Julia Fearson Whistler
Cincinnati Enquirer, February 13, 1878
At Ninety-two. Death of Mrs. Colonel Whistler, The Romantic Life of the Oldest Lady in the United States Army. Mother of Colonel Whistler and Grand-Aunt of Mrs. Phil Sherman.
"Mrs. Julia Whistler, a venerable and beloved pioneer mother, died at her residence in Newport, Kentucky, yesterday afternoon at 4:40 o'clock, having received the last sacraments as long ago as last Thursday, and having lingered since then with the remarkable vitality for which she has been noted. As her history is almost synonymous with that of our Indian wars and the War of 1812, we give some of the romantic details.
"Mrs. Julia Whistler was born in Salem, Massachusetts on the 3rd of July, 1787, John Fearson, her father, was a British subject, and a captain in the merchant marine service, Her mother was the daughter of Mr. LaDuke of Montreal, Canada. When quite young Miss Fearson went to Detroit, in the then Territory of the Northwest, where she met and married, on the 15th of May 1802, William Whistler, an Ensign in the lst Regiment of the United States Infantry, His father was Major John Whistler, of the same regiment, in 1803, the young officer, he being but twenty years of age, accompanied by his still younger wife, embarked on the United States schooner Tracy for Chicago, having been ordered to that point with his father's command, to occupy and build a fort. The schooner made a brief stop at St. Joseph's River, where the young patriots left the vessel and took a row-boat to Chicago, a place then occupied by few white men, with only four rude huts or trader's cabins. They immediately set about erecting a stockade and shelter for their protection-a difficult task as there was not within a hundred miles a team of horses or oxen. The soldiers had to don the harness, and with the aid of ropes "snake" to the post the needed timbers.
"Mrs. Whistler gave birth to two children while at this post, and during the five years sojourn there she had many narrow escapes from death at the hands of the numerous savages that infested the surrounding country. It may not be out of place to mention the remarks of this venerable lady when informed, but a short time before her death, of the desire of certain "Reformers" to reduce the army. "They then, as now, would not see the necessity for keeping troops on the frontier, and did nothing but croak, croak until the Indians made them feel the horrors of Indian warfare, They are a lot of fools."
She had sixty-two years experience in the actual service. In 1808, she moved with her husband's company to Ft. Wayne, Indiana. There remaining until spring of 1812, when she, in company with her nurse, Angelica, and a lady traveler, started for Sandwich, Canada, for the purpose of visiting her parents, whom she saw for the last time while on that visit. During the journey, which was performed most of the distance by boat, the ladies went on shore to a cabin that was known as a deserted station. After entering the stockade, to the horror of Angelica, she observed a man fastening the gate. She informed her mistress of the danger, and gave up all hope, since the men were with the boat, Mrs. Whistler, being used to tight places, thought of a means of escape from this man whose intentions were not good. Going out she discovered that one of the logs in the stockade was loose. She returned to the cabin for the two women and led them through this hole and down to the boat like the wind, getting there in time to outwit their villainous acquaintance, for as the boat pushed from shore he appeared upon the bluff. After proceeding a few miles they were met by a party of men in search of this man, who proved to be one of the most blood-thirsty murderers in the country.
While at Sandwich, rumors of war with England reached her husband. He at once set out to bring her home, and had got as far as Detroit, when war was declared and the British forces together with their Indian allies, under the command of General Brock, were preparing to take their place.
Mrs. Whistler, although over ninety, gave a vivid description of this siege and surrender. This noble woman performed many acts of kindness in attending to the comfort of the sick and wounded. In relating the weakness of General Hull in surrendering to the Red-coats, when we "could have whipped them all to nothing," her eyes flashed fire and her hands trembled, proving that sixty-five years could not erase from her heart the wrong done the brave garrison by General Hull. During the bombardment the fort was thronged with women and children, and decrepit old men from the town and surrounding country, who had fled thither to escape the blow of the tomahawk and the keen blade of the scalping knife.
On the 16th of August, 1812, the rumor was afloat that "Hull was going-to strike his colors." Mrs. Whistler, hearing it, went to the door of her quarters, and while stepping out, a shot was fired from the battery at Sandwich. It came bounding over the fort wall, dealing death with its passage. It killed Captain Haucks, Lieutenant Snelling and Dr. Reynolds, and fatally wounded a physician who came from town to assist. Their blood bespattered her clothing from head to foot. Undaunted she ran through the house and by climbing out of the rear window, succeeded in reaching the quarters of Colonel John Miller, Revolutionary War veteran, whom she informed of the rumor. Although confined to his bed with a fever, he was so shocked that with the aid of two men he started with Mrs. Whistler to remonstrate with Hull. On reaching the door they were humiliated to see the white flag go over the ramparts of the fort. The garrison was taken prisoners and marched to Malden, and there embarked on the Queen Charlotte, to Fort Erie. From that point they were marched to Fort George, now Niagara.
On their reaching the fort, Colonel Myers of the English Army, a personal friend of Mr. Fearson, rode up and inquired, "Is there a Lieutenant Whistler among you?" Being answered in the affirmative, invited the lieutenant and the ladies to his quarters in the fort for safety. It required the vigilance of a regiment of regular troops to prevent a massacre of the prisoners by the Indian allies under Tatumcha,
While a guest of the colonel, Mrs. Whistler had a narrow escape from death. She was conversing with the Colonel about her father, sitting with her back to the window, when he was startled by seeing an Indian with tomahawk raised to cleave her head, "The prompt action of the colonel saved my life," she said. The next day they embarked in vessels and sailed to Kingston. From that point they were escorted by land to Montreal, Canada. Lieutenant Whistler being paroled, they started to Albany, New York for orders. Upon reaching there, Mrs. Whistler gave birth to a daughter, and in a few weeks they journeyed to Newport, Kentucky- "a place with more houses than Chicago or Cincinnati"-via Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, making the trip there in a keel-boat.
While at the barracks Captain Bryson told her that a lot of British prisoners had arrived. She went out to meet them and recognized the very officers who had treated her husband harshly at the surrender, and who, on being remonstrated with by Mrs. Whistler, replied, "You are our prisoners consequently at our mercy." She informed them she would look forward to the time when she could retaliate. Now was the opportunity to avail herself of the privilege. She did, by returning good for evil. By the time they were located at the barracks they were ordered back to Albany to appear as witnesses before the court-martial of General Hull. It was a long journey, but the fact of having justice done those who had suffered through the weakness or duplicity of Hull, whom to her last days she insisted "sold out to the British."
This gave her strength to undergo the fatigues and privations of a journey of several hundred miles over wild, unsettled country in the depth of winter, with scarcely the necessary comforts of life, and the trail alive with hostile Indians, in a lumbering wagon, was an undertaking that few ladies of the present day, unused to frontier life would appreciate. In a few months they were directed to return to Newport Barracks, where they remained until 1816, when they were ordered to Fort Gratiot.
In 1817 they moved to Mackinaw, from where they were directed to occupy Camp Smith, Green Bay, and build a fort, known as Fort Howard. In the spring of 1825, the Machilimackinack Indians became hostile and they were ordered to Mackinaw. In 1826 their station was changed to Fort Howard, where they remained until the breaking out of the Black Hawk War, when they went to Fort Niagara, until the spring of 1832, From there they returned to Fort Dearborn, Chicago-not the fort he had assisted in building thirty years before for that was destroyed by fire in 1812. The later one was erected in 1816.
In the summer of 1833 they returned to Mackinaw. In two months after that they were called to Sault St. Mary, and from that point they were transferred back to Fart Dearborn in 1834, Major Whistler having been prompted Lieutenant-Colonel of the 7th United States Infantry, was directed to join his regiment stationed in the "Indian Territory." "Having been accustomed to moving, and not having anything to pack, it did not take us long to tumble our family into a wagon and start for the new country."
They followed the trail to St, Louis, Missouri, crossed to Boonevil1e, and procured a "prairie schooner" and sailed for their destination. "On settling at Fort Gibson, the question of educating my youngest son occupied my mind and I came to the conclusion by giving him my blessing and a horse, and started him off to New York City," (He went to West Point.) He rode all the way to Chicago, via St. Louis, Missouri, and the rest of the way by mail coaches and steam boat, a journey that none but a lad possessed of an iron constitution could stand. He is now the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 5th Infantry, and is by the bedside of his veteran mother, having been summoned from the "Far West."
In 1838 the Florida War being next in order of our Indian difficulties caused the gallant couple to wend their way to Pensacola. While in route, Mrs. Whistler took to the trail for Chicago, to visit her daughter, Mrs. Kenzie. After an agreeable visit of six months, she journeyed alone to New Orleans. From there she went to Pensacola, joining her husband and sharing with him the many privations incident to the Indian campaign in the swamps of Florida.
She is next found in Baton Rouge, and her next station is New Orleans. From there they were ordered to Fort Moultrie, Charleston Harbor. In six months, war being declared against Mexico, and her husband becoming Colonel of the 4th United States Infantry, he is ordered to proceed with his regiment to Mexico, During his absence Mrs. Whistler took a daunt to Albany, New York to visit her daughter, Mrs. Bloodgood. In six months her husband called for her and escorted her to Savannah, Georgia. Leaving her there, the Colonel returned to his command in Mexico.
At the close of the war, his regiment was ordered to the Lakes, and Mrs. Whistler proceeded to join her husband at Pascagoula, Mississippi, via Lake Poncatrain. Meeting the regiment, she journeyed with it to Detroit, where the Colonel established headquarters. Here they remained until 1857., when they were ordered to Sackett's Harbor. During their stay at this place, General U. S. Grant, then subaltern officer, served as Colonel Whistler's Quartermaster. The Whistlers were strong friends of the Grants. During the Whiskey Rebellion Grant had no better friend than Mrs. Whistler.
When, in 1852, the 4th Infantry was in route to California, Colonel Whistler, on account of his age, was given light duty at Detroit. In a few years after, they moved to Newport, Kentucky, where they remained until the gallant old veteran, on the 4th day of December, 1863, after 63 years continuous service, beginning with the Indian attacks on old Fort Dearborn and running through the War of 1812, the Black Hawk, the Florida and Mexican Wars, journeyed on to answer the last reveille.
Mrs. Whistler, shortly after the death of her husband, became restless and left Newport, in company with the Misses Mary Whistler and Caroline B. Clench, two of her grandchildren, and traveled to visit her son, General J. N. G. Whistler, then in command of Fort Corcoran, Virginia, When President Lincoln was assassinated, "whose death grieved me to the heart," she went to Niagara, visiting for several months. She next lived for one year in Toronto. From there she moved to Detroit, intending to settle there for the rest of her life, but "found it impossible to stay too long a time in any one place," and returned in 1871, to Newport, Kentucky where she resided with her daughter, Mrs. Louise A Helm, and the Misses Whistler and Clench, to the day of her death.
In 1875 she visited her daughter, Mrs. Kenzie, at Chicago. She renewed the visit in 1876, attracting the attention of her railway companions by the erect manner in which she sat during the tedious journey. Very few of the four hundred thousand individuals then residing in the city of Chicago were aware that the lady, under the gentle supervision of whose "maiden's blue eyes" their stockade fortress, then so far in the wilderness, was erected, was again a visitor in their bustling city.
The last journey made by her was in the summer of 1877, to Louisville, Kentucky.
During the life of this remarkable woman she associated with many of America's favorite sons. Among those, of whom she related anecdotes, were Generals "Zach" Taylor, Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, John E. Wool, U. S. Grant (the last named and Jefferson Davis were lieutenants in her husband's regiment). She often remarked, "I do love to see soldiers passing to and from the barracks and, "I have a mind to go into the army again."
To within a few weeks of her death she enjoyed good health. The writer, until recently, passed many a pleasant hour at a "rubber of whist" with her. She was tall of form, her appearance indicating the truth of the common report, that in her earlier years she was a person of surprising elegance and was an unusual specimen of well-preserved faculties, both intellectual and physical. Her tenacious memory minister to a voluble tongue, made her an agreeable, intelligent and sprightly lady. In all amusements she enjoyed herself as much as the youngest. A marked trait of hers was a spirit of unyielding energy and determination, which length of years failed to subdue.
As a woman, she was kind, social, sympathizing and generous. Those who knew her best admired her most, and whatever may have been her peculiarities, she never failed to produce in the bosom of those who were long in her company, the same sentiments of honor, truth, justice and benevolence which inspired her own. She died as she lived, trusting in the Lord, in the hope of a blessed mortality beyond the grave. At her death-bed were three of her daughters, Mrs. Eliza Clench of St. Catherine, Canada, Mrs. Gwenthline Kenzie of Chicago and Louise A Helm and her son, General J. N. G. Whistler; of her grandchildren were Mary Whistler, Caroline B, Clench, Nettie Kenzie, Lulu Helm, Charles John, Jr. and Master Willie Helm, and her devoted friends.
She leaves four daughters, one son and thirty-seven grandchildren. Mrs. Phil Sheridan is a grandniece of the deceased. The remains of the late Colonel William Whistler will be removed from the Bishop's Cemetery in Cincinnati and interred with the remains of his beloved wife in the Evergreen Cemetery, Southgate, Kentucky. "Having found a place to rest."
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