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Swinton, William (1833-1892)

Journalist, Travel Writer, Essayist, War Correspondent

Younger brother of famous labor activist, journalist, and editor John Swinton, William Swinton enjoyed a varied career as a teacher, would-be minister, war correspondent, professor, and textbook writer. William emigrated with his family from Scotland to Canada in 1843. His schooling took place in Canada and the United States at Knox College and Amherst. He went on to begin his career as a teacher and writer of pieces for magazines. From 1855 to 1858 his teaching career brought him to New York City to conduct classes at the Mount Washington Collegiate Institute while he prepared for the ministry, a career he abandoned by 1858.

Though Swinton’s exact association with the crowd at Pfaff’s is unclear, he may have been introduced to this circle through his brother John Swinton. During this period William was a close friend of Whitman’s, and the two collaborated on Rambles among Words (Schmidgall 152), but either he or his brother may have been responsible for a negative review of Whitman which appeared in the New York Times in 1860 (Belasco 255). In fact, the historical distinctions between the two brothers may not have been carefully preserved; many interactions with Whitman that were attributed to John Swinton may actually have involved William (Hollis footnote 29).

During the Civil War, like other members of the crowd at Pfaff’s including Theodore Winthrop, William Swinton became a war correspondent for the New York Times. On the front lines he pursued stories aggressively; at one point he was accused of eavesdropping on the conversations of Generals Grant and Meade. Rather than resort to more extreme punishment that other generals might have chosen, such as shooting him, Grant let Swinton off with a reprimand. The next week, Burnside asked General Meade "that this man immediately receive the justice which was so justly meted out to another libeler of the press a day or two since, or that I be allowed to arrest and punish him myself." Burnside was largely angry over a report Swinton wrote about his corps. "Grant got the impression that Burnside intended to shoot the reporter, and immediately ordered Swinton’s expulsion instead" (L. Starr 279). Using this experience at the front, however, he penned several books on the conflict including The Times Review of McClellan; His Military Career Reviewed and Exposed (1864), Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (1866), The Twelve Decisive Battles of the War (1867), History of the New York Seventh Regiment During the War of the Rebellion (1870); the latter regiment was the one to which Pfaff’s associates Theodore Winthrop and Fitz-James O’Brien belonged-- neither of whom survived the war.

Swinton accepted a professorship of English at the newly established University of California, but he resigned in 1874 due to conflicts with the president. At this point, Swinton embarked upon what proved to be a successful and lucrative occupation: writing school textbooks on geography, spelling, grammar, and history. Upon his death in Brooklyn he left behind three sons and two daughters.