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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders photograph of a young man of slender physique, with tousled hair and a somewhat rebellious look to him despite wearing a uniform. He is William H. Coombs, a West Point graduate who for a few months was an American Army officer, and whose life is eulogized on this webpage.]

William H. Coombs

The text that follows is reproduced from (the report of the) Thirty-Second Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 8th, 1901.

 p122  William H. Coombs
No. 2272. Class of 1868.
Died, December 8, 1900, at Napa City, Cal., aged 54.

No more romantic personality ever entered West Point than the subject of this sketch, who died on December 8th, 1900, at Napa City, California, aged fifty-four.

Born under the Mexican flag in Yolo County, California, in 1846, he was nurtured upon the patriarchal estates in Napa Valley, where his father, a veritable pathfinder, left an honored and unsullied name.

Nathan Coombs, the foremost patriot, farmer and public-spirited Californian of the ante-Argonaut days, was born in 1826, in Massachusetts.

Joining, when sixteen years of age, a party of trappers, he visited Oregon and California in 1842, and finally settled in the beautiful Napa Valley, his name becoming a household word for hospitality and character over the whole west.

In 1845, Nathan Coombs was married at Sutter's Fort, by the old Swiss General Sutter, to beautiful Isabel Gordon of Yolo.

 p123  Her father, a Pennsylvanian of Scotch descent, in 1825, became a Rocky Mountain trapper, and, later, married a Spanish lady of high lineage at Taos, New Mexico.

In forty‑one, Gordon became almost a feudal lord in Yolo.

It was on Gordon's ranch in Yolo, before Nathan Coombs acquired his then princely estate in Napa, that the meeting was held which devised the capture of Sonoma, and declared for California independence, regardless of Kearney, Fremont and Sloat.

Nathan Coombs marched on that foray, one meaning certain death, if defeated, under the famous Bear flag, now the device of California, on which his young wife sewed with patriotic ardor, while Will Coombs was a babe.

After the fall of the Mexican banner, Nathan Coombs led an Abrahamic life, and developed the introduction of all high class farming, founding agricultural and stock breeding societies, scorning the search for gold.

Declining political honors, he died in 1877, being now represented by the Hon. Frank L. Coombs, M. C., Cal., one of the ablest lawyers in the golden west.

The pioneer's death at fifty‑one, was hastened by a terrific chance encounter with a giant grizzly, who tore him, unarmed, from his horse, crippling his right arm and mangling his breast, leaving at last the wounded man, who had feigned death to save his life with admirable coolness.

Young "Will Coombs" grew up, a frontier prince, an unrivalled horseman, a master of the machete and lasso, and a romantic wayward boy of omnivorous reading, a child of the woods, "who learned his ear in many a secret place."

Ardent, dreamy, poetic in imagination, possessed of an infallible memory, with a graceful return of the finest Spanish characteristics of honor and loyalty, no wonder that young Coombs was named the "Count of Monte Cristo" at West Point.

Neither Poe nor Whistler lived so genial and yet as secluded a life at the Academy. Coombs took at once a personal rank  p124 in his class, not dependent on scholar­ship, only being interested in digging rare things out of the library, in showing every trait of Castilian honor, and envied in his superb horseman­ship and unequalled swordsman­ship. Even old Tony Lorentz​a could not touch the agile young Californian panther!

While he coldly neglected Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Church's "Poetry of Mathematics," and sternly frowned upon Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Bart's "Phil" (in its grim equations), he repeated the "Lady of the Lake" entire at will, he accumulated experience and "many demerits," for he was born to be a law unto himself. Monarch of much that was, even then, "unsurveyed."

The orderlies wore out many shoes calling "Mr. Coombs" to see the Commandant, the august but beloved "Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Forrest Black."

The central figure of all surreptitious hospitality, Coombs was yet shy and reserved, and kept his own counsels.

To the writer he was a beloved and life-long friend, and at one time confided the ideas of some project "in the Greek sea."

He knew all literature and the poets, when he was graduated, naturally, in the "Immortal Band."

Ordered to the Pacific Coast, on his appointment in sixty-eight, he joined the Eighth Cavalry, as Second Lieutenant, Nov. 1, 1868, serving till March 18, 1869, when he resigned, as the unhappy army was then in the throes of the Logan "improvement."​b

For years he lived on the patrimonial estate in Napa county, finally entering the United States Revenue Service, and later, as Civil Engineer in charge, achieved great credit in the State Geological Survey of California.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he tendered his services promptly "for active duty in the field," but his retiring nature was averse to using political methods of advancement, and he did not "go to Cuba," as he had requested.

 p125  Retiring to the beautiful home of his youth, he died surrounded by his friends and his loving wife, whom he had married as Miss Kate Laney, in 1871. His children are four girls, Lotus, Jewel, Tiny and Muriel, and they inherit his grace and undoubted talents.

During his exhaustless, self-directed studies of thirty years, Coombs produced much poetry and essay work of a high class.

Of these, few specimens remain, as he would not offer his thoughts commercially.

Born as a living link between the graceful Dons and the nervous American conquerors, "Will Coombs" was gifted with every attribute of mind and body calculated to insure distinction.

Had he not possessed wealth from both his father and grandfather, men of lordly estate, Coombs, impelled by the usual necessities of life, would have gone far up the head.

Of him it may be rightly said that he was remarkable for what he was, and not what he did.

He is beloved and lamented by a wide circle of friends who saw through the shyness of the man the sterling qualities of a distinctly individual nature.

Bret Harte never drew a character as quaintly out of place and time as this young Lieutenant of the Eighth Cavalry.

He lived the romance which others vainly imagine, and he dwelt in a world all his own.

No friend or classmate can ever be persuaded but that many possibilities of "high emprise" were within his reach. He was a Spanish Don drifted down into our later days.

And so, he sleeps calmly in the exquisite Napa Valley, where the name of his family is the history of a beautiful domain larger than some European dukedoms.

We who knew him and loved him for his rare qualities, look forward to that final reveillé roll call, when that sadly broken old gray battalion will form again.

 p126  And, a staunch chum of old "D" Company, a life-long friend of thirty years, I would gladly miss many a great name off the roster of life, rather than his.

And so, I look forward,

"To hear his wonted voice and pleasant,"

Speak the ready answer, 'Present!' "

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Richard Henry Savage, Class of 1868.

Thayer's Notes:

a Antoné Lorentz, a civilian who was Master of the Sword at the Academy from 1856 to 1884.

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b Gen. John A. Logan (not a West Point graduate) had become a Representative in Congress, and chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee. He shepherded a bill thru Congress that cut the fat out of the Army, bloated by the War between the States — and then a good deal of the lean as well. Ganoe, The History of the United States Army, pp324‑325, describes the effect of the law on the Army and the country.

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