, bright flame, and vanished. Those of us who were his friends and neighbors, by whose firesides he sat familiarly, and of whose life upon the pleasant Staten Island, where he lived, he was so important a part, were so impressed by his intense vitality, that his death strikes us with peculiar strangeness, like sudden winter-silence falling upon these humming fields of June.

As I look along the wooded brook-side by which he used to come, I should not be surprised, if I saw that knit, wiry, light figure moving with quick, firm, leopard tread over the grass,--the keen gray eye, the clustering fair hair, the kind, serious smile, the mien of undaunted patience. If you did not know him, you would have found his greeting a little constrained,--not from shyness, but from genuine modesty and the habit of society. You would have remarked that he was silent and observant rather than talkative; and whatever he said, however gay or grave, would have had the reserve of sadness upon which his whole character was drawn. If it were a woman who saw him for the first time, she would inevitably see him through a slight cloud of misapprehension; for the man and his manner were a little at variance. The chance is that at the end of five minutes she would have thought him conceited. At the end of five months she would have known him as one of the simplest and most truly modest of men.

And he had the heroic sincerity which belongs to such modesty. Of a noble ambition, and sensitive to applause,--as every delicate nature veined with genius always is,--he would not provoke the applause by doing anything which, although it lay easily within his power, was yet not wholly approved by him as worthy. Many men are ambitious and full of talent, and when the prize does not fairly come they snatch at it unfairly. This was precisely what he could not do. He would strive and deserve; but if the crown were not laid upon his head in the clear light of day and by confession of absolute merit, he could ride to his place again and wait, looking with no envy, but in patient wonder and with critical curiosity upon the victors. It is this which he expresses in the paper in the July number of this magazine, "Washington as a Camp," when he says,--"I have heretofore been proud of my individuality, and resisted, so far as one may, all the world's attempts to merge me in the mass."

It was this which made many who knew him much, but not truly, feel that he was purposeless and restless. They knew his talent, his opportunities. Why does he not concentrate? Why does he not bring himself to bear? He did not plead his ill-health; nor would they have allowed the plea. The difficulty was deeper. He felt that he had shown his credentials, and they were not accepted. "I can wait, I can wait," was the answer his life made to the impatience of his friends.

We are all fond of saying that a man of real gifts will fit himself to the work of any time; and so he will. But it is not necessarily to the first thing that offers. There is always latent in civilized society a certain amount of what may be called Sir Philip Sidney genius, which will seem elegant and listless and aimless enough until the congenial chance appears. A plant may grow in a cellar; but it will flower only under the due sun and warmth. Sir Philip Sidney was but a lovely possibility, until he went to be Governor of Flushing. What else was our friend, until he went to the war?

The age of Elizabeth did not monopolize the heroes, and they are always essentially the same. When, for instance, I read in a letter of Hubert Languet's to Sidney, "You are not over-cheerful by nature," or when, in another, he speaks of the portrait that Paul Veronese painted of Sidney, and says, "The painter has represented you sad and thoughtful," I can believe that he is speaking of my neighbor. Or when I remember what Sidney wrote to his younger brother,--"Being a gentleman born, you purpose to furnish yourself with the knowledge of such things as may be serviceable to your country and calling," or what he wrote to Languet,--"Our Princes are enjoying too deep a slumber: I cannot think there is any man possessed of common understanding who does not see to what these rough storms are driving by which all Christendom has been agitated now these many years,"--I seem to hear my friend, as he used to talk on the Sunday evenings when he sat in this huge cane-chair at my side, in which I saw him last, and in which I shall henceforth always see him.

Nor is it unfair to remember just here that he bore one of the few really historic names in this country. He never spoke of it; but we should all have been sorry not to feel that he was glad to have sprung straight from that second John Winthrop who was the first Governor of Connecticut, the younger sister colony of Massachusetts Bay,--the John Winthrop who obtained the charter of privileges for his colony. How clearly the quality of the man has been transmitted! How brightly the old name shines out again!

He was born in New Haven on the 22d of September, 1828, and was a grave, delicate, rather precocious child. He was at school only in New Haven, and entered Yale College just as he was sixteen. The pure, manly morality which was the substance of his character, and his brilliant exploits of scholarship, made him the idol of his college, friends, who saw in him the promise of the splendid career which the fond faith of students allots to the favorite classmate. He studied for the Clark scholarship, and gained it; and his name, in the order of time, is first upon the roll of that foundation. He won the Townshend prize for the best composition on History. For the Berkeleian scholarship he and another were judged equal, and, drawing lots, the other gained the scholarship; but they divided the honor.

In college his favorite studies were Greek and mental philosophy. He never lost the scholarly taste and habit. A wide reader, he retained knowledge with little effort, and often surprised his friends by the variety of his information. Yet it was not strange, for he was born a scholar. His mother was the great-granddaughter of old President Edwards; and among his ancestors upon the maternal side, Winthrop counted seven Presidents of Yale. Perhaps also in this learned descent we may find the secret of his early seriousness. Thoughtful and self-criticizing, he was peculiarly sensible to religious influences, under which his criticism easily became self-accusation, and his sensitive seriousness grew sometimes morbid. He would have studied for the ministry or a professorship, upon leaving college, except for his failing health.

In the later days, when I knew him, the feverish ardor of the first religious impulse was past. It had given place to a faith much too deep and sacred to talk about, yet holding him always with serene, steady poise in the purest region of life and feeling. There was no franker or more sympathetic companion for young men of his own age than he; but his conversation fell from his lips as unsullied as his soul.

He graduated in 1848, when he was twenty years old; and for the sake of his health, which was seriously shattered,--an ill-health that colored all his life, he set out upon his travels. He went first to England, spending much time at Oxford, where he made pleasant acquaintances, and walking through Scotland. He then crossed over to France and Germany, exploring Switzerland very thoroughly upon foot,--once or twice escaping great dangers among the mountains,--and pushed on to Italy and Greece, still walking much of the way. In Italy he made the acquaintance of Mr. W.H. Aspinwall, of New York, and upon his return became tutor to Mr. Aspinwall's son. He presently accompanied his pupil and a nephew of Mr. Aspinwall, who were going to a school in Switzerland; and after a second short tour of six months in Europe he returned to New York, and entered Mr. Aspinwall's counting-house. In the employ of the Pacific Steamship Company he went to Panama and resided for about two years, travelling, and often ill of the fevers of the country. Before his return he travelled through California and Oregon,--went to Vancouver's Island, Puget Sound, and the Hudson Bay Company's station there. At the Dalles he was smitten with the small-pox, and lay ill for six weeks. He often spoke with the warmest gratitude of the kind care that was taken of him there. But when only partially recovered he plunged off again into the wilderness. At another time he fell very ill upon the Plains, and lay down, as he supposed, to die; but after some time struggled up and on again.

He returned to the counting-room, but, unsated with adventure, joined the disastrous expedition of Lieutenant Strain, during which his health was still more weakened, and he came home again in 1854. In the following year he studied law and was admitted to the bar. In 1856 he entered heartily into the Fremont campaign, and from the strongest conviction. He went into some of the dark districts of Pennsylvania and spoke incessantly. The roving life and its picturesque episodes, with the earnest conviction which inspired him, made the summer and autumn exciting and pleasant. The following year he went to St. Louis to practise law. The climate was unkind to him, and he returned and began the practice in New York. But he could not be a lawyer. His health was too uncertain, and his tastes and ambition allured him elsewhere. His mind was brimming with the results of observation. His fancy was alert and inventive, and he wrote tales and novels. At the same time he delighted to haunt the studio of his friend Church, the painter, and watch day by day the progress of his picture, the Heart of the Andes. It so fired his imagination that he wrote a description of it, in which, as if rivalling the tropical and tangled richness of the picture, he threw together such heaps and masses of gorgeous words that the reader was dazzled and bewildered.

The wild campaigning life was always a secret passion with him. His stories of travel were so graphic and warm, that I remember one evening, after we had been tracing upon the map a route he had taken, and he had touched the whole region into life with his description, my younger brother, who had sat by and listened with wide eyes all the evening, exclaimed with a sigh of regretful satisfaction, as the door closed upon our story-teller, "It's as good as Robinson Crusoe!" Yet, with all his fondness and fitness for that kind of life, or indeed any active administrative function, his literary ambition seemed to be the deepest and strongest.

He had always been writing. In college and upon his travels he kept diaries; and he has left behind him several novels, tales, sketches of travel, and journals. The first published writing of his which is well known is his description, in the June number of this magazine, of the March of the Seventh Regiment of New York to Washington. It was charming by its graceful, sparkling, crisp, off-hand dash and ease. But it is only the practised hand that can "dash off" effectively. Let any other clever member of the clever regiment, who has never written, try to dash off the story of a day or a week in the life of the regiment, and he will see that the writer did that little thing well because he had done large things carefully. Yet, amid all the hurry and brilliant bustle of the articles, the author is, as he was in the most bustling moment of the life they described, a spectator, an artist. He looks on at himself and the scene of which he is part. He is willing to merge his individuality; but he does not merge it, for he could not.

So, wandering, hoping, trying, waiting, thirty-two years of his life went by, and they left him true, sympathetic, patient. The sharp private griefs that sting the heart so deeply, and leave a little poison behind, did not spare him. But he bore everything so bravely, so silently,--often silent for a whole evening in the midst of pleasant talkers, but not impertinently sad, nor ever sullen,--that we all loved him a little more at such times. The ill-health from which he always suffered, and a flower-like delicacy of temperament, the yearning desire to be of some service in the world, coupled with the curious, critical introspection which marks every sensitive and refined nature and paralyzes action, overcast his life and manner to the common eye with pensiveness and even sternness. He wrote verses in which his heart seems to exhale in a sigh of sadness. But he was not in the least a sentimentalist. The womanly grace of temperament merely enhanced the unusual manliness of his character and impression. It was like a delicate carnation upon the cheek of a robust man. For his humor was exuberant. He seldom laughed loud, but his smile was sweet and appreciative. Then the range of his sympathies was so large, that he enjoyed every kind of life and person, and was everywhere at home. In walking and riding, in skating and running, in games out of doors and in, no one of us all in the neighborhood was so expert, so agile as he. For, above all things, he had what we Yankees call faculty,--the knack of doing everything. If he rode with a neighbor who was a good horseman, Theodore, who was a Centaur, when he mounted, would put any horse at any gate or fence; for it did not occur to him that he could not do whatever was to be done. Often, after writing for a few hours in the morning, he stepped out of doors, and, from pure love of the fun, leaped and turned summersaults on the grass, before going up to town. In walking about the island, he constantly stopped by the roadside fences, and, grasping the highest rail, swung himself swiftly and neatly over and back again, resuming the walk and the talk without delay.

I do not wish to make him too much a hero. "Death," says Bacon, "openeth the gate to good fame." When a neighbor dies, his form and quality appear clearly, as if he had been dead a thousand years. Then we see what we only felt before. Heroes in history seem to us poetic because they are there. But if we should tell the simple truth of some of our neighbors, it would sound like poetry. Winthrop was one of the men who represent the manly and poetic qualities that always exist around us,--not great genius, which is ever salient, but the fine fibre of manhood that makes the worth of the race.

Closely engaged with his literary employments, and more quiet than ever, he took less active part in the last election. But when the menace of treason became an aggressive act, he saw very clearly the inevitable necessity of arms. We all talked of it constantly,--watching the news,--chafing at the sad necessity of delay, which was sure to confuse foreign opinion and alienate sympathy, as has proved to be the case. As matters advanced and the war-cloud rolled up thicker and blacker, he looked at it with the secret satisfaction that war for such a cause opened his career both as thinker and actor. The admirable coolness, the promptness, the cheerful patience, the heroic ardor, the intelligence, the tough experience of campaigning, the profound conviction that the cause was in truth "the good old cause," which was now to come to the death-grapple with its old enemy, Justice against Injustice, Order against Anarchy,--all these should now have their turn, and the wanderer and waiter "settle himself" at last.

We took a long walk together on the Sunday that brought the news of the capture of Fort Sumter. He was thoroughly alive with a bright, earnest forecast of his part in the coming work. Returning home with me, he sat until late in the evening talking with an unwonted spirit, saying playfully, I remember, that, if his friends would only give him a horse, he would ride straight to victory.

Especially he wished that some competent person would keep a careful record of events as they passed; "for we are making our history," he said, "hand over hand." He sat quietly in the great chair while he spoke, and at last rose to go. We went together to the door, and stood for a little while upon the piazza, where we had sat peacefully through so many golden summer-hours. The last hour for us had come, but we did not know it. We shook hands, and he left me, passing rapidly along the brook-side under the trees, and so in the soft spring starlight vanished from my sight forever.

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