By John Bennett
This article originally appeared in 'Crossfire', the magazine of the American Civil War Round Table (UK) No. 59 - April 1999
A ten-minute walk from the National Army Museum, where the American Civil War Round Table (UK) meets, is the street called Cheyne Row. From 1834 till his death in 1881, No. 5 (now No. 24) Cheyne Row was the home of essayist, historian and critic, Thomas Carlyle, often known as 'the Sage of Chelsea'.
Here, in October 1864, came Confederate journalist and poet John Reuben Thompson. Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1823, Thompson had originally embarked on a legal career, but from 1847 to 1860 he had been editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, the most important literary periodical in the antebellum south, and then for a few months, of the Southern Field and Fireside.
After the Civil War started, he became assistant secretary of the, Commonwealth of Virginia, and also helped edit the Richmond Record and the Southern illustrated News. As well as these activities, he found time to write poems like 'The Burial of Latane', 'Music in Camp', 'Ashby' and 'Lee to the Rear'. In addition he was the Richmond correspondent of the Index, the Confederate propaganda newspaper started in London in May 1862 by Henry Hotze.
In July 1864, after his health failed, John Thompson ran the blockade and sailed for England, via Bermuda and Halifax, Nova Scotia, reaching London about 31 July. Here he was to become the chief writer on the Index, then being published from Bouverie Street, but shortly to move to more spacious premises in The Strand. Thompson was seen as a useful advocate for the Confederate cause, moving as he did in both fashionable and literary circles. In Richmond he had been an associate of Mary Chesnut, whose husband, Colonel James Chesnut, was a military aide to President Jefferson Davis, while on a previous visit to London in the 1850s he had known literary celebrities like Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray and the Brownings.
Thomas Carlyle regarded the Civil War as perhaps the most distressing event of his lifetime, regretted the bloodshed, and seems to have been sorry for both sides. In spite of his claims to be neutral, privately he hoped for a Southern victory, writing to one correspondent, "I am considerably relieved to bear that Vicksburg (for which the Yankee editors were hallelujahing afflictively loud on Saturday) is still untaken". (1)
On his first visit, John Thompson brought with him a letter from the late Stonewall Jackson, recommending the bearer to Carlyle, who had never met the general, but whose testimonial he was willing to accept. In his diary for 14 October 1864 Thompson wrote: "Drank tea and spent the evening with Thomas Carlyle at 5 Cheyne Row…Mr Carlyle inquired about the Confederacy, its resources, army, its supplies of food and powder...He had received us in dressing gown and slippers. When we rose to say good-night, he called for his coat and boots, and walked with us within a stonethrow of Grosvenor Hotel, two miles at half past eleven!" (2)
When Thompson called again about a month later, Carlyle "made many inquiries about Lee, whom he greatly admires. He talked brilliantly". (3) On one occasion, possibly this one, Thompson found that Carlyle had another visitor, in the person of the Rev. Moncure D. Conway, a fellow Virginian, whom he had known before the war. Conway was also an ardent abolitionist, and the presence of two men of such differing views in Carlyle's house must have resulted in a particularly lively evening.
n March 1865, with the war drawing to a close, Thompson was informed by Henry Hotze that, with Confederate funds in Europe all but exhausted, the Index would probably soon be discontinued. His connection with the paper ended in June, but he found employment with the Standard, writing leaders at a guinea and a half a week. He also translated for publication the notebooks of Colonel Heros Von Borcke, a Prussian officer who had served on General J. E. B. Stuart's staff. Thompson records another visit to Cheyne Row in November 1865, and a further meeting with Carlyle in Hyde Park the following June. Carlyle had apparently corresponded with Jefferson Davis during the war, and speaking of him "he declared that, looking at the war from first to last, Davis seemed to him one of the manliest actors in it, and whatever the jury might say on his trial, the grand jury of mankind had already declared him not guilty". (4)
After more than two years in London, John Thompson returned to America in September 1866, and became literary editor of the New York Evening Post the following year. The onset of tuberculosis forced him to abandon his career, and he died in 1873.
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Fourteen years after Carlyle's death, his house was purchased by subscription, and opened to the public. In 1936 it became a property of the National Trust.
© ACWRT(UK) 1999 & 2001
Photographs appear by permission of their owner, John Laskey
(1) Joseph Slater (ed.), The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle (1964), p.46.
(2) 'From the Diary of John R. Thompson', Confederate Veteran, vol. 37, no 3, Mar 1929, P. 99.
(3) Ibid, p. 99.
(4) Ibid, p. 100. There is a useful article on Thompson in the Dictionary of American Biography. His visits to Cheyne Row are described in D.A. Wilson. Carlyle to Three Score and Ten: 1853-1865 (1929), and D.A.Wilson and D.W, MacArthur, Carlyle in Old Age: 1865-1881 (1934). Two of his poems are included in 'Poetry and Eloquence of Blue and Gray, vol. 9 of The Photographic History of the Civil War'. His Collected Poems were published in 1920.