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William Gibbs MacNeill

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William Gibbs MacNeill (1801-1853)


1854 Obituary [1]

Major General William Gibbs MacNeill was born at Wilmington, North Carolina, on the 3rd of October, 1801.

His great-grandfather, a member of a Highland clan, after distinguishing himself at the fatal battle of Culloden, emigrated to North America, with the celebrated Flora Macdonald, in 1746. His father, after receiving his education in the Medial School at Edinburgh, served with the British army in the West Indies, and eventually settled at Wilmington, North Carolina, where he practised with considerable reputation as a physician.

The subject of this memoir received the early part of his education at a school near New York, whence he was removed to the Episcopal Seminary, with the intention of studying for the Church; but having been taken by his early friend General Swift to visit the Military Academy at West Point, he expressed a wish to abandon his intended peaceful career, and the General having obtained an appointment for him as a cadet, which was granted by President James Madison, he, on the 23rd July, 1814, entered the Academy, where, under the able direction of Captain Crozat, he soon attained a distinguished position.

Among his comrades was George W. Whistler, who was only one year older, and who entered the Academy at the same time with William Gibbs MacNeill. Similarity of tastes induced a firm friendship; they received their commissions simultaneously in the United States army, served together, were subsequently engaged as Engineers on the same great public works, their joint opinion was sought in almost all extensive operations, and their intimate connexion was only severed by the lamented decease of Major Whistler in 1849, at St. Petersburgh, where his valuable services had been secured by the Russian Government for the construction of the Moscow Railway.

William Gibbs MacNeill received his commission, as third Lieutenant of Artillery, in 1817, was assigned to duty with the corps of Engineers under the command of Brigadier-General Swift, and was employed on the coast survey, the expedition being conducted by Colonel John Abert, the present chief of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, with the co-operation of the able astronomer Hassler.

His promotion was very rapid. In 1834 he had attained the rank of Major of Topographical Engineers, and in 1837 he resigned his commission in that branch of the service, being allowed to retain his rank in the United States army.

Although he was chiefly engaged in pursuits somewhat analogous to civil employment, William Gibbs MacNeill exhibited on several occasions considerable military skill, coolness, and courage. During the war in Florida, in 1819, he acted as aide-de-camp to 'Old Hickory' (Major-General Jackson), and subsequently, as Adjutant-General to Major-General Gaines. On the occurrence of the 'Dorr' insurrection in Rhode Island, the command was intrusted to him, and by the caution and prudence, as well as strategic skill he displayed, the disturbances were quelled without bloodshed.

It is, however, with his civil services that this Institution is most concerned; these were as various as they were numerous, and occurring at the commencement of the railway era, they possess peculiar interest. During his service in the Topographical Corps he was employed to ascertain the practicability, and to estimate the expense, of constructing a railway, or a canal, across the Alleghany Mountains, so as to establish a communication between Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River, in fact, to surmount, by artificial works, the natural barrier between the Eastern and the Western States; and subsequently, in the same range, to trace a line from the Susquehanna River on the north, to the Savannah River, in Georgia, on the south.

The latent spark thus fired speedily induced the recognition of his merit; he was made a Member of the Board of Engineers, and in 1828 was deputed, with his comrades, G. W. Whistler and J. Knight, to visit Europe, and examine the public works, but more especially, the existing railways and those in course of construction.

From our First President, Telford, the young American Engineers received a cordial welcome, and introductions, through which they were admitted to friendly intercourse with George Stephenson, Walker, R. Stephenson, Locke, Hartley, Stevenson (of Edinburgh), Palmer, Rastrick, Macneill, and many other Engineers, since celebrated, and of the advantages derived from the information, so freely imparted, our late Member always spoke in the most grateful terms.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and other lines, were then in course of construction, and impressed with the anticipated advantages of this new mode of transit, MacNeill, on his return to the United States, successfully exerted every means of exciting his countrymen to the construction of similar works; the professional assistance of men who had acquired such accurate acquaintance with the subject was naturally sought, and MacNeill and Whistler became the joint Engineers to the majority of the railways, whether projected or executed.

He was also appointed to carry out the grand design for the Dry Docks at the Navy-yard, Brooklyn, New York, but their completion was finally intrusted to Mr. William J. M'Alpine, under the superintendence of General C. B. Stuart.

The labours thus imposed on him severely tried his powers, and in 1851 he visited Europe for the benefit of his health. At that period he was elected a Member of this Institution, and on several occasions took part in the discussions, seizing every opportunity of expressing his sense of the benefits he had received in early life from English Engineers, and his readiness to return the obligations, by aiding any young professional men who might visit the United States.

During his residence in London he was actively engaged in some large mining projects in America, whither he returned, somewhat suddenly, in February 1853, only to draw his last breath amidst his relatives and friends, and the latter formed a large circle, for he rendered himself generally beloved by a kind, affable, and impressive manner, and the real services he could and did render to many. He possessed a ready eloquence, a clear head, firmness of purpose, and a peculiar talent for influencing and controlling the minds of men; and, but for his individual energy, many of the projects now in successful operation in the United States would have been suspended, if not abandoned.

His numerous professional reports were drawn up in a manly, powerful style, and comprising, as they do, the early history of railway enterprise in the United States, they well deserve to be collected and published, as records of his labours, in conjunction with Messrs. Robert Goodbee Harper, George Winchester, Francis Thomas, and others, to whose far-sighted energy the State of Maryland, and indeed the Union generally, is so deeply indebted, for appreciating the merit, and affording the means for developing the talent, of such men as Mac Neill and Whistler.

That his ability and personal influence were acknowledged in his native country is evident, from his receiving the co-operation of such men as Henry Clay, J. C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, John Crittenden, Patrick T. Jackson, and Robert J. Walker, with whom he maintained the most intimate and friendly intercourse, and by whom his views were always received with great consideration.

In private life he was universally respected, by his family he was much beloved, and in announcing his decease, which occurred almost suddenly, at Brooklyn, on the 16th February, 1853, in his fifty-second year, his old friend and comrade, General Swift, was fully justified in writing of him -

'He had a kind, liberal, and noble heart, and was always ready to advise, or assist a friend and aid the poor. In all the relations of life he was a man. Young Engineers always found in him the kindest of friends; if perplexed in their work, or thwarted by difficult problems, he always stood ready to give them aid, and to instruct them by his benevolent advice.

'Such a man, stricken down in the prime of life, is a great loss, not alone to his amiable family, but to science and to the public at large.'


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