General William Jenkins Worth

The Most Important American General You’ve Never Heard Of

In the mid-19th century, Gen. William Jenkins Worth was one of the most famous men in America. Right up there with Winfield Scott, he was credited with the victory over Mexico in the recent war (1846 - 48), but, unlike Scott, whose stock dropped precipitously after the war as a result of his incessant quarreling and conniving, Worth’s reputation continued to soar. The third military hero to come out of the war, Zachary Taylor, owed his reputation to one battle at the beginning of the war, and, as a slave owner, he was unpalatable to many Americans.

The fact that Gen. Worth was a national celebrity during his lifetime made him a prime subject for artists and photographers of his day. Not all the images purporting to be William Jenkins Worth are actually him. How can we know which images are genuine and which are not? Photos courtesy of Dr. Richard Selcer

Worth was the action hero, the real McCoy. He had led the nation’s first-ever amphibious landing (Veracruz, 1846) and accepted the surrender of Mexico City (1847). Before the Mexican War, he had defeated the Seminoles in Florida (1840-42) and helped make West Point one of the finest military schools in the world. Rumor said he was considering a run for President in 1852.

Besides being an officer and a gentleman, William Worth was blessed with superior physical endowments, talent and intellect.

He was tall and broad-shouldered with a “commanding figure,” all of which was accentuated by the ramrod posture of a career soldier. He had a broad, open face topped by thick curls. As if God had not given him enough physical blessings, he was also a “splendid horseman” who rode like he’d been born in the saddle. He was a natural leader who, in the days before it became customary to award medals, received the equivalent of three combat medals during his career in the form of ceremonial swords, one each from New York and Louisiana and one from the U.S. Congress.

Seemingly, his only flaws were an abundance of pride and a tendency to be thin-skinned when it came to criticism. He put great store in rank and status, striking some people as pompous, a fact that earned him the nickname “Haughty Bill” among fellow officers. He certainly had a fondness for the trappings of rank. When he was posted in Florida fighting the Seminoles (1840-42), he created his own letterhead, drawing it by hand to dress up his official correspondence, according to a report in the Sept. 2, 1915, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

After the Mexican War, Worth took calculated steps to put his name before the public and keep it there, beginning with one of those quirks of 19th century fame, an eponymous piece of music titled General Worth’s Quick Step (ca. 1846). The quick step was a martial air based on a precise military progression. As a piece of music, it had been around since at least 1841, named for celebrated military units and senior officers. It was a favorite of composers on both sides of the Atlantic. High-ranking European and American officers had such marches written in their honor: Austria’s Field Marshal Radetsky, U.S. Civil War Union Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Birney among others, and, of course, William Jenkins Worth, who was one of the first to be so honored in this country.

The cover of General Worth’s Quick Step shows U.S. troops in battle on some anonymous Mexican War battlefield and is “respectfully dedicated to the gallant Maj. Genl. Worth, U.S.A.” Haughty Bill must have been pleased to know that his song was being played on pianos all over the nation. That kind of publicity was priceless.

Worth also authorized an “anonymous” biography, Life of General Worth, published in 1847, which he managed to shape even though at the time he was campaigning in the Valley of Mexico. A year later, a similarly worshipful biographical piece on him appeared in Graham’s Magazine to coincide with his return from Mexico. The future looked bright until the Army shipped him off to the frontier of Texas later that same year. He had no intention of being buried (career-wise) in Texas and made up his mind to turn lemons into lemonade the same way he had in Florida when he defeated the Seminoles. It was not to be.

When Gen. Worth died at San Antonio in a cholera epidemic in May 1849, the whole nation was stunned. This was a man in the prime of life with a brilliant future ahead of him. Had he lived, he would have been in position to help shape American military doctrine for the next decade or more. Alternatively, if he had chosen to enter politics, he was a rising star in the Democratic Party. As a New Yorker who had spent much of his career in the South, he would have made an excellent “dough-faced” candidate for President on the Democratic ticket in 1852 and able to appeal to both North and South.

His body was returned to New York, the state of his birth, and in 1857 upon the occasion of his re-interment, he received one of the grandest funerals in the history of New York City. Eight years after his death, and he was still being lionized!

All that said, it is the visual images of the man, not his life story, that we are most interested in here. The fact that he was a national celebrity during his lifetime made him a prime subject for artists and photographers of his day. That’s the rub; not all the images purporting to be of William Jenkins Worth are actually him. The real question is what did the man look like? A related question: How can we know which images are genuine and which are not? 

Worth was fortunate to have lived at the dawn of the Age of Photography. The technology was no more than 10 years old when he died in 1849. This means he could be depicted in the old-fashioned mediums of engraving and oil painting and in the new medium of photography (daguerreotypes and cartes de viste). There are a surprising number of images of him out there, but they have never all been catalogued, much less gathered all together in one place.  

First, it is necessary to separate the images by type. We can only reliably identify the real Worth from photographs; engravings and paintings cannot establish identity because they are artistic creations, not exact visual representations. When we consider the artistic images, it is all about provenance: Who did the work and when was it done? Was it of a live (sitting) subject or taken from another image? If it was done after the subject’s death, did the artist work from a photograph or an artistic representation?

For William Jenkins Worth, only two completely trustworthy photographic images are known to exist, one a daguerreotype and the other an ambrotype, another example of how Worth’s life transcended several eras in the history of image-making in America.

The daguerreotype process, dating from 1839, produced a very detailed image but one that was also quite dark and fragile. For several reasons, it was unsuitable to portraiture. Ambrotypes, made from the collodion or wet plate process, came along after the daguerreotype process and was not widely adopted until after Worth’s death. Worth thus becomes an inadvertent pioneer in the development of photography in the United States.

The ambrotype of Worth was created by famed photographer Mathew Brady in September 1848 in Hudson, New York. Worth had journeyed back to his hometown to accept a ceremonial sword honoring his gallant service to the nation in three wars, and Brady had come up from New York City to get a picture of the honored guest for his Gallery of Illustrious Americans. Both men got what they came for. The image shows Worth in full dress uniform with the sword attached by a ribbon or strip of cloth to his belt, clearly a temporary arrangement for the photograph.

For his Illustrious Americans, Brady managed to snare all three of the nation’s top military men — Worth, Taylor and Scott — for his camera. For his part, Worth was flattered to be included in such famous company. It was not enough to compete with his two great contemporaries for military glory on the battlefield; he was also their rival when it came to fame and fortune. Brady subsequently “rented” the images of Worth and the others to Edward Anthony who used them to produce multiple albumen prints in the form of cartes de viste (CDVs), which he sold through his mail order catalog. E. & H.T. Anthony was the largest maker and distributor of such prints in the country. We are lucky that Worth’s image came into Anthony’s hands. Otherwise, what he looked like would be anybody’s guess today. Instead, there are countless copies of the Anthony CDV in the hands of private collectors and public institutions.

The Brady image of William Jenkins Worth is our gold standard because it is clearly labeled who the subject is, who took the picture and who published it. The date it was taken can even be pinned down because it was noted in the newspaper (The Presentation of a Sword, New York Herald, Sept. 3, 1848). All other images must be compared to the Brady daguerreotype.

The second photo image is a badly-scratched-but-still-identifiable daguerreotype. The photographer is unknown as is the exact date it was created, although it would have to be before May 1849 because the subject is obviously very much alive. We can accept it as authentic because the face is clearly the same as the one in the Brady image. If further evidence is needed, the daguerreotype was passed down in the family before being given to San Antonio’s Witte Museum.

When we turn to artistic representations, we begin with engravings that were done from life or no more than one degree removed.

First in that category is an engraving done in 1848 by famed Philadelphia engraver John Sartain for Graham’s Magazine. The English-born Sartain introduced the mezzotint engraving process to America, which made it possible to produce high-quality prints from oil paintings. He became the immediate darling of every portrait artist who wanted to mass-produce their works for commercial purposes. In 1840, Sartain started producing illustrations for publisher George R. Graham, and in February 1841 he agreed to provide at least one quality engraving for Graham’s Magazine every month. This photo-like engraving, which says it was taken from “an original daguerreotype” and bears Worth’s signature, fulfilled Sartain’s contractual obligation for one issue. The source daguerreotype seems to have been lost, but we can tell it was a different sitting from the Brady ambrotype. The image is as clear and life-like as could be produced without a camera. And clearly it is William Jenkins Worth.

Worth was the subject of two of the most respected artists of his day, portrait painter Alonzo Chappel and lithographer Charles Fenderich. Only the portrayal by Fenderich was done while the subject was alive. The Swiss-born, European-trained engraver worked out of Washington, D.C., the best place for any artist to be hoping to portray the high and mighty. Between 1837 and 1841, Fenderich created a series of high-quality lithographic portraits of “Living American Statesmen.” His portraits were based on his own sketches, and, as his reputation spread, many of the great men of the era beat a path to his studio. The finished works were snapped up by friends, supporters and families of the subjects. Fenderich continued to work in the nation’s capital after finishing his “Statesmen” series. In 1844, Worth came to Washington, D.C., on business and looked up the artist. He did a sitting, and the result was reproduced in multiple copies that the General’s supporters could pass out generously in a possible future political campaign. For identification purposes, the Fenderich engraving is a reliable image of the actual man.

Far less reliable is Alonzo Chappel’s portrayal. Chappel made a career out of painting distinguished political and military figures, both living and historical. His American subjects included Worth and Worth’s two rivals for the unofficial title “most eminent” American officer at mid-century — Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor.

You were not really worthy of being called “eminent” in American history in the 18th or 19th century if you were not painted by Alonzo Chappel. The artist’s style was to show his subject full-figure in heroic pose against an appropriate background. Unfortunately, by the time Chappel got around to Worth in 1859, the General was already 10 years in the ground. The artist was undeterred; he had already painted any number of 18th century DIPs (Dead, Important Persons), including Samuel Adams and George Washington. Chappel supposedly worked from a daguerreotype, which has never been identified, but it is hard to tell if it is really Worth because of the artist’s perspective (middle distance) and because he placed a plumed, bicorn hat on the subject’s head. Since such head gear was already passé among American officers at the time of the Mexican War and neither of the known daguerreotypes show him in such a hat, one might conclude that the artist added it for dramatic effect. A few years later, Chappel’s original painting was reproduced as a steel engraving for the two-volume National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans (1862 - 63), making it completely impossible to distinguish the facial features.

Worth is in Volume 2. Gen. Winfield Scott, known as “Old Fuss ‘n’ Feathers” for his pompous and sartorial ways, would have appreciated the affectation of the plumed hat!

Worth was such a national hero immediately after the Mexican War that countless lithographs of him were produced by artists who did not care a fig for whether their representations actually looked like the man. One, titled Genl. William J. Worth at the Storming of the Bishops Palace, Monterey [sic.], Sept. 22nd, 1846, shows him astride a prancing stallion in that same bicorn hat pointing the way with his sword. The face on the officer could be anybody’s, however. The Library of Congress and New York Historical Society have several examples of such lithographs that look no more like Worth than you or I do.

 There are three oil portraits of Worth, all of them showing him late in life as a major general. One is at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point); the other two are on display in the city named for him, Fort Worth, Texas. The West Point portrait was painted about 1850 by an unknown artist and passed down through the family before being given to West Point in 2003. It closely resembles the authenticated photographic images of Worth.

The two Fort Worth paintings are more problematic. Both are 20th-century works allegedly derived from historic images. Only one of the artists is known: Hugh McKay (1906-1967) painted Major General William Jenkins Worth as a life-size oil on canvas in 1934 for the General Worth Hotel, Hudson, New York. Judging by the head and facial features, McKay must have worked from the same daguerreotype as John Sartain, adding the torso and filling in a background that calls to mind Worth’s greatest victory, the Battle of Monterrey. The painting was bought for the city by Fort Worth businessman Bill Turner when it came up for sale and hangs today in the Renaissance Worthington Hotel. SOURCE HERE: Hudson, New York Register Star, Oct. 27, 1981; and Fort Worth News-Tribune, Oct. 30, 1981.

The second painting, by an unknown artist, hangs in the Fort Worth City Hall. It is of workmanlike quality and only shows the subject from the waist up. The biggest problem is not the artistic quality but the fact that it bears only a passing resemblance to William Jenkins Worth: the hair, the chin and the mouth all look wrong. If this is Gen. Worth, it is Worth through an amateur’s eyes.

A miniature oil of Worth in an oval frame is only of antiquarian interest when it comes to identifying the older man because it shows him in 1815 as a 21-year-old officer. Presented to his fiancée, Margaret Stafford, it is in private hands today but can be seen in the only biography of Worth to date. It shows a callow young officer with a full head of black hair and piercing eyes. We can only identify it as Worth from the provenance. SOURCE HERE: Hudson, New York Register Star, Oct. 27, 1981; and Fort Worth News-Tribune, Oct. 30, 1981.

There are two images of Worth in the public domain that are misidentified if not outright frauds. One is an undated daguerreotype of an officer in the right style of uniform and even holding a ceremonial sword. (Remember, Worth owned three or four of these.) But this officer does not look anything like the man in the Brady image. The shape of the face is wrong; the hair, lips, and eyes do not match either. The picture is reproduced in The Mexican War volume of the popular The Old West series (Time-Life Books, 1978) and came from the holdings of Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr., a noted curator and collector of 19th century American photographs. Today, it is in the collections of a respected institution, suggesting that it is a matter of mistaken identity, not fraud.

The other image, a photograph, appears in a self-published book, The Story of Old Fort Worth, by Howard W. Peak (1856-1939), a lifetime resident of the city whose self-appointed mission was to preserve and pass on Fort Worth’s history. Unfortunately, Peak’s historical standards were low, and many of tales he heard growing up are suspect. The image of Gen. Worth that appears in his book is most definitely not Worth; the uniform is not even correct for the period when Worth was in the army.

Both the Peak and the Wagstaff images are out there for any researcher to latch onto and also available to anyone with access to the Internet, thanks to the modern miracle of digitalization. In point of fact, they have both been reproduced in publications and on websites perpetuating the misinformation and compounding the original error. When they were obscure images in archived collections or in rare, non-circulating books, they were only viewed by a relative few. But when they are widely distributed, they become resources for every frantic student and amateur genealogist to use.

As a historical figure, not just a favorite subject of artists and photographers, William Jenkins Worth is important for several reasons.

To begin with, he is barely remembered outside of his namesake city. Even in Fort Worth, school kids grow up wondering why their city is named for a man who never set foot here. Worse, they are confronted with a variety of images of the man, none of which have any provenance and some of which are simply not him. Worse still, for the nation at large, one of our most illustrious military officers of the 19th century remains a virtual cipher, unrecognized and scarcely known.

Worth’s life would make an excellent case study in the history of image-making in America. His image is represented in mezzotints, lithographs, daguerreotypes, and ambrotypes. He spanned the transition from purely artistic representation to photography, and his death coincided with the change in photographic technology from daguerreotype to ambrotype.

Shakespeare’s tribute to Fate that begins, “For want of a nail … .,” applies equally well here: For want of a cure for the cholera bacterium, William Jenkins Worth might occupy a central place in our textbooks today.