Wilson Cary Swann

Wilson Cary Swann was born on August 3, 1806, in Alexandria, Virginia, to Thomas Swann and Jane Byrd Page. His father was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and his mother was descended from one of the First Families of Virginia. Wilson and his brother Thomas received their early education in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at the University of Virginia together in 1826. Among their classmates was Charles B. Calvert, who later served as a Unionist congressman from Maryland during the Civil War. Wilson spent two years studying medicine at UVA, and he earned a distinguished place in the student body. In July 1826, when students gathered at the Rotunda to mourn the death of Thomas Jefferson, they selected Wilson as the meeting’s secretary.

Wilson Swann earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1830 before returning to Virginia. When his father died in 1840, Swann inherited his plantation on Black Walnut Island in the Potomac River, and he later expanded it by buying land on the Virginia and Maryland shores. On October 12, 1847, he married Maria Elizabeth Bell, the daughter of a Philadelphia stockbroker and “one of the greatest belles [of] that day.” For the next few years, they divided their time between Philadelphia and Virginia. When Maria’s health began to decline, Swann sold his plantation and moved permanently to Philadelphia. Before doing so, he freed his forty slaves and arranged for them to move to New Jersey, where he reportedly paid their rent and funded the children’s education. While in Philadelphia, Swann earned a reputation as a “gentleman at large,” and he used his fortune to patronize the arts and promote civic reform.

When the Civil War broke out, Swann threw himself into the Union war effort. He purchased a $1,000 bond to help fund the war and contributed to the Citizens’ Bounty Fund to encourage enlistment. He served as an associate member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and was one of the first members of the Union Club of Philadelphia, a patriotic social organization. Swann hosted the club’s sixth meeting at his Walnut Street house on December 20, 1862. The club soon outgrew these small domestic gatherings, and members reorganized as the Union League in order to play a more active role in the war effort. Swann signed the League’s Articles of Association at its first meeting on January 8, 1863. Members swore “unqualified loyalty” to the federal government and urged Lincoln to “suppress the Rebellion” at all costs. They printed patriotic literature, helped recruit “nine effective regiments,” and provided work and legal assistance for disabled soldiers. In 1863, Swann helped organize a grand July 4th celebration at Independence Hall, meant to declare the “indivisibility of the American Union” and the “inflexible purpose of the American people…to subdue the enemies of the Union.”

After the war, Swann served as president of Philadelphia’s Constitutional Union Association. He viewed the organization as a moderate middle-ground between Republican “radicalism” and Democratic “treason.” As he informed President Andrew Johnson, the Constitutional Union Association was the “only Conservative Organization in this city outside of the Democratic Party.” Johnson personified his political ideals, and he championed the president’s lenient plan for Reconstruction. In 1867, Swann expressed his “abiding and unshaken faith in the [president’s] firmness, wisdom, and integrity.” Like Johnson, however, Swann refused to extend political rights to African Americans, and he grew increasingly disillusioned with the Republican Party. Swann resigned from the Union League on December 18, 1866, and retired from politics altogether after 1867.

He committed the rest of his life to civic reform. He served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and cofounded the Philadelphia Fountain Society, which built drinking fountains throughout the city to “promote temperance and relieve animal suffering.” Swann died in Philadelphia on March 21, 1876, and was buried in Christ Church Burial Ground. In 1924, the city built the Swann Memorial Fountain in his honor.

Image: Wilson Cary Swann (courtesy Union League of Philadelphia, Dreer Collection of Union League Members)


Wilson C. Swann Organizes July 4th Celebration

Name:Swann, Wilson Cary
Alternative names:
  • UVA (Union)
  • Civilian
Branch of service:
Residence at UVA:Washington, DC
UVA Begin Year:1826
UVA End Year:1827
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:
Rank Out:
Highest rank achieved:
Birth date:1806-08-03
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Alexandria, VA
Death date:1876-03-21
Death place:Philadelphia, PA
Causes of death:
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Swann, Maria Elizabethwife ofSwann, Wilson Cary

Brian Neumann, “’For the Restoration of the Union’: The Conservative Unionism of Wilson and Thomas Swann,” UVA Unionists; “Wilson C, Swann, M.D.,” The Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, PA: Galaxy Publishing Company, 1874), 102-103; O. H. Leigh, Chronicle of the Union League of Philadelphia, 1862 to 1902 (Philadelphia, PA: n.p, 1902); Minutes of the University of Virginia Faculty, Session 2, 1826, Jefferson’s University: The Early Life; Wilson C. Swann and William H. Holloway to Andrew Johnson, 13 February 1868, Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 13: September 1867-March 1868, ed. Paul H. Bergeron (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1966); “Wilson Cary Swann,” Philadelphia Public Art; Pennsylvania and New Jersey Church and Town Records, 1669-2013, available from Ancestry.com; The Richmond Enquirer, 11 July 1826; The Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 September 1861, 11 August 1862, 10 June 1863, 2 May 1865, and 22 March 1876; The Union Club/Dreer Collection, 1863-1906, The Union League Legacy Foundation, Philadelphia, PA; Union League Membership Collection, The Union League Legacy Foundation, Philadelphia, PA.