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.
Belasco speculates that either William or his brother, John Swinton (the new editor of the New York Times), may have written a negative review of Whitman that was printed in the New York Times on May 19, 1860. The review "castigated Whitman for his style and substance. Describing Whitman's earlier editions of Leaves of Grass as 'neither poetry nor prose, but a curious medley, a mixture of quaint utterances and gross indecencies, a remarkable compound of fine thoughts and sentiment of the pot-house,' the reviewer called the 1860 edition even 'more reckless and vulgar.'" Belasco corrects the assumption that the review was written as solely a review of Leaves of Grass, but was actually part of an article titled "New Publications: The New Poets." Both Swinton brothers were old friends of Whitman (255).[pages:255]
Spaulding recommends this as a source for information on Swinton's methods as war correspondent.[pages:76-78]
Derby mentions that Swinton's "series of School Readers" are published by Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co., a popular eductional publisher of the time. Derby writes that Swinton's educational books have done very well; "the sales of which have reached a magnitude that would astonish my readers, were I permitted to give them" (54-55).
Derby also writes, "Mr. Swinton is the author of several interesting volumes on the late Civil War, which have been received with marked favor in military circles. He was military editor and army correspondent of the N.Y. Times, and was present at many of the battles which he vividly describes" (55).[pages:54-55]
Grant unfavorably characterizes Swinton's methods as war correspondent.[pages:143-45 [394 in the online edition]]
Hollis discusses his career and relationship to Whitman. William Swinton may or may not have been at Pfaffs, but he was friendly with Whitman at the time. Many interactions with Whitman that were attributed to his brother John may have actually been him (footnote 29).[pages:425-449]
Swinton was Scottish-born and educated in Canada and at Amherst College. He worked at the Edgeworth Female Seminary in North Carolina before going to New York. In 1858 he joined the staff at the New York Times. In the following year his pieces were published for Putnam's Monthly as Rambles among Words: Their Poetry and Wisdom (50).
A writer for Putnam's, William Swinton "went to the seat of the war for the Times and became so conversant in military matters that his discussions of them incurred the displeasure of General Grant" (110).[pages:50, 51, 52, 110]
The biography focuses on Swinton's varied career as a war correspondent, would-be minister, college professor, and school textbook writer.
Starr writes that in the days prior to the Civil War, like many others in New York, the "Pfaffians were exposed increasingly to the clamour of a world beyond their ken. Something like a revolution was afoot in the realm of journalism, a revolution that would lift these light-hearted pranksters from their subterranean retreat and whirl them in its vortex. Soon O'Brien, Aldrich, Thomson, Williams, and Stedman, together with others in Clapp's happy coterie--Charles G. Halpine (who stammered to fame at Pfaff's, speaking inadvertantly of 'H-H-Harriet Beseecher Bestowe'), William Conant Church, William Swinton, E.H. House, Charles Henry Webb, a couple of artists, Frank H. Bellew and Thomas Nast: in all more than half of the identifiable clientele at the Cave--would take the field along with hundreds of other youths of like mind to participate in the greatest undertaking in the history of journalism" (9).
Swinton was privy to Gen. Hooker's feelings on Burnside and the President, information which he relayed to Raymond. Raymond passed this information along to Lincoln, who admitted that he knew the general spoke badly of him, but acknowledged the general's current power (194).
At the battle of Chancellorsville, Swinton "departed immediately after Jackson's assault -- 'so badly scared,' wrote Hill in Washington, 'that a telegram was sent after him from the office here, requesting that care be used in printing his account as he gave it.' The Times withheld it entirely; but the next day Crounse (who had switched from the World because of its change in politics) came through to confirm what Swinton had written, and the two reporters, both competent men, scored heavily for their paper" (199).
Swinton was caught by Grant eavesdropping on one of Grant's staff meetings. 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 libeller 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" (279).
Swinton, described as "sharp-featured," is also described by Starr as "one Bohemian well grounded in military strategy and tactics." His unsigned 1863 and 1864 "resumes in the Army and Navy Journal were accounted models of their kind by professional soldiers." Swinton's 1866 book, Campaigns of the Army of the Potomic "shocked Northerners by its dispassionate tone, particularly its use of 'Confederate' for 'rebel.'" Starr argues that it is a "valuable reference," as Swinton conducted several interviews with officers and attempted to submit proofs of the book to Meade, Hooker, Franklin, Couch, Hancock, Lee, and Johnston; he did not submit proofs to Grant or Burnside, and Starr claims that Swinton's work "fails to give Grant his due." In 1869, Swinton became a professor at the newly-established University of California; he quit five years later "after a ruckus with the president." Starr also notes "Millions of school children were exposed to the texts Swinton subsequently turned out on almost every grade-school subject" (357-358).[pages:9,194,199,279,298,357-8]
"It is a striking fact that the number of young men prominently connected with the New York press as writers is greater now than at any former period...the chief editorial work in these journals is done by men between the years of twenty-five and forty" (4).
"But all the rest of The Times men, we believe, are young—Stillman S. Conant, the two Swintons, Edward Seymour, Henry J. Winser, and the rest—though we believe we ought to except Mr. Morrison" (4).[pages:4]
Whitman discusses how Swinton was an early and well-loved friend by Whitman.[pages:152]
Whitman asks John Swinton how his brother William Swinton is doing.[pages:76]
Whitman mentions that Swinton is in Washington temporarily and is interested in speculating on gold.[pages:300]
Whitman notes that he "[does] not always depend on Swinton's accounts" (232).[pages:232]
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015