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Rhoads Memorial Archives: William Whelan


     “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. Mary’s College – A Testimonial -- Of His -- Reverence And Love -- For Hi s-- Alma Mater.”   


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.


The Search

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?

The Story

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.

We have many documents relating to William Whelan and his family.  Further research into Mount records on Whelan’s teachers, his classmates, Frs. McCloskey and McCaffrey letters/papers will certainly round out the story.  This research will have to wait until the reopening of the archives.  

We know of the existence of Whelan’s journal he wrote during his travels.  It would be an extremely exciting find, with interesting tales of a Navy surgeon on the high seas.  We can only hope it is still gathering dust in some archive. 

I have in a certain sense a naval kinship with my predecessor.  I often stopped while researching just to ponder what it was that keyed my interest.  What if the sword had not been displayed?  Would we have been interested in William Whelan if it were not for the engraving on the sword?  It really makes one think.  What I believe got us here today is William’s fond love of the Mount imparted to his wife and family, conveyed in Adeline’s carefully chosen inscription on the sword. 

As I write this article to share my experience, it is amazing this story did not come to light earlier. Here is a new example of the Mount’s early offspring who clearly exemplified ideals of Faith, Discovery, Leadership and Community.  I cannot help thinking how coincidental this discovery was, during the time of the Mount bicentennial and the establishment of the Veterans’ Walkway.  

There is no ending yet to this story.  We have been unsuccessful in finding his final resting place.  We will continue to search for Surgeon General William Whelan’s burial site, which is believed to be within the Washington, D.C., area. And now you know about The Stone!

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:


Here are some helpful clues:

1. William Whelan died in office 11 June 1865.  The Associated Press covered briefly the event on the wire.  It is likely a local paper covered the event.  He certainly had a Catholic funeral service. (Church unknown)

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 Catholic University.  She is believed to be buried within the Washington, D.C., area.






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