“The Sword and No Stone”:
Comments and reflections during research on William Whelan
Capt. Stephen J. Bury, USN (Ret.), C’72
The sword is a quality crafted and sharp naval officer’s sword from the mid-1800s. It is not made like any of today’s swords. It appeared to be designed for ceremony in a time when adventurous men on sailing warships used swords as weapons protecting our young country’s reach.
The engraving on the brass of the sword reads:
“Dr. William Whelan -- Surgeon General -- U.S. Navy -- OBIT JUNE 11, 1865.”
The scabbard reads: “His Sword Presented To -- Mount St.
From the moment the sword reappeared on the president’s wall, I just knew that I would have to find out how it came to rest there. The engraving on the sword was self explanatory –a graduate who loved the Mount and a navy surgeon general. There were no details on the man, his life and character, or how his sword came to rest at the Mount. How did he become surgeon general of the U.S. Navy? That’s pretty hard to do, and he had to be in office during the time our country was in turmoil. Was he a leader of influence during his tenure? I really thought this would be “easy” as the commercial goes; a quick call to a historian at the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine would clear this up. After all, I had good luck finding the history behind the naval gun on campus. Surely they would have reams of documents on Surgeon General William Whelan and his relationship to the Mount.
That first call to Deputy Historian/Publications Manager Andre B. Sobocinski at the Naval Bureau of Medicine and Surgery launched this into a much bigger quest. The Navy had a photograph and they were seeking detailed information on its longest serving and third chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (1853-1865), which they were titled at that time. Thus a new mystery: why is the sword engraved Surgeon General when this title was not bestowed until 1871, six years after his death? Andre and I were determined to get to the bottom of this.
Many intriguing documents were found relating to Surgeon William Whelan (1808-1865) and his extended family. The Mount archives hold several key documents that were essential to shedding light on his life.
The research also documents that William’s father (William Whelan Sr., 1784-1863) was a devout Catholic and prominent merchant in Philadelphia. He is later directly linked with Fr. John Hughes, who was working at the Mount in 1818 (age 20) in William’s second year. While we have no direct links (yet) of John Hughes to William the student, it doesn’t require documents for a Mountie to know that he probably would have known him well. Fr. Hughes’ first parish was St. Joseph’s Church, where the Whelans were parishioners. There are records that William’s father was the treasurer on the board of directors at the St. John's Orphan Asylum that Fr. John Hughes founded in 1829. So how did Whelan Sr. first know Fr. John Hughes? Did his son speak of him? What relationship did William Sr. have with the Mount?
Lest I write a book here - William Sr. has a great story and a role in Philadelphia Catholicism in the Irish community. William, his oldest, followed in his father’s footsteps as a man of strong Catholic faith. We know that the family is strong in the faith. William’s sister becomes a Sister of Charity, Sr. Mary Maurice (1817-1843) and is buried in the Mother House cemetery in Emmitsburg. Why was William sent away from home so young? Could it be because he was a very smart young man, or something else? Did William’s father have expectations for his son by sending him to the Mount?
William is born Sept. 4, 1808, and enters the Mount at age nine in August 1817. Mount records indicate that William graduates in 1826 at the age of eighteen. There is some indication that Fr. Bruté, a physician himself, might have inspired Whelan to be a doctor. We know William was his student and his friend. He goes on to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, graduates in 1828 with a medical degree, and joins the Navy as assistant surgeon. For the next 24 years he rises in naval rank and stature, spending many years sailing in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Mediterranean Sea. Along the way, he meets Adeline Smith (1815-1900), the daughter of a U.S. Congressman. They marry and have five children.
We learn of William’s character, life and love for the Mount in letters from his wife, Adeline Whelan, and his daughter Ellen Whelan (1838-1904). Adeline’s letter in 1865, when William was nearing death, gives us insight into William Whelan’s character, love of the Mount and how deeply he must have been influenced by Fr. Bruté–she requests his intercession for William. The letter also seems to indicate then the recognition of Bishop Bruté in those times as one who can intercede with God—long before the recorded 1890 accounts.
The archives also had a note from Surgeon William Whelan on the invitation to the Mount’s 50th year celebration, of which he declined to attend due to what we today call budget hearings before Congress.
We know a little of his faith through a personal letter to President Buchanan discussing his appointment to Abraham Lincoln’s administration. We believe William did frequently communicate with our country’s presidents, and suspect there is more correspondence to be discovered. Could there be some link directly here between Archbishop Hughes and Surgeon General William Whelan?
There is a lack of records in the Navy Medical archives. Whelan’s role and duties in the “War of Rebellion” were certainly demanding and many. There is conjecture that his successor and longtime rival might have purged documents from the normal places they should reside. The deputy historian there believes there is some cause to question it, as there is very little regarding the man who served as the longest serving chief of medicine and surgery. These are just some pieces of the puzzle, and there is more of a story to tell.
The sword arrived at the Mount in 1876. A letter from Ellen, who writes on behalf of her mother, sheds light on the arrival:
“Mamma (Adeline) wishes me to inquire of you whether you have attached to the college any museum or other suitable place where she could deposit my father’s sword? She thought she would like to have it hang within the walls of the College where my father passed his early years & to which his later memories returned with much affection. (Transcription)
Clearly, the engraving on the sword was performed long after her husband’s death in 1865. Adeline Whelan had it inscribed “Surgeon General” as this may have been an accepted, though not official, title during his tenure, as evidenced by its use in an Associated Press report on William’s death. In 1871, the title of Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery was officially changed to Surgeon General of the Navy.
Join the Hunt!
You too can share the adventure in discovering the Mount’s past.
Help us locate the burial site of Surgeon General William Whelan (1808-65) and find his journal.
Tell us what you learn and find. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some helpful clues:
1. William Whelan died in office
2. Adeline Whelan (20 Feb 1815 - 26 Mar 1900) died in Washington, D.C. She had a private Catholic funeral service at St. Paul’s Church (now St. Augustine’s 15th and V Streets NW). Believed to be buried alongside her husband.
3. Ellen Whelan (28 Feb 1838 - 9 Jul 1904), the oldest daughter, never married and became executor of Adeline’s small estate. She is the person who makes mention of her father’s journal in a small paper. Ellen dies in Washington, D.C., a private funeral is held, location unknown.
4. Fannie Whelan (23 Aug 1847- lives at least to1920) became executor of Ellen’s estate. She was living in Washington, D.C., up until 1915. Fannie Whelan cochaired a committee for the promotion of building the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There may be a significant connection with