William Simpson Thompson was born September 6, 1820 in Antwerp, Jefferson County, New York. The story of his early life has yet to be discovered, therefore this short biography will focus on his life between 1848 and 1865.
By 1848, Thompson had since relocated to Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania where he was working as an engineer onboard the Steamer, John A. Warner. Bristol was a town situated along the banks of the Delaware River, and was heavily involved in the various trade taking place up and down the river.
In September of 1848, William was married to a Philadelphia woman named Cordelia Sophia Lockwood. They were united in marriage by the Reverend Douglas at the Mariners Church of Philadelphia.
Together they raised three children, all born in Bristol. Their first was a boy, William S. Thompson, Jr., born October 6, 1852, followed by Charles Lee Thompson on August 25, 1857 and finally Clara Louisa Thompson on March 15, 1861.
Hardly a month had gone by since the birth of their baby girl when the war had begun. Thompson, in company of a couple other gentlemen, had raised a company of volunteer soldiers from Bristol in response to President Lincoln’s call for troops to preserve the Union. This company was dubbed the “Montgomery Guards” – in honor of Colonel William Reading Montgomery, a local Bristolian who served in the Second Seminole War, and Mexican War.
William Thompson was unanimously elected Captain of this company, and was shortly off to Philadelphia via the Steamer Warner, the very ship on which Thompson was employed as an engineer. He left his wife and three children behind, at the time they were 8 years old, 3 ½ years old and 1 month old. William’s sister, Mary A. Thompson had apparently been living with them around the time of the birth of their last child. Mary remained with the family while William was off to war.
Captain Thompson led his company to Philadelphia, and then to Camp Washington, at Easton, Pennsylvania. Here they were organized into a regiment and assigned Company “I” of the 3rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserves. Thompson was elected Lieutenant Colonel of the 3rd Regiment, and resigned his captaincy in his company.
Thompson and the 3rd Reserves maintained a pretty boring and mundane camp routine once they left for the seat of war. Nothing but drill, camp duties, picket and guard duty, day after day, night after night. It wasn’t until June of 1862 when the entire Division of Pennsylvania Reserves finally had their mettle tested; and Lt. Col. Thompson was at the forefront of it all on the fields before Richmond.
During the fighting on June 26th near Mechanicsville, and intense engagement on June 27th (Gaines’ Mill,) Lt. Col. Thompson had command of the right wing of the regiment. In the latter battle, the regiment fought severely, holding off large numbers of the enemy for hours, but Thompson came off the field uninjured. He recalled “I staid with the colors and took them off the field with only Capt. Briner & Lt. Harkins…the colors rec’d 4 shots through it…from the enemies guns.” Concluding his after action report, Colonel Horatio G. Sickel, commander of the 3rd Pa Reserves, wrote “There are a number of officers and men who distinguished themselves by daring acts of bravery during the three days’ battle which I shall at some future time take great pleasure in noticing. First of these, however, is Lieut. Col. William S. Thompson, who rendered me the greatest services during the severe trials through which we have just passed.”
In Thompson’s diary, he mentions in early July about spending time on board the Warner. It will be recalled that before the war began, Thompson had been an engineer on board the steamer John A. Warner in Bristol, Pennsylvania. As it turns out, the Warner had been pressed into service by the Federal Government for the purpose of transportation of troops and wounded soldiers between Harrison’s Landing on the Peninsula, and all points north. It was now sitting at anchor near Harrison’s Bar, near Harrison’s Landing, and apparently Thompson and other officers of the 3rd Reserves visited the vessel.
After the last engagement, Thompson perhaps realized that his life on the water was more his style than leading an infantry unit. Although purely speculative, this may be why on July 7, 1862 – Thompson submitted his resignation. The actual underlying reasons behind his resignation are not detailed – but it is suspected that the fighting on the Peninsula had convinced him he was better off on board a ship, then as an infantryman in Lincoln’s army. His resignation is officially recorded as having been accepted on July 9th, and accepted on the 10th.
The following year, Thompson joined the United States Navy as an Acting 1st Assistant Engineer, and on October 14, 1863, was ordered to report to the “Larkspur.” The following month he was ordered to the “Pocahontas” and detached in December and ordered to the “Atlanta.”
It was while he was serving on the Iron Clad Atlanta that he received news that his wife had died, the cause of which to the author of this biography has been unable to ascertain. William’s sister Mary, took the children to Baltimore where they lived while he continued his service in the Navy.
On April 6th of 1865, Richmond had surrendered, but the war was still ongoing – but mere days away from ceasing. A fleet of Union naval vessels, among the group was the Iron Clad Atlanta, were sailing up the James River towards the fallen city of Richmond, when it was discovered that the river still lay mined with torpedoes. The commanding officer of the Atlanta, Thomas J. Woodward, recalled, years after the war, “…in order to clear the channel, so that our vessels could get up to Richmond, a boats crew was sent from each vessel to drag for and raise the torpedoes, as they lay close to the Reach[;] many of the torpedoes were taken up by our boats crew and others.” These bombs were apparently dragged to the shorelines and left on the banks. Woodward continued, “Mr. Thompson and the Surgeon Thomas Owens with a boats crew, went on shore with my permission for making an examination of the construction of [these] torpedoes…” when, in the act of performing an examination, the bomb in question suddenly exploded. Thompson and one other of the boat’s crew were instantly killed.
The loss of William S. Thompson left three children without a mother or father by the end of the war. The children, it is presumed, continued to reside with their aunt, Mary A. Thompson, in Baltimore, Maryland. An attorney on behalf of the children was obtained, and the necessary paperwork filed in order to receive their late fathers pension. Surprisingly in August of 1866, this application was denied by the Pension Office under the reasoning that William Sr., had been on liberty when he stepped off the USS Atlanta and onto that shoreline where he met his fate.
It seems likely that those at the Pension Office believed they could have cheated these children out of whatever was due to them, simply because they were orphans. But William Jr stepped up, and continued to represent himself and his siblings by challenging this decision. It appears the case was reopened in the 1870s and also denied. It wasn’t until 1890, that it was finally approved.
A letter from the acting commander of the USS Atlanta received by the pension office in 1899, perhaps changed their mind. In explaining the capacity in which Thompson was serving the ship, rather than being “on liberty”, Thomas J. Woodward, who commanded the Atlanta wrote:
“While the examination of the torpedo by Mr. Thompson was not ordered by a superior officer, it would in a line of duty for our officers to knowhow said torpedoes was constructed, and Mr. Thompson being a Mechanical Engineer was better qualified than any one else on board to make the examination…Thompson was a good officer and served faithfully through the war, and I should regret to learn that his family was denied a pension.”
Fast Forward to the year 2010: I, the writer, had been doing some research in the United States Military History Institute (USAMHI) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania when I discovered a photograph of William S. Thompson, who at the time the photograph was taken, was Lieutenant Colonel in the 3rd Reserves. I made a copy of it, and went on my way. I had also found photograph copies of Thompson’s pistol, which had been engraved with his name which was also in the collection.
Five years later, I had been working at the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Harrisburg when I was employed in one of their technology offices. I had been casually speaking with one of my co-workers, whose name was Cherly, when somehow the topic of my “hobby” of Civil War Research came up. She said to me, “I had an ancestor in the Civil War, he fought for the Union.” Naturally I asked if she knew much about her ancestor, and she elaborated that he was an officer from the Philadelphia area, his last name was Thompson – which was her maiden name. She said her family had recently donated his photograph and pistol, and some diaries to various historical institutions. After gathering some more information from her, I realized her ancestor was William S. Thompson, Lieutenant Colonel of the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves. What are the chances?
It is fascinating to me how many descendants I meet of peoples ancestors proudly served in the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps. It’s even more fascinating that fortunately Thompson’s family line continued even after his death, leaving his children as orphans.
Currently a resident of Burke, Virginia - I'm originally from the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have been a student of the Pennsylvania Reserves since 1997 and thoroughly enjoy telling their story. By trade I'm a former IT Professional but presently working as a Letter Carrier for the United States Postal Service.