Joseph Gardner Swift

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Joseph Gardner Swift
File:Colonel Joseph Gardner Swift.jpg
COL Joseph Gardner Swift
Born (1783-12-31)December 31, 1783
Nantucket, Massachusetts
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Geneva, New York
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1802 - 1818
Rank Colonel
Brevet Brigadier General
Commands held Construction of Cape Fear River defenses
Fort Johnson, North Carolina
Superintendent of the United States Military Academy
Eastern Department Defenses
Chief Engineer of the US Army
Battles/wars War of 1812

Joseph Gardner Swift (31 December 1783–July 22, 1865) was an American soldier who had the distinction of being the first graduate of the newly instituted United States Military Academy in West Point, New York; he would later serve as its fourth Superintendent, from 1812 to 1814, and Chief of Engineers of the United States Army from 1812 to 1818.

Early Life and education

Swift was born on Nantucket Island, the son of Foster Swift and his wife, Deborah. At the age of six, he saw George Washington on Boston Common, an experience that made an indelible impression on him. In 1792, the Swifts moved to Taunton, Massachusetts, where Joseph became the student of Reverend Samuel Daggat, who prepared him to enter Harvard College. Swift had read accounts of the American Revolution in his father’s diary and heard stories from a family friend, Major General David Cobb. With Cobb’s advice and assistance, Swift was appointed by President John Adams on 12 May 1800 as a cadet of artillerists and engineers. He reported for duty a month later at Newport Harbor.

In the summer of 1801, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn notified the Army that President Thomas Jefferson had directed the establishment of a military academy at West Point, New York. Swift reported to the academy on 14 October 1801. On 15 December 1801, then-Major Jonathan Williams took command and several months later became the first Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. The Academy was established by law on 16 March 1802. Swift progressed well and was considered by Williams to be the foremost cadet. After a thorough examination, Swift became the first graduate of the Academy on 12 October 1802. Simeon Magruder Levy was the only other graduate in 1802.


Swift remained at West Point until 30 April 1804, and in June of that year, became the superintending engineer of the construction of the defenses of the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. In January 1805 he became the commander of Fort Johnson, North Carolina.

Swift returned to West Point in 1807 and took command of the Academy in Williams' absence. He remained there until 23 November of that year, when the Academy was closed for the winter vacation. Swift was promoted to Major in February 1808 and assigned to lead the defenses of the Eastern Department covering the New England coast. He was assigned with Joseph Gilbert Totten and Sylvanus Thayer, also graduates of West Point. Once again, Swift was assigned to his old station at the mouth of the Cape Fear River where he was charged with superintending and inspecting southern coast defenses until 1812. In July 1812, Williams resigned as Chief Engineer of the Army, and Swift, then a lieutenant colonel and the next senior Engineer in the Army, assumed command. His appointment as Colonel and Chief Engineer of the Army, to rank as such from 31 July 1812, was unanimously confirmed in December 1812.

Pending his confirmation, Swift was ordered back to superintend the defenses of North Carolina. Before leaving Washington, he sent orders to Captain Alden Partridge, the senior Engineer officer at West Point, to open the Military Academy (then practically defunct) in the coming spring. Swift, upon becoming Chief Engineer of the Army and Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, was 30 years old.

In March 1813, Swift was called to Washington and consulted with the Secretary of War on the application of large appropriations for fortifications. He then reported to New York City to supervise the fortification process and act in his capacity as the Chief Engineer and Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy.

As Superintendent, Swift made frequent trips to West Point, and made plans for a new mess hall, academic building, and South Barracks. He also obtained authority to employ an acting chaplain to be Professor of Ethics, History, and Geography (the first such being Rev. Adam Empie); remodeled the functions of the academic staff; and assumed the duties of the inspector of the institution to limit local commander Partridge's authority.

With the repairs of New York Harbor completed and fortifications against the British fleet in place, Swift requested orders for the field. He became the Chief Engineer of the Northern Army under Major General James Wilkinson. This took him to the ill-fated St. Lawrence Campaign but also won him a citation for gallantry in the battle of Chrysler's Farm. He was breveted a brigadier general on 19 February 1814.

The Secretary of War refused Swift further field service because coastal defenses required attention. Thus Swift was sent to New York where, in conjunction with the Committee of Safety, he established plans for coastal defenses for New York and Brooklyn and supervised the thousands of volunteers working on that project. The Corporation of New York named him a Benefactor to the City for that effort.


After completing the defenses of New York, Swift was called upon to form a new system of infantry tactics, to reduce the Army to a peacetime establishment, and later, with Colonel George Bomford, to rebuild the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., which had been destroyed by the British in the War of 1812.

Shortly after the war, Congress authorized the President to employ Brigadier General Simon Bernard of the French Army, a distinguished engineer under Napoleon, as an assistant in the Corps of Engineers. He was placed at the head of the Board of Engineers while Swift became solely Superintendent of the Military Academy. Swift protested the admission of foreigners into the American military, who in the event of war might become enemies. However, Bernard stayed on the Board of Engineers until 1831.

As Superintendent, Swift recommended sending two Engineer officers to Europe to examine French and Dutch fortifications and to purchase books to form a library at West Point. It was also hoped that one of them would replace him as Superintendent. Swift also secured a loan from Jacob Barker, a rich Quaker merchant, because no government appropriations were available. Swift saved the institution from abandonment when he personally arranged a $65,000 loan at 7% interest.

For some time, Swift remained in local command at West Point, and in January 1817, proceeded to Washington to present his grievances to President James Madison. This resulted in Swift’s resuming his position in Washington at the head of the Corps of Engineers and leaving Bernard without any military control.

Swift accompanied newly elected President James Monroe on his trip to examine the northern states and during the seven-week excursion was able to study the battlefields of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, as well as inspect arsenals, Navy yards and fortifications, and study the capacity of the country for defense. He also examined institutions of learning, particularly the Military Academy, in which Monroe was very interested.

At the time of this visit to West Point, it was decided that Partridge would be replaced by then-Major Sylvanus Thayer, who became Superintendent of the Academy on 28 July 1817. The Presidential tour continued to Maine, and Swift and a joint board of Army and Navy officers examined fortifications from Penobscot, Maine, to Connecticut. He also traveled to the Chesapeake Bay area and chose a site for a Navy yard at Norfolk, Virginia.

In 1818, just before leaving the military, Swift’s main duties were in Virginia. He studied the northern tributaries of the Chesapeake and made his last inspection of the Military Academy in September 1818. He was engaged with Governeur Kemble and four others in establishing the West Point Foundry at Cold Spring-on-the-Hudson. After contemplating civilian life for more than two years, he submitted his resignation on 12 November 1818, reserving all his rights as a brevet brigadier general in the Army, to be called into service in the event of war. He maintained this status until his death.

Soon after he left the Army, Swift was asked by the Corps of Engineers to sit for a portrait in his honor. The portrait, painted by Sully, was hung in the Library at the Academy upon its completion and hangs there today.


The day after his resignation, Swift accepted the surveyorship of the Port of New York. As a civil engineer, he soon became involved in various important projects. In 1819, he was consulted on the feasibility of banking and draining the Newark Flats. In 1820 he was appointed by the Legislature of New Jersey to superintend the plan to open the Morris Canal improvement. In 1822 he was one of the three Commissioners to regulate the streets and drainage of the eastern part of the City of New York. In 1825, he was appointed as a commissioner to determine the capacity of the Bronx and Croton Rivers to supply New York City with pure water.

Unfortunately, Swift’s office duties and other interests did not prevent him from venturing into the business dealings of Wall Street. In 1825, he was elected vice president of a life and trust insurance company. The company failed, and all of its members were indicted for a conspiracy to defraud the state. Swift was acquitted but suffered the loss of all of his property. Deprived of the means to support his family, Swift decided to move to a small farm belonging to his wife in Haywood County, Tennessee, where he built a small cabin and began growing cotton. Finding the title to his plantation defective and his children suffering from the weather, Swift returned to New York. He returned to civil engineering and the following year took charge of the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad in Maryland.

In March 1829, he became the superintendent of the harbor improvements on Lake Ontario and held this position for sixteen years. While the lake works were suspended in the winter of 1829, Swift took charge of the construction of the railroad from New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain, five miles long through a dense swamp considered impassable, which could neither be drained nor piled. This was one of the pioneer railroads of the south, and it is believed the first in America upon which iron edge rails were used.

In 1832, Swift succeeded Benjamin Wright as Chief Engineer of the New York and Harlem Railroad, but interference from the Board of Directors caused him to resign.


Swift moved to Geneva, New York, and Hobart College elected him Professor of Engineering and Statistics. Though he declined this honor, he accepted the membership offered to him in the Society of Statistics of Paris, France, and took a great interest in statistical and educational matters. In 1833, Swift was asked to present his views on how far the West Point system of discipline and instruction could be adapted to a university to be established in the City of New York. In 1834, he proposed a plan to Governor William L. Marcy for normal schools and advised the school system to secure the services of Professor Horace Webster as Superintendent of the Free Academy, which later became the College of the City of New York.

Marriage and family

Swift married Louisa Margaret Walker, the daughter of James and M.M. Walker, on 6 June 1805 in North Carolina. They had at least six children.[1]


Swift died on 23 July 1865 in Geneva, aged eighty-two, and was buried in Washington Street Cemetery in Geneva next to his wife, who had died in Geneva on 15 November 1855. Six of their children are also buried there:[1]

  • Charlotte Swift, born 5 April 1826, died 31 December 1840;
  • Julius H. Swift, died 6 February 1850, aged 35;
  • Thomas Delano Swift, born Wilmington, 27 November 1812, died Geneva September 1829;
  • James Thomas Swift, died 31 July 1890;
  • Foster Swift, M.D., born Geneva 31 October 1833, died Santa Cruz, West Indies 10 May 1875;
  • Jonathan Williams Swift, Commodore, United States Navy, born Taunton, 30 March 1808, died Geneva 30 July 1877.

Also buried there are three of their daughters-in-law and one of their grandsons.


Military offices
Preceded by
Jonathan Williams
Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy
Succeeded by
Alden Partridge
Preceded by
Jonathan Williams
Chief of Engineers
Succeeded by
Walker Keith Armistead