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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 18, No. 4
December, 1940

By Carolyn Thomas Foreman

Page 313

A distinguished name in the annals of the United States Army is Whistler and it is of particular interest in Oklahoma where Colonel William Whistler served as commandant of Fort Gibson at four different periods. His father, John Whistler, born in Ulster, Ireland about 1756; served in the British Army under Burgoyne and was made a prisoner with him at the Battle of Saratoga, October 17, 1777. Soon after Whistler's return to England he met and fell in love with Miss Ann Bishop, daughter of Sir Edward Bishop. After their marriage they removed to America, settled at Hagerstown, Maryland and shortly afterwards John became a lieutenant adjutant in the levies of 1791. He was wounded in an Indian campaign that year; in 1792 he became an ensign in the First Infantry and on July 1, 1797, he received his captaincy.

In the summer of 1803, Captain Whistler was ordered from Detroit with his company of the First Infantry to the head-waters of Lake Michigan where he built Fort Dearborn, finishing it before the end of the year. He was brevetted major July 10, 1812; honorably discharged June 15, 1815 after which he was appointed military storekeeper of ordnance at Newport, Kentucky in 1817 and later at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he remained until his death September 3, 1829.1

While John and Ann Bishop Whistler were living at Hagerstown, Maryland, their son William was born in 1780, and he was appointed a second lieutenant in the United States Army June 8, 1801; as a first lieutenant he participated in the battle of Maguaga, Michigan, August 9, 1812. Before the battle Lieut. Col. James Miller declared that any man who left the ranks or fell back, without orders, should be put to death instantly. The battle field was fourteen miles from Detroit, in the oak woods on the bank of the

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Detroit; the American troops received a frightful volley from ambush by British and Indian soldiers under Major Muir and Tecumseh. When the battle went against them the British and Canadians fled leaving Tecumseh and his men to bear the brunt of the fight. They were routed and the Americans gained a complete victory.2

At Detroit, Michigan, on August 16, Lieutenant Whistler was taken prisoner;3 and the last day of 1812 he became a captain. He was stationed at Green Bay, Wisconsin from 1817 to 1819 and in 1820 he was temporarily in command. Whistler married Miss Julia Fearson of Detroit; she was of Scotch and French descent and is spoken of by a friend as a "very warm-hearted and indulgent mother, to the children of the household." Several of their children were born at Fort Howard.4

Captain Whistler then of the Third Infantry, wrote Colonel Boyer, Indian agent from Fort Howard, January 13, 1820, that while he was passing a village of the Winnebago Indians on August 9, 1819, his boat was fired upon at the entrance of Winnebago Lake by a party of the Indians assembled on the shore. Captain Whistler directed his interpreter to inquire the cause of this attack upon the American flag which was conspicuously displayed from a staff at the stern of his batteaux. The Indians gave the officer to understand that they commanded the passage, and required all boats to stop and report to them. Whistler was accompanied by four or five soldiers and three of his children but the shot passed through the awning of the boat without harm to them.5

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Whistler was brevetted major December 31, 1822, for ten years' faithful service in one grade. Two interesting items concerning Major Whistler are recounted in the Wisconsin Historical Collection: George Boyd, U. S. Indian agent, wrote Gov. Lewis Cass, August 22, 1824, that "...Major Whistler, has also been held to bail for suffering these Indians to be flogged at my request." Colonel Ebenezer Childs, of La Crosse, in his "Recollections of Wisconsin since 1820," related: "We were mustered into Colonel Whistler's detachment at Little Butte des Mort.6 I had enlisted a young woman as a washer-woman, but Colonel Whistler would not permit it, so I had to discharge my female warrior very much against my will."7

Major Whistler was again at Green Bay in 1826; he remained there for two years as commandant before being ordered to Fort Niagara whence he was sent to regarrison Fort Dearborn in 1832. At Mackinac, in July, 1834, Whistler received news of his promotion to a lieutenant colonelcy and his assignment to the Seventh Infantry.8

Red Bird, a Winnebago war chief,9 had been friendly with the settlers at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, until two Winnebago had been arrested for the murder of a family of maple-sugar makers; a report reached the chief that the Indians had been turned over to the Chippewa by military authorities at Fort Snelling and that they were clubbed to death while running the gauntlet. Not waiting to learn that this was untrue, Red Bird, with two companions, went to the home of Registre Gagnier and after being hospitably entertained by him the Indians shot him and his hired man. After the murder Red Bird and his Indians fled; Major Whistler, in command at Fort Howard (Green Bay), was ordered by General Atkinson to take all forces at his disposal and go up to the Fox River to the portage to await his arrival. A company of Oneida and Stockbridge Indians, accompanied Whistler's force

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and they encamped on the bluff opposite the portage where Fort Winnebago was subsequently built. When the troops prepared to attack the Winnebagoes, Red Bird and his men gave themselves up. The chief appeared on a mettlesome horse with a white flag in his hand; he wore his Yancton uniform of unsoiled skins. The Indian approached Major Whistler and facing him, said: "I am ready." "I do not wish to be put in irons." "Let me be free." The Indians were tried at Prairie du Chien, convicted but sentence was deferred. Red Bird was remanded to prison to await sentence but died February 16, 1828, and his accomplices were pardoned by President Adams.10

Whistler was made a lieutenant colonel of the Seventh Infantry, July 21, 1834. This regiment had been for years stationed at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, and when he and his family arrived there the stockade was so crowded that quarters outside the garrison were assigned to him in a three-room log house east of the post.

The garrison was a gay place for young ladies as many officers recently graduated from West Point were assigned there and romances flourished between them and relatives of other officers and the attractive Cherokee girls who visited the post. Colonel Whistler had a young daughter named Mary Ann and her marriage to Lieut. Gabriel René Paul of her father's regiment, was an important social affair. The bridegroom, a native of Missouri, had been graduated from West Point the year before and ordered directly to Fort Gibson. A sister of Colonel Whistler, the wife of Capt. Daniel Curtis, met a tragic fate at Fort Mackinaw. She was sitting sewing near a window in their quarters during a storm and was struck by lightning; she left four little children, one of whom, her daughter Irene, became the second wife of Gen. Daniel H. Rucker and the mother-in-law of Gen. Philip Sheridan.11

During the period from August 6, 1835 to September 10, Colonel Whistler was in command of Fort Gibson during the absence

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of Colonel Mathew Arbuckle and was again commandant from April 20, 1836 to May 5, of the same year. While Colonel Arbuckle was away in the spring of 1836, orders were received on May 1, by express from General Edmund P. Gaines at Natchitoches, Louisiana, for six companies of the Seventh Infantry and the squadron of Dragoons from Fort Gibson as well as those at Fort Leavenworth to march south to the Texas border to protect the frontier. Colonel Whistler ordered the infantrymen to make ready for the campaign and on May 5 they departed under command of Brevet Major Birch; three days later the Dragoons left; both commands proceeded down the north side of the Arkansas River and crossed at Fort Coffee, whence they marched to Fort Towson. When Colonel Arbuckle returned to his post from Little Rock on May 6, he directed Colonel Whistler to go in pursuit of Major Birch and relieve him of his command as he was ill. Withdrawing troops from Fort Gibson at that time was inopportune, as the warlike Kiowa Indians were expected there for a council and it was of paramount importance to impress them with the power of the United States. It was unlikely they would believe that a large force had only recently left the fort and they would surmise that every preparation in the power of the white soldiers had been made to receive them.12

The little post at Towson was congested by the concentration of troops and as warm weather came on there was much illness. General Gaines ordered the remaining soldiers of the Seventh Infantry at Fort Gibson to march southward immediately and by the middle of July the six companies of the Seventh Infantry from Fort Gibson, the companies of the Third Infantry from Fort Towson and the Dragoons were marching from Towson to Fort Jesup to join the army under General Gaines. Under his orders troops continued to concentrate there until autumn.

General Gaines reported that the Mexicans were said to have sent twelve thousand soldiers into Texas and a large part of their army was made up of wild Indians and bandits bent on exter-

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minating the Texans. This was not the only time General Gaines became excited by false reports. The poor soldiers who had hoped for a chance to cross the border were doomed to disappointment and they had their weary march of 370 miles through extreme heat to Natchitoches for nothing. They had been obliged to build bridges, roads, causeways, and ferries for the use of the wagons all of which added a terrible burden to the troops unaccustomed to long marches. The Dragoons reached Fort Towson December 26, 1836 and left the following day for Fort Gibson. It was several weeks later before the Infantry passed Towson, and they did not reach Fort Gibson until January, having been almost four weeks on the way from Fort Jesup.13

Six companies of the Seventh Infantry reached Fort Coffee on January 10, 1837, having marched from Nacogdoches, Texas, in twenty-one days. The roads were extremely bad and the men suffered greatly from fatigue and cold. Colonel Whistler was ill, and accompanied by the Adjutant, Lieutenant S. W. Moore, preceded the troops one day.14

Fort Gibson was the scene of an important Indian council in 1837, which resulted in a treaty by the Apache, Kiowa, and Tawakoni with the Osages and Creeks. Santa Fe traders and hunting parties were assured of safety by the terms of this treaty which was witnessed by Colonel Whistler, Capt. B. L. E. Bonneville, and Col. R. L. Dodge.15

Advices sent from Fort Gibson reported Colonel Whistler in bad health, but he was commandant of the garrison from May 11, 1837 to September 13 of that year. There was confusion and annoyance at Fort Gibson during the summer regarding the real situation on the prairies, information being difficult to obtain. In the opinion of Colonel Whistler, after years of experience, little reliance could be placed in tales of traders and Indian hunters returning from the western prairies, as they were misled by their fears when alarmed. The Choctaw Indians had been removed to

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their new home in the West but the boundary of their land had not been settled and they were making claims to hunting grounds belonging to wild Indians. Whistler feared hostilities might result from these conflicting claims. He advised that the False Washita would make a natural boundary for some distance and enough territory would be secured to the Choctaws by making that the line. The wild tribes were badly armed and they dreaded fighting in timber or forests and if they attempted hostilities it would have to be through the settlements of the Choctaws where they could have been easily repulsed. Colonel Whistler advised that it was important to retain the friendship of the recently emigrated Kickapoos and Delawares and any other Indians who would form a protection to the settlements of the white people from the Prairie Indians.16

The Army and Navy Chronicle reported October 5, 1837, that Colonel Whistler Captain John Stuart and Dr. De Camp had been appointed commissioners to select a site for a new fort on the western frontier. They were instructed to find a location between Webber's Falls and the Arkansas line, and it was expected the post would be above Fort Coffee.17

Incorporated in the American State Papers, "Military Affairs," is a voluminous correspondence concerning the selection of a location for this fort. Under date of September 30, 1837, Colonel Whistler wrote Major General Macomb that the commissioners were "decidedly of the opinion that a large body of troops should be kept in the immediate vicinity of where Fort Gibson now stands, or even farther west...owing to the difficulty of the navigation above that place, would be impracticable to place a large body of troops, any farther west than that point. There the troops would, if necessary, be able to keep in check the disaffected Creeks. They would be able to prevent war between the Creeks and Osages, or the Cherokees and Osages, which will most assuredly occur just as soon as the troops are removed from Fort Gibson. Again, the troops at that point would prevent collision arising between the

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resident Cherokees and that portion of the nation yet to be removed, which is strongly to be apprehended.

"We would next place a considerable force at Fort Coffee. At that point the troops would, if necessary, give protection to the State of Arkansas..." Colonel Whistler wrote that if all troops on the Arkansas River were to be removed below Webber's Falls, the commissioners would recommend Pheasant Bluff, forty miles within the Indian country, for the site of a military establishment. The commissioners also described the highland at the mouth of Lee's Creek on the north side of the Arkansas River, about a mile and a half above Van Buren, as having ample room for a military establishment.18

Colonel Whistler again commanded Fort Gibson from January 29, 1839 to February 6, 1839. Having been on leave the veteran officer returned to Fort Gibson that month; as the Arkansas was too low for navigation by boat, he journeyed by land. When it was reported on January 29, 1839, that the Colonel was nearing the post the news spread like lightning through the barracks and the soldiers sped to the gates of the fort to greet their beloved officer. As his wagon approached, the troops gathered about it and cheered; every head was uncovered and the soldiers surrounded him, every one showing his happiness over his arrival. In the evening the troops assembled and marched to his quarters to serenade him with a band. The Colonel is reported to have shaken the hand of every man in the post. Colonel Whistler must have been gratified and touched by this demonstration and it reflected real merit to elicit it from enlisted men of the army. The regiment was then under orders to start for Florida in a few days. They were awaiting the arrival of the Fourth Infantry which had been engaged in removing the Cherokees from Georgia to the West.

A correspondent of the Arkansas Gazette who had visited the fort during the period it was garrisoned by the Seventh Infantry was "prepossessed in their favor;" he wrote of their "hospitality and courteous deportment" and said they would take up the line

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of march cheerfully although they knew it meant fatiguing marches, hard fighting and "NO glory."19

The Seventh Infantry, after being stationed at Fort Gibson for almost twenty years, finally received orders to proceed to Fort Smith on March 7, 1839; there they were to await a rise of water to continue on their journey to Florida. The Seventh, commanded by Colonel Whistler, arrived at Little Rock aboard keel boats; one company had preceded the rest of the regiment a few weeks; nine companies were towed in keel boats from Little Rock by the steamboat Little Rock, enroute to Tampa Bay to take part in the wretched campaign to drive out the few remaining Seminoles. Other officers accompanying the expedition were Major McIntosh, captains Seawell, Raines, Hawkins, Moore and Holmes; Lieutenant Whiting and three assistant surgeons—Suter, Moore, and Mills. The enlisted personnel appeared in good health and they were "cleanly and comfortably dressed, although some of them had permitted their moustaches to grow, which had a filthy appearance."20

The New Orleans Picayune of March 9 reported the Seventh regiment in that city and commented on the long service it had experienced on the frontier of Arkansas. A member of the regiment informed a correspondent of the newspaper that some of the officers had never left that wild region since arriving there; they had never seen a railroad or a canal. This organization had served with General Jackson when he quelled the former Seminole war and hopes were entertained their experience would be helpful in the present campaign. Lieutenant G. R. Paul, Colonel Whistler's son-in-law, was acting assistant quartermaster and commissary of the regiment.21

An account from Garey's Ferry, East Florida, May 1, 1839, stated the Seventh Infantry was to remain on guard at a cordon of posts of observation along a line previously reported as the probable boundary. The writer expressed sympathy for the regiment, stating its history had been one of apparent persecution. "From the wilds of the Flint River, in Georgia, where it endured

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intense suffering for many years, it was transplanted six hundred miles up the Arkansas, in 1821, in the midst of the most ruthless savages...they were driven still further off, and located upon the unhealthy cane-bottoms of the Neosho." Death followed them, and many young men did not long survive after arriving at Fort Gibson from West Point.22

The Daily National Intelligencer, June 19, 1839, printed a letter from an officer of the Seventh Infantry in which he declared that if the regiment was held in Florida it would be tantamount to its disbandment as the old and experienced officers could not with any self-respect retain their commissions. In an answer to this letter the Army and Navy Chronicle excoriated the writer saying he could not have spoken for the other officers and that they would be disgraced if they resigned while in the field. The writer conceded there had been incompetence, carelessness, mismanagement at general headquarters, proven by the treatment which the Seventh had received.23

General Taylor, commanding, reported the Seventh Infantry present for duty on November 30, 1839, with eighteen officers and 373 men. On the second day of the new year a general court martial was reported to have convened at Pilatka, December 20, 1839, with Lieutenant Colonel Whistler and Major Loomis among the members. This court concluded its duties on January 19; 1840. The headquarters of the Seventh Infantry were at Fort Micanopy in April, 1840, with Lieutenant Colonel Whistler in command of three companies.24

Whistler, as commander of a sub-division, at Fort Micanopy sent a report to Gen. Z. Taylor, commanding the army of the South at Fort Fanning, East Florida, May 1, 1840, stating that Captain Rains had been too badly wounded on the 28th of April to make a report of his fight with the enemy. Lieutenant R. C. Gatlin, adjutant of the Seventh Infantry, on returning to camp, furnished Colonel Whistler with the details incorporated in the report. On

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the morning of the 28th of April, Captain Rains, with a party of sixteen men, was attacked in a small hammock by a force of the enemy, two miles south of Fort King. The soldiers were entirely surrounded by the Seminoles and the first notice they had was a rifle volley. The soldiers charged to some piney woods but the enemy was in force there, and the trees were too small to give any shelter to the infantrymen so the hammock was charged and a strong line of the Indians on the north side, was forced to retire. The ground was contested foot by foot, until the leader of the Seminoles being killed, the Indians ceased fighting. One sergeant and one enlisted man of the Seventh were killed; Captain Rains and two privates dangerously wounded. The enemy was estimated as seventy by the wounded captain, but Private Kyle, who had been concealed in the hammock until the enemy left, counted ninety-three warriors, fifteen squaws bearing off the dead, and four Negroes.

Colonel Whistler commended Captain Raines for his skill and courage in extricating his party from the difficult situation and the enlisted men received their mead of praise from their colonel who reported they fought with courage against an overwhelming force, and prolonged the fight until their wounded companions could be removed.25 In July, 1840, Colonel Whistler was again a member of a court martial in session at Pilatka where a group of mutinous soldiers were tried for a recent outbreak at the post.26

In Order No. 37, dated Fort Micanopy, September 9, 1840, Colonel Whistler reported, with great satisfaction to his regiment, that an action had been fought three days before, near Wacahoota, between a detachment of thirty-five men of "B" and "H" companies, Seventh Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant [Wrightman Key] Hanson, and a body of Indians estimated at from eighty to one hundred warriors. This force, so superior in numbers, was beaten, although they had attacked from an ambuscade, by the coolness and bravery of officers and men and Colonel Whistler was greatly pleased at the courage and skill of Lieutenant Hanson and the fine conduct of the officers.27

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Colonel Whistler arrived in Washington November 7, 1840, where he was installed at Fuller's Hotel.28 During the summer of 1841, Colonel Whistler moved his regiment in detachments, from Fort Micanopy. In November of that year there were fourteen officers and 588 enlisted men present for duty with the Seventh Infantry. The whole force of the army was 4,941 men. The men of the Seventh were indignant because of the killing of Lieut. Walter Sherwood of the regiment and the brutal murder of Mrs. Montgomery, the wife of Lieut. Alexander Montgomery of the Seventh. Their deaths aroused a spirit of retaliation all over the country and alarmed the army and civilians.29

Whistler moved with his detachment from Micanopy, Watkahoota, and Wacassassa early in 1842, for the purpose of cutting off the retreat of the Creeks (Seminoles?) to the Wahoo Swamp.30 As a result of movements of five regiments of infantry, including the Seventh, and five companies of the Second Dragoons, east of the Suawannee, it was thought the Indians had found refuge in Cook's hammock and the scrub on the river towards Tallahassee. Col. I. H. Vose marched one hundred men into that part of the country and Lieutenant Colonel Whistler, with the same number of soldiers, cooperated from the Suawannee. The United States soldiers besieging their hiding places could not see the Indians but they could hear them. After the capture of Halleck-Tustenuggee, the Seventh Infantry, in small detachments, was combing middle Florida in all directions. Colonel Whistler in command of 250 men was posted on the Esteen-Hatchee River whence he dispatched detachments operating after the manner of the Creeks in the effort to capture the Indians. Colonel Whistler and his force was retained in the field for two months, and he reported that zeal, intelligence and forebearance, characterized his officers and men.

On July 20, 1842, Colonel Whistler with his regiment embarked at Cedar Key to take post at Forts Brooke, Pike, Wood, Pickens and New Orleans Barracks after serving in Florida since May,

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1839. During the campaign in Florida against the Seminoles, two officers of the Seventh Infantry were killed in battle and two died of disease; twenty-eight of the rank and file were killed by Indians and 116 died from disease incident to the climate and service. During the war the regiment sustained its previous reputation for valor.31

Colonel Whistler had a brother who became celebrated in another line of work. He was born May 19, 1800, while his father, Major John Whistler, was commandant at Fort Wayne, Indiana, and he was given the name of George Washington Whistler. He received an appointment to West Point and after graduation served as an artillerist until he resigned in 1833. He was employed in railroad construction for a number of years being in charge of building the Baltimore and Ohio and four or five other important lines in the eastern states.

Czar Nicholas of Russia, learning of Whistler's success in this country in overcoming almost insuperable difficulties in engineering, invited him to Russia as consulting engineer for a projected railway from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Whistler went to Russia in 1842 and was amazed to have the Czar arbitrarily lay out the route by means of a straight line on a map, drawn with a ruler, from one city to the other. The American engineer began construction of a narrow gage line 420 miles in length in 1844. It was double track and cost $40,000,000. Whistler was also employed in superintending construction of docks at Cronstadt, an iron bridge across the Neva and some fortifications. He suffered an attack of Asiatic cholera and died at St. Petersburg April 7, 1849. Whistler's work in Russia was completed by his son George William Whistler who was engaged on it until his death at Brighton, England, December 24, 1869.32

George Washington Whistler was twice married and by his second wife, Anna Mathilda McNeill, whom he married November

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3, 1831, he had a son whom he named James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He was born at Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834. Like his father, he attended West Point but resigned after three years to devote himself to etching and painting. After studying in Paris he removed to London where he made his home for the remainder of his life. Having been trained as a fighter he maintained that attitude, being often engaged in verbal controversies with his friends and enemies.33

William Whistler received his full colonelcy July 15, 1845, and thereafter commanded the Fourth Infantry. The Seventh was again engaged in war in September 1845. A critical officer of the United States Army wrote at Corpus Christi, September 2: "....what a petty figure we cut here! We have the 3rd, 4th and 7th regiments of infantry, the 2nd regiment of dragoons, a company of regular artillery, and, among the senior officers, neither General Taylor nor Colonel Whistler commanding the brigade could form them into line! Even Colonel Twiggs could put the troops into line only 'after a fashion' of his own..."34

Since the War of 1812 there had been dissatisfaction in the army over the question of brevet and staff rank and this subject was revived in Mexico where officers sent a memorial to the Senate in answer to a recently published circular issued by General Scott to the army. This circular, dated December 12, 1845, was characterized by an officer as "an impertinent interposition between General Taylor and the President," and now that Scott was a major-general he availed himself "on all occasions to give precedence to brevet rank...." One hundred and thirty names were appended to the memorial from General Twiggs and Colonel Whistler to second lieutenants.35

On March 28, 1846, it was reported the United States army was to march to the east bank of the Rio del Norte, opposite Matamoras and Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock "...agreed that we

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must manoeuvre our regiments independently of Colonel Whistler...." A deserter, while trying to swim the river, was shot and killed on April 4, 1846, according to Colonel Whistler.36

The report of the secretary of war for 1846 stated Col. William Whistler, Fourth Infantry, was "in arrest; under trial."37 The general court-martial that tried Colonel Whistler, on charges of "disobedience of orders," "drunkenness on duty," and "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline," was held at Matamoros, Mexico, in July, 1846. He was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to be cashiered. The court was constituted of Brevet Brig-Gen. W. J. Worth, Bvt. Lieut. Col. J. Childs, Bvt. Lieut. Col. W. G. Belknap, Lieut. Col. H. Wilson, Major W. W. Lear, Bvt. Major W. M. Graham, Bvt. Major G. W. Allen, Bvt. Major J. J. Abercrombie, and Captain C. F. Smith who was Judge Advocate. Captain O. N. Ogden of the staff of the Louisiana Brigade of Volunteers acted as counsel for Colonel Whistler. It is gratifying to know that this veteran officer who had served his country for forty-five years was saved from disgrace by President James K. Polk who disapproved the sentence and on October 6, 1846, ordered Colonel Whistler on duty.38

From the close of the War with Mexico to his retirement October 9, 1861, Colonel Whistler was stationed at Detroit, Michigan, and Madison Barracks, New York.39 He died December 4, 1863.

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