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

The next morning came the President's proclamation. Winthrop went immediately to town and enrolled himself in the artillery corps of the Seventh Regiment. During the two or three following days he was very busy and very happy. On Friday afternoon, the 19th of April, I stood at the corner of Courtland Street and saw the regiment as it marched away. Two days before, I had seen the Massachusetts troops going down the same street. During the day the news had come that they were already engaged, that some were already dead in Baltimore. And the Seventh, as they went, blessed and wept over by a great city, went, as we all believed, to terrible battle. The setting sun in a clear April sky shone full up the street. Mothers' eyes glistened at the windows upon the glistening bayonets of their boys below. I knew that Winthrop and other dear friends were there, but I did not see them. I saw only a thousand men marching like one hero. The music beat and rang and clashed in the air. Marching to death or victory or defeat, it mattered not. They marched for Justice, and God was their captain.

From that moment he has told his own story in these pages until he went to Fortress Monroe, and was made acting military secretary and aid by General Butler. Before he went, he wrote the most copious and gayest letters from the camp. He was thoroughly aroused, and all his powers happily at play. In a letter to me soon after his arrival in Washington, he says,--

"I see no present end of this business. We must conquer the South. Afterward we must be prepared to do its police in its own behalf, and in behalf of its black population, whom this war must, without precipitation, emancipate. We must hold the South as the metropolitan police holds New York. All this is inevitable. Now I wish to enroll myself at once in the _Police of the Nation_, and for life, if the nation will take me. I do not see that I can put myself--experience and character--to any more useful use..... My experience in this short campaign with the Seventh assures me that volunteers are for one purpose and regular soldiers entirely another. We want regular soldiers for the cause of order in these anarchical countries, and we want men in command who, though they may be valuable as temporary satraps or proconsuls to make liberty possible where it is now impossible, will never under any circumstances be disloyal to _Liberty_, will always oppose any scheme of any one to constitute a military government, and will be ready, when the time comes, to imitate Washington. We must think of these things, and prepare for them..... Love to all the dear friends..... This trip has been all a lark to an old tramper like myself."

Later he writes,--

"It is the loveliest day of fullest spring. An aspen under the window whispers to me in a chorus of all its leaves, and when I look out, every leaf turns a sunbeam at me. I am writing in Viele's quarters in the villa of Somebody Stone, upon whose place or farm we are encamped. The man who built and set down these four great granite pillars in front of his house, for a carriage-porch, had an eye or two for a fine _site_. This seems to be the finest possible about Washington. It is a terrace called Meridian Hill, two miles north of Pennsylvania Avenue. The house commands the vista of the Potomac, all the plain of the city, and a charming lawn of delicious green, with oaks of first dignity just coming into leaf. It is lovely Nature, and the spot has snatched a grace from Art. The grounds are laid out after a fashion, and planted with shrubbery. The snowballs are at their snowballiest..... Have you heard or--how many times have you used the simile of some one, Bad-muss or Cadmus, or another hero, who sowed the dragon's teeth, and they came up dragoons a hundred-fold and infantry a thousand-fold? _Nil admirari_ is, of course, my frame of mind; but I own astonishment at the crop of soldiers. They must ripen awhile, perhaps, before they are to be named quite soldiers. Ripening takes care of itself; and by the harvest-time they will be ready to cut down.

"I find that the men best informed about the South do not anticipate much severe fighting. Scott's Fabian policy will demoralize their armies. If the people do not bother the great Cunetator to death before he is ready to move to assured victory, he will make defeat impossible. Meanwhile there will be enough outwork going on, like those neat jobs in Missouri, to keep us all interested...... Know, O comrade, that I am already a corporal,--an acting corporal, selected by our commanding officer for my general effect of pipe-clay, my rapidity of heel and toe, my present arms, etc., but liable to be ousted by suffrage any moment. _Quod faustum sit_, ... I had already been introduced to the Secretary of War..... I called at ----'s and saw, with two or three others,---- on the sofa. Him my prophetic soul named my uncle to be..... But in my uncle's house are many nephews, and whether nepotism or my transcendent merit will prevail we shall see. I have fun,--I get experience,--I see much,--it pays. Ah, yes! But in these fair days of May I miss my Staten Island. War stirs the pulse, but it wounds a little all the time.

"Compliment for me Tib [a little dog] and the Wisterias,--also the mares and the billiard-table. Ask ---- to give you t'other lump of sugar in my behalf.... Should ---- return, say that I regret not being present with an unpremeditated compliment, as thus,--'Ah! the first rose of summer!'.... I will try to get an enemy's button for ----, should the enemy attack. If the Seventh returns presently, I am afraid I shall be obliged to return with them for a time. But I mean to see this job through, somehow."

In such an airy, sportive vein he wrote, with the firm purpose and the distinct thought visible under the sparkle. Before the regiment left Washington, as he has recorded, he said good-bye and went down the bay to Fortress Monroe. Of his unshrinking and sprightly industry, his good head, his warm heart, and cool hand, as a soldier, General Butler has given precious testimony to his family. "I loved him as a brother," the General writes of his young aid.

The last days of his life at Fortress Monroe were doubtless also the happiest. His energy and enthusiasm, and kind, winning ways, and the deep satisfaction of feeling that all his gifts could now be used as he would have them, showed him and his friends that his day had at length dawned. He was especially interested in the condition and fate of the slaves who escaped from the neighboring region and sought refuge at the fort. He had never for an instant forgotten the secret root of the treason which was desolating the land with war; and in his view there would be no peace until that root was destroyed. In his letters written from the fort he suggests plans of relief and comfort for the refugees; and one of his last requests was to a lady in New York for clothes for these poor pensioners. They were promptly sent, but reached the fort too late.

As I look over these last letters, which gush and throb with the fulness of his activity, and are so tenderly streaked with touches of constant affection and remembrance, yet are so calm and duly mindful of every detail, I do not think with an elder friend, in whom the wisdom of years has only deepened sympathy for all generous youthful impulse, of Virgil's Marcellus, "_Heu, miserande puer!_" but I recall rather, still haunted by Philip Sidney, what he wrote, just before his death, to his father-in-law, Walsingham,--"I think a wise and constant man ought never to grieve while he doth play, as a man may say, his own part truly."

The sketches of the campaign in Virginia, which Winthrop had commenced in this magazine, would have been continued, and have formed an invaluable memoir of the places, the men, and the operations of which he was a witness and a part. As a piece of vivid pictorial description, which gives the spirit as well as the spectacle, his "Washington as a Camp" is masterly. He knew not only what to see and to describe, but what to think; so that in his papers you are not at the mercy of a multitudinous mass of facts, but understand their value and relation. Immediately upon his arrival at Fort Monroe he had commenced a third article, which was to have occupied the place of this. It is inserted here just as he left it, with one brief addition only to make his known meaning more clear. The part called "Voices of the Contraband" was written previously, and is not paged in the manuscript. It was to have been introduced into the article; but it is placed first here, that the sequence of the paper, as far as the author had written it, may remain undisturbed.


_Solvuntur risu tabulae_. An epigram abolished slavery in the United States. Large wisdom, stated in fine wit, was the decision. "Negroes are contraband of war." "They are property," claim the owners. Very well! As General Butler takes contraband horses used in transport of munitions of war, so he takes contraband black creatures who tote the powder to the carts and flagellate the steeds. As he takes a spade used in hostile earthworks, so he goes a little farther off and takes the black muscle that wields the spade. As he takes the rations of the foe, so he takes the sable Soyer whose skilful hand makes those rations savory to the palates and digestible by the stomachs of the foe and so puts blood and nerve into them. As he took the steam-gun, so he now takes what might become the stoker of the steam part of that machine and the aimer of its gun part. As he takes the musket, so he seizes the object who in the Virginia army carries that musket on its shoulder until its master is ready to reach out a lazy hand, nonchalantly lift the piece, and carelessly pop a Yankee.

The third number of Winthrop's Sketches of the Campaign in Virginia begins here.


The "Adelaide" is a steamer plying between Baltimore and Norfolk. But as Norfolk has ceased to be a part of the United States, and is nowhere, the "Adelaide" goes no farther than Fortress Monroe, Old Point Comfort, the chief somewhere of this region. A lady, no doubt Adelaide herself, appears in _alto rilievo_ on the paddle-box. She has a short waist, long skirt _sans_ crinoline, leg-of-mutton sleeves, lofty bearing, and stands like Ariadne on an island of pedestal size, surrounded by two or more pre-Raphaelite trees. In the offing comes or goes a steamboat, also pre-Raphaelite; and if Ariadne Adelaide's Bacchus is on board, he is out of sight at the bar.

Such an Adelaide brought me in sight of Fortress Monroe at sunrise, May 29, 1861. The fort, though old enough to be full-grown, has not grown very tall upon the low sands of Old Point Comfort. It is a big house with a basement story and a garret. The roof is left off, and the stories between basement and garret have never been inserted.

But why not be technical? For basement read a tier of casemates, each with a black Cyclops of a big gun peering out; while above in the open air, with not even a parasol over their backs, lie the barbette guns, staring without a wink over sea and shore.

In peace, with a hundred or so soldiers here and there, this vast inclosure might seem a solitude. Now it is a busy city,--a city of one idea. I seem to recollect that D'Israeli said somewhere that every great city was founded on one idea and existed to develop it. This city, into which we have improvised a population, has its idea,--a unit of an idea with two halves. The east half is the recovery of Norfolk,--the west half the occupation of Richmond; and the idea complete is the education of Virginia's unmannerly and disloyal sons.

Why Secession did not take this great place when its defenders numbered a squad of officers and three hundred men is mysterious. Floyd and his gang were treacherous enough. What was it? Were they imbecile? Were they timid? Was there, till too late, a doubt whether the traitors at home in Virginia would sustain them in an overt act of such big overture as an attempt here? But they lost the chance, and with it lost the key of Virginia, which General Butler now holds, this 30th day of May, and will presently begin to turn in the lock.

Three hundred men to guard a mile and a half of ramparts! Three hundred to protect some sixty-five broad acres within the walls! But the place was a Thermopylae, and there was a fine old Leonidas at the head of its three hundred. He was enough to make Spartans of them. Colonel Dimmick was the man,--a quiet, modest, shrewd, faithful, Christian gentleman; and he held all Virginia at bay. The traitors knew, that, so long as the Colonel was here, these black muzzles with their white tompions, like a black eye with a white pupil, meant mischief. To him and his guns, flanking the approaches and ready to pile the moat full of Seceders, the country owes the safety of Fortress Monroe.

Within the walls are sundry nice old brick houses for officers' barracks. The jolly bachelors live in the casemates and the men in long barracks, now not so new or so convenient as they might be. In fact, the physiognomy of Fortress Monroe is not so neat, well-shorn, and elegant as a grand military post should be. Perhaps our Floyds, and the like, thought, if they kept everything in perfect order here, they, as Virginians, accustomed to general seediness, would not find themselves at home. But the new _regime_ must change all this, and make this the biggest, the best equipped, and the model garrison of the country. For, of course, this must be strongly held for many, many years to come. It is idle to suppose that the dull louts we find here, not enlightened even enough to know that loyalty is the best policy, can be allowed the highest privilege of the moral, the intelligent, and the progressive,--self-government. Mind is said to march fast in our time; but mind must put on steam hereabouts to think and act for itself, without stern schooling, in half a century.

But no digressing! I have looked far away from the physiognomy of the fortress. Let us turn to the


The face of this county, Elizabeth City by name, is as flat as a Chinaman's. I can hardly wonder that the people here have retrograded, or rather, not advanced. This dull flat would make anybody dull and flat. I am no longer surprised at John Tyler. He has had a bare blank brick house, entitled sweetly Margarita Cottage, or some such tender epithet, at Hampton, a mile and a half from the fort. A summer in this site would make any man a bore. And as something has done this favor for His Accidency, I am willing to attribute it to the influence of locality.

The country is flat; the soil is fine sifted loam running to dust, as the air of England runs to fog; the woods are dense and beautiful and full of trees unknown to the parallel of New York; the roads are miserable cart-paths; the cattle are scalawags; so are the horses, not run away; so are the people, black and white, not run away; the crops are tolerable, where the invaders have not trampled them.

Altogether the whole concern strikes me as a failure. Captain John Smith and Co. might as well have stayed at home, if this is the result of the two hundred and thirty years' occupation. Apparently the colonists picked out a poor spot; and the longer they stayed, the worse fist they made of it. Powhattan, Pocahontas, and the others without pantaloons and petticoats, were really more serviceable colonists.

The farm-houses are mostly miserably mean habitations. I don't wonder the tenants were glad to make our arrival the excuse for running off. Here are men claiming to have been worth forty thousand dollars, half in biped property, half in all other kinds, and they lived in dens such as a drayman would have disdained and a hod-carrier only accepted on compulsion.


Always beautiful! the sea cannot be spoilt. Our fleet enlivens it greatly. Here is the flag-ship "Cumberland" _vis-a-vis_ the fort. Off to the left are the prizes, unlucky schooners, which ought to be carrying pine wood to the kitchens of New York, and new potatoes and green peas for the wood to operate upon. This region, by the way, is New York's watermelon patch for early melons; and if we do not conquer a peace here pretty soon, the Jersey fruit will have the market to itself.

Besides stately flag-ships and poor little bumboat schooners, transports are coming and going with regiments or provisions for the same. Here, too, are old acquaintances from the bay of New York,--the "Yankee," a lively tug,--the "Harriet Lane," coquettish and plucky,--the "Catiline," ready to reverse her name and put down conspiracy.

On the dock are munitions of war in heaps. Volunteer armies load themselves with things they do not need, and forget the essentials. The unlucky army-quartermaster's people, accustomed to the slow and systematic methods of the by-gone days at Fortress Monroe, fume terribly over these cargoes. The new men and the new manners of the new army do not altogether suit the actual men and manners of the obsolete army. The old men and the new must recombine. What we want now is the vigor of fresh people to utilize the experience of the experts. The Silver-Gray Army needs a frisky element interfused. On the other hand, the new army needs to be taught a lesson in _method_ by the old; and the two combined will make the grand army of civilization.


When I arrived, Fort Monroe and the neighborhood were occupied by two armies.

1. General Butler.

2. About six thousand men, here and at Newport's News.

Making together more than twelve thousand men.

Of the first army, consisting of the General, I will not speak. Let his past supreme services speak for him, as I doubt not the future will.

Next to the array of a man comes the army of men. Regulars a few, with many post officers, among them some very fine and efficient fellows. These are within the post. Also within is the Third Regiment of Massachusetts, under Colonel Wardrop, the right kind of man to have, and commanding a capital regiment of three-months men, neatly uniformed in gray, with cocked felt hats.

Without the fort, across the moat, and across the bridge connecting this peninsula of sand with the nearest side of the mainland, are encamped three New York regiments. Each is in a wheat field, up to its eyes in dust. In order of precedence they come One, Two, and Five; in order of personal splendor of uniform they come Five, One, Two; in order of exploits they are all in the same negative position at present; and the Second has done rather the most robbing of hen-roosts.

The Fifth, Duryea's Zouaves, lighten up the woods brilliantly with their scarlet legs and scarlet head-pieces.

* * * * *

These last words were written upon the day that the attack in which Winthrop fell was arranged.

The disastrous day of the 10th of June, at Great Bethel, need not be described here. It is already written with tears and vain regrets in our history. It is useless to prolong the debate as to where the blame of the defeat, if blame there were, should rest. But there is an impression somewhat prevalent that Winthrop planned the expedition, which is incorrect. As military secretary of the commanding general, he made a memorandum of the outline of the plan as it had been finally settled. Precisely what that memorandum (which has been published) was he explains in the last letter he wrote, a few hours before leaving the fort. He says,--"If I come back safe, I will send you my notes of the plan of attack, part made up from the General's hints, part my own fancies." This defines exactly his responsibility. His position as aid and military secretary, his admirable qualities as adviser under the circumstances, and his personal friendship for the General, brought him intimately into the council of war. He embarked in the plan all the interest of a brave soldier contemplating his first battle. He probably made suggestions some of which were adopted. The expedition was the first move from Fort Monroe, to which the country had been long looking in expectation. These were the reasons why he felt so peculiar a responsibility for its success; and after the melancholy events of the earlier part of the day, he saw that its fortunes could be retrieved only by a dash of heroic enthusiasm. Fired himself, he sought to kindle others. For one moment that brave, inspiring form is plainly visible to his whole country, rapt and calm, standing upon the log nearest the enemy's battery, the mark of their sharpshooters, the admiration of their leaders, waving his sword, cheering his fellow-soldiers with his bugle voice of victory,--young, brave, beautiful, for one moment erect and glowing in the wild whirl of battle, the next falling forward toward the foe, dead, but triumphant.

On the 19th of April he left the armory-door of the Seventh, with his hand upon a howitzer; on the 21st of June his body lay upon the same howitzer at the same door, wrapped in the flag for which he gladly died, as the symbol of human freedom. And so, drawn by the hands of young men lately strangers to him, but of whose bravery and loyalty he had been the laureate, and who fitly mourned him who had honored them, with long, pealing dirges and muffled drums, he moved forward.

Yet such was the electric vitality of this friend of ours, that those of us who followed him could only think of him as approving the funeral pageant, not the object of it, but still the spectator and critic of every scene in which he was a part. We did not think of him as dead. We never shall. In the moist, warm midsummer morning, he was alert, alive, immortal.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In