Special Collections of the ODU Libraries

Thom Williamson Papers, 1853-1913 | Special Collections and University Archives

By Dr. James R. Sweeney

Collection Overview

Title: Thom Williamson Papers, 1853-1913

ID: 00/MG 11

Primary Creator: Williamson, Thom (1833-1918)

Extent: 0.42 Linear Feet. More info below.

Date Acquired: 11/02/1976

Subjects: Tennesee (Ironclad), United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Naval operations, United States. Navy, United States. Navy--Officers, Williamson, Thom, 1833-1918

Languages: English


Engineer in United States Navy from 1853 until 1912, when he was relieved from active duty as a Chief Engineer with the rank of Rear Admiral. During the Civil War he served on the U.S.S. Hartford, the flagship of Rear Admiral David Farragut, and was present at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Collection consists of general correspondence, naval correspondence, diaries, and military papers from his service in the Navy.

Scope and Contents of the Materials

The papers of Thom Williamson range in dates from 1853-1913. His papers consist of orders from 1853 to 1912, general correspondence, naval correspondence, two diaries from the years of 1853 to 1857, a notebook dating from 1867 to 1869, letters of appointment to commissions, notices, certificates, a biographical sketch of Rear Admiral John W. Moore and a survey of the iron clad casemated steamer "Tennessee" written in 1864 after its capture by Union forces in the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Collection Historical Note

Thom Williamson was born on August 5, 1833, at Edenton, North Carolina. His father was William Price Williamson, Chief Engineer, United States Navy and later Engineer-in-Chief of the Confederate States Navy. His mother was the former Penelope Benbury McDonald.

Thom Williamson spent his boyhood in Norfolk, Baltimore and Philadelphia. He received his principal education in Norfolk at the Norfolk Military Academy. In 1847 his father was ordered to Baltimore, Maryland to which the family moved. He attended St. Mary's College in Baltimore from 1847 to 1850. His father was transferred in 1850 to Philadelphia where Thom went and stayed about one year. In Philadelphia the young man went to work at the Vulcan Iron Works which was outfitting the U.S.S. Susquehanna with machinery built for her under the superintendence of William Price Williamson in Baltimore. The family returned to Norfolk in 1851. Thom was placed in charge of a small farm not far from the city--"Sycamore Cottage." A. Mehaffy employed young Williamson as an-assistant draftsman, working on drawings of machinery for the United States steamers Powhatan and Allegheny.

Williamson entered the United States Navy as Third Assistant Engineer in 1853. Thom Williamson was an engineer in the United States Navy from 1853 until he was relieved from active duty with the rank of Rear Admiral in 1912. His first ship was the U.S.S. Saranac where he was a shipmate of his father Chief Engineer William Price Williamson.

The Saranac made a cruise in the Mediterranean Sea, which lasted almost three years. Thom Williamson was promoted to second assistant engineer in 1855. In July 1857, he was ordered to the Wabash, which he joined at the Isthmus of Panama. He landed at Greytown (San Juan del Norte) with the naval force which captured "General" Walker, the filibusterer.

Promotions continued to follow one another rapidly. In 1858 Williamson became first assistant engineer and in 1861 he was promoted to Chief Engineer. He married Julia Price on December 2. 1861. She was the daughter of William Ferdinand Price, who was employed in the office of the Secretary of the United States Senate. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Williamson faced a serious dilemma. Thom's father, William P. Williamson resigned from the United States Navy and accepted an appointment as Engineer in the Navy of the Confederate States of America. The elder Williamson became Engineer-in-Chief and took a prominent part in the construction of the Confederate ironclads, e.g., the Merrimac or Virginia. The rest of the Williamson family also supported the Confederacy. Thom however, renewed his oath of allegiance to the United States of America and declined a commission, filled out and signed by Jefferson Davis, appointing him a Chief Engineer in the Navy of the Confederate States of America. This action cut Thom Williamson off from his family and friends, but he was reconciled to them after the war.

During the Civil War, Williamson served on the U.S.S. Hartford, the flagship of Rear Admiral Farragut. He was present at the Battle of Mobile Bay in which the Union forces captured or sunk several vessels, including the Confederate ram Tennessee. Chief Engineer Williamson made frequent inspections of the Engineer Division on the Hartford during the battle. He was also involved in the capture of Forts Gaines and Morgan on August 8th and 23rd. He and three other officers were ordered by Admiral Farragut on the day after the battle of Mobile Bay to make a "strict and careful survey" of the Confederate ram Tennessee captured on August 5th.

After several other tours of duty Williamson was ordered in April 1874 to the U.S.S. Lancaster as Fleet Engineer of the South Atlantic Station. He was placed in charge of Engineers' Stores at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Navy Yard on April 28, 1876. In 1879 he was ordered to report on board the U.S.S. Powhatan as Fleet Engineer of the North Atlantic Station. He was ordered to the Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia on September 19, 1881. Upon completion of his tour of duty, he was again ordered to the U.S.S. Hartford in November 1884 for duty as Fleet Engineer of the Pacific Station.

From 1887 to 1895 Williamson served in Washington, D.C. He was ordered to the Navy Department in July but his orders were changed to special duty as Superintendent of the State, War and Navy Departments Building. He remained at this position until his retirement from active service on August 5, 1895. In 1889 he had attained the relative rank of Captain and on his retirement he was awarded the relative rank--but not the grade--of Commodore. He was recalled to active duty in 1898 at the time of the war with Spain as a member of a board, which was examining plans for coaling ships at sea. He continued to reside in Washington, D.C.

The latter years of Thom Williamson's career was quite varied in activities. He was awarded a diploma and bronze medal for collaboration in the Paris Exposition. He installed and was in charge of the Naval Exhibit at the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo in 1901. In December 1901 he resumed active service at the Navy Department. He was assigned to Charleston South Carolina for special duty with the Naval Exhibit for the Exposition to be held there. He installed the Naval Exhibit and then returned to duty in Washington. He was relieved from active duty on June 6, 1912. In 1906 he was advanced on the retired list to Chief Engineer with the rank of Rear Admiral.

Thom Williamson had seven children: Julia Price; Virginia McDonald; Lizzie Bell; Marie Howell; Anne Walke; Thom and William Price. He died on March 17, 1918.

Subject/Index Terms

Tennesee (Ironclad)
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Naval operations
United States. Navy
United States. Navy--Officers
Williamson, Thom, 1833-1918

Administrative Information

Repository: Special Collections and University Archives

Alternate Extent Statement: 1 Hollinger document case

Access Restrictions: The Collection is open to researchers without restrictions.

Use Restrictions: Before publishing quotations or excerpts from any materials, permission must be obtained from Special Collections and University Archives, and the holder of the copyright, if not Old Dominion University Libraries.

Acquisition Source: Julia Williamson Hall Blair

Acquisition Method: Gift. Accession #A76-61

Preferred Citation: [Identification of item], Box [insert number], Folder [insert number and title], Thom Williamson Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Patricia W. and J. Douglas Perry Library, Old Dominion University Libraries, Norfolk, VA 23529.

Box and Folder Listing

Browse by Box:

[Box 1],

Box 1
Folder 1: Biographical Sketch-Rear Admiral John W. Moore
Folder 2: Certificates of Membership
Folder 3: Commissions, Letters of Appointment
Folder 4: Correspondence, General, 1891-1912
Folder 5: Correspondence, Naval, 1853-1913
Folder 6: Correspondence, William P. Williamson
Folder 7: Deed-Thomas J. Carson and William P. Williamson, March 7, 1868
Folder 8: Diary, 1853-1855
Folder 9: Diary, 1856-1857
Folder 10: Notebook, 1867-1869
Folder 11: Notices, Forms-Naval
Folder 12: Orders, 1853-1859
Folder 13: Orders, 1861-1869
Folder 14: Orders, 1871-1878
Folder 15: Orders, 1881-1887
Folder 16: Orders, 1890-1899
Folder 17: Orders, 1901-1912
Folder 18: Receipt
Folder 19: Reports-The Survey of the Iron Clad Casemated Steamer "Tennessee", 1864

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