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Bill Thayer

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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1802

[image ALT: A painted portrait, much idealized, of a young man in a military uniform with epaulets. He is probably in his early thirties. He is the 19c American army officer Joseph G. Swift, the subject of this webpage.]

Vol. I

(Born Mas.)

Joseph G. Swift

(Ap'd Mas.)

Joseph Gardner Swift: Born Dec. 31, 1783, Nantucket Island, MA.

Military History. — Cadet of the Military Academy from its organization​1 to Oct. 12, 1802, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, Oct. 12, 1802.

Served: at the Military Academy, 1802‑4; as Superintending Engineer of the construction of Ft. Johnston, N. C., 1804‑7; at the Military

(First Lieut., Corps of Engineers, June 11, 1805)

(Captain, Corps of Engineers, Oct. 30, 1806)

Academy, 1807; as Superintending Engineer in the erection of Governor's Island Batteries, Boston Harbor, Mas., and in general supervision of the defenses of the Northeastern Coast, 1808‑9; as Superintending

(Major, Corps of Engineers, Feb. 23, 1808)

Engineer of the fortifications of the Carolina and Georgia harbors, 1809‑12 and 1812‑13; as Chief Engineer and Aide-de‑Camp to

(Lieut.‑Colonel, Corps of Engineers, July 6, 1812)

(Colonel and Chief Engineer of the U. S. Army, July 31, 1812)

Major-General Pinckney, May 25 to Sept. 28, 1812; in the War of 1812‑15 with Great Britain, as Chief Engineer of the Department of New York, and in command of brigade garrisoning Staten Island, April 6 to Aug. 14, 1813; as Chief Engineer of the Army under command of Major-General Wilkinson, in the Campaign of 1813 on the St. Lawrence River, being engaged in the Battle of Chrystler's Field, U. C., Nov. 11,  p52 1813; and of the forces for the defense of the city and harbor of New

(Bvt. Brig.‑General, Feb. 19, 1814, for Meritorious Services)

York (including Brooklyn and Harlem Heights), 1814‑15; as Superintending Engineer of the construction of the fortifications of New York harbor, 1815‑17; as member of Board to revise the Infantry Tactics, 1815, — for selecting northern Naval Depot, 1815, — and for rebuilding the Capitol at Washington, 1817; in command of the Corps of Engineers, July 31, 1812, to Nov. 12, 1818, and (ex‑officio) Superintendent of the Military Academy July 31, 1812, to July 28, 1817, and its Inspector, April 7, to Nov. 12, 1818; and as member of the Board of Engineers for the Atlantic Coast of the United States, April 21, 1817, to Nov. 12, 1818.

Resigned, Nov. 12, 1818.

Civil History. — Surveyor of U. S. Revenue for the port of New York, 1818‑26. Civil Engineer, engaged on various works, 1819‑45. Member of the Board of Visitors to the Military Academy, 1819, 1820, 1821, and 1824. Cotton Planter, Haywood County, Ten., Jan., 1828. Chief Engineer of Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, 1828‑29, — of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain Railroad (the first laid with T rail in the United States), 1830‑31, — and of New York and Harlem Railroad, 1832‑33, — and Civil Engineer in the service of the United States, superintending Harbor Improvements on the Lakes, 1829‑45. Aided in suppressing Canada Border disturbances, 1839, and was appointed by the President in 1841, on a mission to the British Provinces, with reference to a Treaty with Great Britain. U. S. Commissioner of Patents, 1849: declined. Member of several scientific and historical societies, and of "La Société Française de Statique Universelle de Paris," 1831. Degree of LL. D. conferred by Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1843.

Died, July 23, 1865, at Geneva, N. Y.: Aged 82.

Buried, Washington Street Cemetery, Geneva, NY.

Biographical Sketch.

Brig.‑General Joseph Gardner Swift, First Graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, N. Y., was born Dec. 31, 1783, at Nantucket, Mas.

His ancestors on his father's side were English husbandmen, who migrated to Squantum, in Massachusetts Bay, soon after the first colony landed at Plymouth; and on his mother's side were Huguenots from Leyden, in Holland, who also landed in Boston Bay. Among their descendants were a Chief Justice of Connecticut, a Senator from Vermont, a Governor of New York, and several Revolutionary officers of note.

Young Swift grew up among the primitive people of his native isle, noted for their confiding intimacy and simple hospitality, and those domestic virtues which characterized his later life. At the age of six he saw the "Hero," Washington, on Boston Common, which made an indelible impression on the precocious boy, and, possibly, planted the germ from which afterwards grew the soldier.

In 1792 his father removed to Taunton, Mas., which became the future home of the family. Here young Swift, under the tutelage of the Rev. Samuel Daggett, acquired an academical education fitting him to enter Harvard College.

By the advice and with the assistance of General Cobb, then a member of Congress, young Swift was appointed by President John Adams, May 12, 1800, a Cadet of Artillerists and Engineers. On the 12th of June following he reported for duty, in Newport Harbor, R. I.

During the summer of 1801, General Dearborn, then Secretary of War,  p53 had given notice to our little army that President Jefferson had ordered the establishment of a Military School at West Point, for the education of cadets, under the law of 1794, and subsequent acts of Congress which authorized the appointment of professors of the arts and sciences, and the purchase of apparatus and instruments necessary for the instruction of the artillerists and engineers. To this school, Swift, as directed by the Secretary of War, repaired, and reported October 14, 1801, having visited, on his way, the battlefield of Long Island, and ascended the Hudson, whose banks had scarce ceased to echo the stirring events of our Revolutionary history. What a contrast to the varied scenes since enacted on the Plain of West Point was this stripling boy, standing alone, the solitary pioneer of thousands whose fame has filled the pages of their country's history! The same gorgeous landscape, then as now, was lit up by a calm October sunset, and the hills around were as eloquent with legend and story of the past; but how little could he foresee the future glories of the present renowned institution of which he was the first élève!

Till 1812, Swift was employed on various engineer and other duties; and upon the resignation of Colonel Williams became Chief Engineer, U. S. Army, and, ex‑officio, Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy. He was then but thirty years of age. Young as he was he had much preparation for his responsible position, for in Revolutionary times men have to think fast and act promptly, compressing years into days. He was born just at the close of the War of Independence; his childhood had been passed amid the excitements incident to the formation of the government and its institutions; his boyish imagination was inflamed by the stirring events of the French Revolution; and his early manhood had been occupied with active duties, in a large intercourse with public men much his seniors, and in preparing for our second struggle with one of the giants of the earth. How he acquitted himself of the important trust now confided to him the sequel will show.

With General Armstrong, then Secretary of War, he consulted on military matters generally, and particularly upon the application of the large appropriations for fortifications. These arranged, he proceeded to New York harbor, where, on the 6th of April, he reported himself for duty to General George Izard, the commandant of the Department, from whom he received, as specially ordered by the President, the command of Staten Island, including a brigade of infantry (32d and 41st regiments), in addition to his duties as Chief Engineer and Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy.

In the latter capacity he made frequent visits to West Point; arranged plans for new buildings (Mess Hall, Academy, and South Barracks), tracing their foundations on the ground in June; obtained authority to employ an acting Chaplain to be Professor of Ethics, History, and Geography; remodeled the functions of the Academic Staff; and assumed the Inspectorship of the institution, to bar the assumption of authority claimed by Captain Partridge as local commander.

Having completed the repairs of the New York forts, and built a system of block-houses along the shores of the harbor to prevent a surprise by the British fleet, then anchored off Sandy Hook, Swift requested orders for the field.

On the 9th of August he was assigned as Chief Engineer of the Northern Army under General Wilkinson, and on the 31st reported to that officer at Sackett's Harbor. Here he found everything in a most disgraceful and deplorable condition; no plan of campaign studied or definitely fixed; the enemy's positions unknown, and the St. Lawrence unexplored; supplies deficient through neglect or incompetency of the War Department; expense of transportation enormous, that of a single field-piece costing over a thousand dollars; our troops mostly recruits, and  p54 sick from eating contract provisions; the army split into factions, with no one to harmonize discord; and authority a triple-headed Cerberus — Armstrong, Wilkinson, and Hampton — barking and biting at each other with a venom disreputable to their profession and destructive of all success to our arms.

After holding various councils of war, which consumed precious moments of the fast waning season for active operations, it was finally resolved to rendezvous all the troops in the vicinity of Sackett's Harbor; in coöperation with Chauncey's squadron make a bold feint on Kingston; then rapidly slip down the St. Lawrence; and in concert with Hampton's division, moving north from Lake Champlain, capture Montreal.

In the campaign which followed Swift took a conspicuous part; was prominently engaged, Nov. 11, 1813, in the battle of Chrystler's Field, where, says Wilkinson in his official despatch, "Colonel Swift took the boldest and most active part of any individual engaged, except Adjutant-General Walbach;" and, subsequently, for his "meritorious services," was brevetted a Brigadier-General.

Early in the spring of 1814, and in accordance with the wishes of General Brown, he applied for orders to take the field as Chief Engineer on the Niagara frontier; but the Secretary of War refused his application, on the ground that the coast defenses, which he was then inspecting, required his attention.

Swift, early in June, in conjunction with the Committee of Safety of the city of New York, made a reconnoissance of the approaches to its harbor, and decided upon the necessity for lines of works to cover New York and Brooklyn from any descent upon our shores from the British squadron then cruising off the coast. The Manhattan line was begun July 15, 1814, at Hallett's Point (since so famous from General Newton's great blasting operations), by the construction of a work, forming the right of the line, named Fort Stevens, after the Revolutionary patriot, General Stevens, a prominent officer of artillery at Saratoga in 1777. Two days later, ground was broken on the left at Mount Alto on the Hudson, the line passing thence, by McGowan's pass and the elevated ground that over­looks Harlem Flats, to Hell Gate. The trenches were opened by a detachment of citizen volunteers from the city, under Major Van Horn, a Revolutionary worthy. This short inner line was adopted because men and money were not at command to build a longer outer line. Operations were commenced, Aug. 6, 1814, on the Long Island line, at Fort Greene (now within Brooklyn city limits), by a detachment of a thousand citizens. Soon there were from 1,200 to 2,000 working regularly upon the two lines, and 20,300 at call habitually under arms and sufficiently drilled to man the works, though not more than 12,000 of them were encamped within the entrenchments. Swift was appointed Inspector-General of the whole force, and was virtually in command, he having to supervise everything, not only the construction of the defenses and their armament, but the providing of commissary and medical supplies. In a few weeks much was accomplished, gentlemen with pick and shovel working as day-laborers in the trenches. The enthusiasm of both youth and age was constantly stimulated by eloquent speeches, patriotic songs, thrilling stories, valorous deeds of our navy, heroic feats of the Niagara army, and last, not least, the news of the vandal destruction of the Capitol. By the close of November New York and Brooklyn were safe, and the well-manned lines, bristling with artillery, bade defiance to the foe.

Swift's services were so highly esteemed that the corporation of New York voted that he was a "Benefactor to the City," placed his portrait by Jarvis in the City Hall, presented Mrs. Swift with a magnificent service of plate of forty-three pieces, and himself with a beautiful case of silver drawing-instruments and a large pleasure barge.

 p55  No sooner had Swift completed the defensive lines to cover New York and Brooklyn, than his talents and experience were called into re­quisition upon the board to form a new system of Infantry Tactics; soon after, upon the commission to reduce the army to a peace establishment; and later, with Colonel George Bomford, to decide upon the rebuilding of the Capitol at Washington, destroyed by the barbarous conflagration ordered by Admiral Cockburn of the British Navy.

The war with England being terminated by the Treaty of Ghent, Swift, in his new headquarters at Washington, devoted himself afresh to his duties of Chief Engineer, nearly a million of dollars having been appropriated for fortifications. He was also a member of the joint Army and Navy Board to select a northern site for a defensible naval depot between New York and Casco Bay.

Early in 1816, a disturbing element came to mar Swift's future career. Notwithstanding the experience in our service of intriguing Conways and other imported charlatans of the Revolution, Congress, infatuated with an exalted idea of the superiority of foreign military talent, authorized, April 29th, the President to employ a skillful Assistant, to be attached to the Corps of Engineers, with the pay of its Chief. Upon the recommendation of Albert Gallatin and the Marquis La­fayette, the selection fell upon Brigadier-General Simon Bernard of the French Army, a distinguished engineer under Napoleon. Upon Bernard's arrival in the United States, the Secretary of War, November 16, 1816, placed him at the head of the Board of Engineers, at the same time General Swift being ordered to assume the personal superintendency of the Military Academy. Whatever might have been the merits of General Bernard, this certainly was a cruel blow to a proud officer, who, for fourteen years, in peace and war, had been so zealous and able in the performance of every duties intrusted to his charge. Swift, of course, protested against this gross insult to himself, and humiliating degradation of the Corps of Engineers, formed of native talent, expressly to avoid recourse to foreign aid; scientifically educated at our Military Academy established for that special purpose; just crowned with victorious laurels won in the campaign of 1814, and whose pride and emulation had built up a body of officers of which any nation might well be proud. He called to mind how much the government had already suffered from the futile essays and serious blunders of military adventurers and imported engineers, and argued with great force upon the impolicy of intrusting our defenses to any foreigner, whatever his ability, whose interest was that of his own country, not ours, and who, in the event of war, might become our most dangerous enemy.

Swift's duties in the field during the war with Great Britain had much interfered with his direction of the Military Academy, but hardly had peace been proclaimed before he gave his attention to an extended organization of that institution, which resulted in relieving Captain Partridge as Acting Superintendent of the Academy, Swift taking personal command for seven weeks, when he resumed his station at Washington city, except while on duty with the Board of Engineers or accompanying President Monroe, as Chief of his Staff, on his triumphal tour through the Northern States.

From the moment General Bernard was invited to be the head projector of the defenses of our coasts, the iron entered into the soul of the high-spirited Swift, who keenly appreciated the humiliation of his position, and, after wrestling over two years with his pride, at last felt compelled to sacrifice all his life-long anticipations of a soldier's glorious career, and consequently tendered his resignation from the army, Nov. 12, 1818. The day after his resignation, Swift accepted the Surveyorship of the Port of New York, not from choice, but as a means of living.

His subsequent Civil History is given in sufficient detail in his synopsis  p56 of service; but a fuller account of his life is to be found in my work, entitled the "Campaigns and Engineers of the War of 1812‑15 against Great Britain."​a

Soon after Swift had left the army, the Corps of Engineers, to show their respect and affection for their late chief, requested him to sit to Sully for his likeness, now hung in the library of the Military Academy at West Point,​b — the fit depository of the portrait of its first Graduate, second Superintendent, and subsequent Inspector. Whoever looks upon that ample brow can read of the vigorous brain within; whoever peers into those benignant eyes feels there was a generous heart below; and whoever watches those expressive lips, sees hovering there only utterances of patriotism, honor, and manly pride. When the writer first knew him, age had silvered o'er his flowing locks, and his almost apostolic countenance wore a saintly air, mingling tenderness, charity, and all the sweet offices of love and duty.

"A man he seem'd of cheerful yesterdays,

And confident to‑morrows; with a face

Not worldly-minded, for it bore too much

Of nature's impress, — gayety and health,

Freedom and hope; but keen withal, and shrewd.

His graceful gestures, and his tones of voice

Were all vivacious as his mien and looks."

At the green old age of eighty-two, Swift, surrounded by his fond family and attached friends, died, July 21, 1865, at Geneva, N. Y., full of years; full of honors; with faculties bright and affections warm to the last; much lamented by the public; and sincerely mourned by a wide circle of bereaved relatives.​c

The Author's Note:

1 Was then a Cadet of Artillerists and Engineers, receiving instruction at the post of West Point, N. Y., under the law of 1794 and subsequent acts of Congress.

Thayer's Notes:

a The work is by George Cullum (1879); the reference to it marks Cullum as the author of the biographical sketch.

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b The portrait is probably not the one at the top of this page, which is from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers' vignette on Swift's work to fortify New York and where it seems to be identified as the portrait by John Wesley Jarvis that was once in New York City Hall — but now hangs in the Mess Hall at the Academy.

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c Some additional miscellaneous information on Swift, mostly genealogical, can be found at Professor Rickey's page.

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Page updated: 7 Feb 16