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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1817

Vol. I

(Born N. C.)

William Gibbs McNeill

(Ap'd N. Y.)

Born Oct. 3, 1801, Wilmington, NC.

Military History. — Cadet of the Military Academy, July 26, 1814, to July 17, 1817, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Third Lieut., Corps of Artillery, July 17, 1817.

Served: on Topographical duty, July, 1817, to June 27, 1823; on Survey

(Second Lieut., Corps of Artillery, Mar. 1, 1818)

 p162  (First Lieut., Corps of Artillery, Dec. 4, 1819)

(First Lieut., 1st Artillery,
in Re-organization of Army, June 1, 1821)

(Bvt. Captain, Staff — Asst. Top. Engineer, Jan. 27, 1823)

of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, 1824‑26, — of Kanawha, James, and Roanoke Rivers, Va., 1827, — of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1827, and as Member of the Board of Civil Engineers for the Construction of the Road, 1827‑30, — of Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, 1839, of which he was the Company's Chief Engineer, 1830‑36, — of Paterson and Hudson River Railroad, N. J., 1831, and Company's Chief Engineer, 1831‑34, — of Boston and Providence Railroad, 1832‑33, and Company's Chief Engineer, 1832‑35, — of Providence and Stonington Railroad, 1832‑33,

(Bvt. Major, Jan. 27, 1833, For Faithful Service Ten Years in one Grade)

and Company's Chief Engineer, 1832‑37, — of Railroads in Florida and Alabama, 1834, — of Taunton and New Bedford, Mas., and

(Bvt. Major, Staff — Top. Engineer, Jan. 28, 1834)

Company's Chief Engineer, 1835, — of Fayetteville and Yadkin Railroad, N. C., and Company's Chief Engineer, 1835, — of Long Island Railroad, N. Y., and Company's Chief Engineer, 1835‑36, — of Western Railroad, Mas., 1836‑37, — and of Examination of Coasts of North and South Carolina, 1837.

Resigned, Nov. 23, 1837.

Civil History. — Chief Engineer of the Western Railroad, Mas., from Worcester to Albany, 1836‑40, — of the State of Georgia, 1837, — of Charleston, S. C., Louisville, Ky., and Cincinnati, O., projected Railroad, 1837‑40, — and of Dry Dock at Brooklyn Navy Yard, N. Y., 1844‑45. President of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, 1842‑43. Consulting Engineer of various Railroads and other public works in the United States and Cuba, 1830‑53. Major-General, Rhode Island Militia, 1842.

Died, Feb. 16, 1853, at Brooklyn, N. Y.: Aged 51.

Biographical Sketch.

Major‑General William Gibbs McNeill was born, Oct. 3, 1801, in Wilmington, N. C. His great-grandfather, a member of a Highland clan, after distinguishing himself at the fatal Battle of Culloden, emigrated to North America, in 1746, with the celebrated Flora Macdonald. his father, Dr. Donald McNeill, after receiving his education in the Medical School at Edinburgh, served with the British Army in the West Indies, and before the American Revolution settled in Wilmington, N. C., where he attained considerable reputation as a physician.

Young McNeill received his early education at Newtown, Long Island, N. Y., whence he was removed, under the charge of the Rev. Dr. Wyatt, of Baltimore, to the Episcopal Seminary, with the intention of fitting him for the Church; but having been taken by his early friend, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph G. Swift, then Chief Engineer of the Army, to West Point, the boy expressed a wish to abandon the gown for the sword. Through the influence of his patron, President Madison readily gave him a Cadet's appointment, and he entered the Military Academy July 26, 1814. Here he at once developed decided talents, and became a great favorite of the Acting Superintendent, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Partridge, who took him to his own quarters and instructed him in Hutton's Mathematics. Soon after, he was taught Descriptive Geometry and Engineering by Captain Crozet, who had been graduated from the celebrated French Polytechnic School,  p163 and had recently been appointed a Professor at West Point. Among his intimate associates at the Academy were Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George W. Whistler and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William H. Swift, with both of whom he subsequently became closely connected, not only by professional but by marriage ties.

On the very day, July 17, 1817, on which Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thayer had been ordered to supersede Captain Partridge in command of the Military Academy, all Cadets deemed sufficiently instructed were graduated from the institution. McNeill, being of the number, was on the same day promoted to be a Third Lieut. in the Corps of Artillery, and immediately after was assigned to topographical duty under Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Abert on the Survey of the Atlantic Coast, and of sites for fortifications on the Gulf of Mexico. While here, General Jackson was carrying on war against the Seminole Indians, and had seized St. Mark's and Pensacola, then Spanish possessions. At once McNeill, in his fiery zeal, volunteered as Aide-de‑Camp to "Old Hickory," and subsequently as Acting Adjutant General to General Gaines.

After successive promotions to Second and First Lieut. of Artillery, McNeill was appointed, Jan. 27, 1823, to be an Assistant Topographical Engineer, attached to the General Staff with the rank of Bvt. Captain. Soon after, in 1824, under Secretary Calhoun's Internal Improvement System, he was assigned to duty on the survey of the summit division of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and in 1827 of the James River and Kanawha Canal.

In this latter year the railroad mania began to rage in this country. At that time there were existing only a few insignificant local short roads, aggregating in length less than twenty miles, and there were few educated civil engineers in the United States to conduct larger works. Under these circumstances, the Government adopted the wise policy of loaning officers of the Army, scientifically educated at the Military Academy, to assist railroad companies in carrying out more ambitious projects. In this manner our army engineers became the pioneers in railroad construction, and the educators of an able body of civil engineers, who, to this day, have continued the inherited traditions, methods, discipline, esprit-de‑corps, and high bearing of their distinguished predecessors.

The Baltimore and Ohio was the first important railroad undertaken in this country. In the annual report of the company, of Oct. 1, 1827, it is stated that "several able and efficient members of the Topographical Corps have been detailed in the service of the company. These officers [Captain William Gibbs McNeill, Lieutenants Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joshua Barney, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Isaac Trimble, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Richard E. Hazzard, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Cook, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Walter Gwynn, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John L. Dillahunty, all graduates of the Military Academy] have examined various routes from the city of Baltimore to the valley of the Potomac, and along that ravine as far as Cumberland. They are now engaged in a general reconnoissance of the country between the Potomac and Ohio rivers." Subsequently, the Directors of the Company very fully acknowledged their obligations to the General Government "for the unceasing and cordial support which the company continues to derive from the operation of that liberal and enlightened policy to which, from the commencement of their undertaking, they have felt themselves so much indebted." The definite location of this road, between Baltimore and Ellicott's Mills, was intrusted to McNeill and his Army assistants, by whom, says the report of July 7, 1828, "it has been accomplished with a degree of precision highly satisfactory to the Board." Among McNeill's assistants this year was George W. Whistler. Similarity of tastes induced a firm friendship between these men, who were subsequently engaged or consulted on numerous great works of internal improvement in this country.

 p164  This Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first in America designed for general transportation purposes, but without any idea of operating it by steam. Its construction was commenced, the first stone being laid, at the Baltimore terminus, with great ceremony by the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, — the venerable Charles Carroll, then ninety years of age. The following year Stephenson, with his experimental locomotive "Rocket,"​1 ran ten miles an hour over the straight and level Liverpool and Manchester Railroad; but it remained for that most useful citizen and great philanthropist, Peter Cooper, to devise a locomotive to make, Aug. 28, 1830, the first land-journey by steam in America, at the rate of eighteen miles an hour, over the Baltimore and Ohio Road, having a very undulating surface and many sharp curves of short radius.

In November, 1828, Jonathan Knight, McNeill, and Whistler were sent to England to examine minutely all the railroads of Great Britain, and to avail themselves of all the knowledge and experience such works could give. They received a cordial welcome from President Telford, of the Institution of Civil Engineers, through whom they were introduced to the Stephensons, Walker, Locke, Hartley, and other eminent engineers, whose friendly and professional intercourse they enjoyed till they returned, laden with much useful information.

In 1830 a disruption of the Board of Engineers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (composed of Major Long, of the Topographical Engineers, Jonathan Knight, Civil Engineer, and Captain McNeill, Top. Engineers) took place, and McNeill, with his able associate, Lieut. Whistler, left this road and took charge of the projected Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, the former continuing to be the company's Chief Engineer till 1836.

McNeill, at the time of leaving the Baltimore and Ohio Road, had acquired such a high professional reputation that, till his resignation from the Army, Nov. 23, 1837, he superintended the survey and construction of a large number of roads, the chief of which were the Paterson and Hudson River (now southern terminus of the Erie Railroad), 1831‑34; Boston and Providence, 1832‑35; Providence and Stonington, 1832‑37; Taunton and New Bedford, 1835; Fayetteville and Yadkin, 1835; Long Island, 1835‑36; Western, of Massachusetts (now Boston and Albany), 1836‑37, etc. After his resignation, he continued to be the Chief Engineer of the last-named road till 1840; was appointed Chief Engineer of the State of Georgia in 1837; and had charge, till 1840, of the projected road from Cincinnati to Charleston, then a stupendous undertaking; and was the President of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, 1842‑43.

On the breaking out of the "Dorr Rebellion" of Rhode Island, in 1842, the so‑styled "law and order party," in casting about for a leader, selected McNeill, who was commissioned a Major-General in the State Militia. Under the old Constitution, which was the charter granted in 1663 by Charles II, the right to vote was limited to men who possessed a certain amount of real estate, and to their eldest sons. In 1841 the suffrage party, under the leader­ship of Dorr, called a delegate State Convention to form a new Constitution, under which he was elected to be Governor. The charter, or law and order party, claimed that the whole proceeding was seditious, and that the vote for a new Constitution was fraudulent. Hence the loyal government, which met at Newport, resisted the Dorr usurpation organized, May 3, 1842, at Providence. Both sides appealed to arms, but General McNeill conducted the movements of the military forces of the legal government with such prudence and  p165 caution that the rebellion ceased May 28, three days after the bloodless battle of Chepachet. Dorr, put to flight, was soon after arrested, convicted of treason, and sentenced to imprisonment for life, but was released from confinement in five years.

In 1844, after peace had been completely established in Rhode Island, President Tyler appointed McNeill Chief Engineer of the Dry Docks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, N. Y. After planning them, and making considerable progress in their construction, President Polk, in 1845, to gratify the Dorr Democrats, removed him from his office.

In 1846, soon after the breaking out of the Mexican War, McNeill repaired to Washington to obtain the appointment of Brigadier-General, for which he was highly recommended, but the Dorr influence was still too great to be successfully resisted.

His prolonged labors having severely tried his powers, he in 1851 visited Europe for the restoration of his health. While in England he was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers of London, on several occasions took part in their professional discussions, and was always treated with courteous consideration.

While in London McNeill was actively engaged upon some great American mining projects, when he suddenly returned to his home in Brooklyn, N. Y., only to draw his last breath, Feb. 16, 1853, amidst his family and friends, the latter forming a large circle, for he had rendered himself greatly beloved by his kind, affable, and impressive manner, and the real services he could and did render to many. The President of the Institution of Civil Engineers of London, in his annual address of Dec. 20, 1853, says: "It is a subject of congratulation that the number of deceased members during the year is unusually small; there will, however, be found the names of two gallant officers of the British and the United States armies, who to their military talents united great aptitudes for engineering pursuits, and their loss is deplored, not only for their individual worth, but for the public services they might still have rendered their respective countries." McNeill, one of them, had not reached the age of fifty-two when he died.

General McNeill was a kind, liberal, open-hearted man, fond of his friends, generous to the needy, and complaisant to all; and, to young engineers, was the liberal patron, ever ready to assist them with his advice, or promote them in their profession. In his early years he was devoted to his work; had a quick topographical eye for reconnaissance; and, almost at a glance, could survey the adaptability of ground to practical purposes. But, having no constructive capacity whatever, he relied entirely upon his intelligent assistants for all the details, accessories, and machinery for railroad-building. As he advanced in reputation he grew bolder in the exercise of his natural gifts for diplomacy in shaping, and energy in controlling, the springs of human action. Possessing a fine, manly form, an engaging, sympathetic presence, polished and winning manners, a clear head in which was a plausible tongue, he with a ready eloquence carried captive the goodwill and convictions of all with whom he had to deal, and often secured the success of many doubtful projects which, but for his individual advocacy, would have been abandoned. He was a perfect man of the world, high-spirited, a born leader, self-willed, and tenacious of purpose, but, withal, possessed infinite adroitness, and an almost intuitive knowledge of the proclivities of his fellows. His tact and skill in managing men; his faculty of appropriating others' talents and labors, making them appear his own; and his invisible subtle influence in magnetizing and managing boards of directors, were most wonder­ful. This he considered the masterly engineering of the boldest projects, — to play the lord paramount while stockholders subscribed shares, and his professional assistants, of far superior  p166 engineering attainments, carried out his magnificent schemes in obedience to his imperious edicts, the results of which were presented to the world in able reports, drawn up in manly, power­ful style, and with a masterly grasp of the whole subject involved. Altogether, McNeill was a remarkable man, and the country owes him a deep debt of gratitude for his agency in the initiation of our grand system of Internal Improvements.

The Author's Note:

1 In the Patent Museum of South Kensington, London, is still to be seen the old "Rocket," — the forerunner of the thousands of iron horses which now traverse the whole world.

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