Henry Yates Thompson papers (1863-1928)

Collection processed and finding aid created by Shannon Wait, June 2010
Manuscripts Division, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Summary Information

Title: Henry Yates Thompson papers
Creator: Thompson family
Inclusive dates: 1863-1928
Extent: 91 items (0.5 linear feet)
The Henry Yates Thompson papers contain the letters, diaries, and lectures of Thompson, an Englishman who visited the United States in 1863 and witnessed several battles in the Chattanooga Campaign, while making observations on politics, slavery, and education.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu

Access and Use

Acquisition Information

1998. M-3465.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation

Henry Yates Thompson Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The Henry Yates Thompson papers are arranged into five series:
  1. Correspondence
  2. Diaries
  3. Documents
  4. Maps
  5. Printed Materials


Henry Yates Thompson was born near Liverpool, England, in 1838, the eldest son of prosperous banker Samuel Thompson, and his wife, Elizabeth Yates. He was an 1862 graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied classics and won a prize for his knowledge of Greek. Although he was trained as a barrister at Lincoln's Inn, he never practiced law. For six months in 1863, he traveled around the United States, where he witnessed Ulysses S. Grant leading forces at the Battle of Chattanooga and developed great sympathies for Union and abolition causes. Upon his return to England, he was struck by the ignorance of American culture among the British upper class, and in 1865, proposed a lectureship on American history at Cambridge to be held by a lecturer chosen by Harvard College. Although Thompson received the support of Thomas Hill, President of Harvard, Cambridge ultimately rejected the idea. From 1868-1873, he was private secretary to John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, Viceroy of Ireland.

In 1878, he married Elizabeth ("Dolly") Smith, daughter of publisher George Smith. Thompson owned the Pall Mall Gazette, a gift from his father-in-law, from 1880-1892. After its sale, he devoted himself to the collection of illuminated manuscripts and became a benefactor of the British Library. He died in 1929.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Henry Yates Thompson papers contain 38 letters, 6 diaries, 4 documents, 2 maps, and 43 printed items (including newspaper clippings), spanning 1863-1928.

The Correspondence series covers 1863-1918, with bulk centering around 1863-1866. Thompson wrote the vast majority of letters home to his parents and siblings, while he traveled the United States and Canada; he filled his correspondence with thoughtful observations on slavery, the Civil War, women's education, and comparisons between England and the United States. On July 29, 1863, he noted the objections to the military draft by "copperheads" in New Hampshire and commented unfavorably on them. In late summer, he remarked about the Canadian support for the Confederacy (August 7, 1863); the growth of slavery, which he believed had been slowed by objections from the North (August 15, 1863); meeting abolitionist Samuel J. May (September 1, 1863); and the "marks of quiet industry" that he saw in free African Americans in the North. On September 29, 1863, he wrote a long, detailed letter about a visit to a "colored camp" in Baltimore, in which escaped slaves trained and drilled in front of Yankee officers. He also recorded the comments of several slave owners, who discussed the escape of slaves and expressed doubt that slaves would fight. In several letters, dated November 23 and December 3, 1863, Thompson described several battles in the Chattanooga Campaign at the side of Ulysses S. Grant. He wrote about the intensity of firing, expressed horror at the injuries and deaths he saw, and gave his impressions of Grant. Thompson also wrote about slaughterhouses in Chicago and the benefits of co-education to women (October 16, 1863), a journey to the Isles of Shoals (September 12, 1863), and the people he met in Keene, New Hampshire (July 23, 1863).

The letters postdating 1863 document Thompson's failed attempts to establish a lectureship on American history at Cambridge in 1865. On May 16, 1907, he declined a revival of the idea by Cambridge, citing possible objections from Harvard and the diminishing need for such an academic collaboration.

The Diaries series contains four volumes, which cover July-December 1863, with overlap in periods and events covered between volumes. As in his letters, Thompson wrote frankly about slavery and abolition, American politics, education, and various places that he visited. He also enclosed letters and ephemera related to these, such as tickets, pamphlets, advertisements, and clippings, which remain with the volumes. In Volume I (July 10-November 3, 1863), Thompson discussed the circumstances of Lincoln's election (pp. 3-4), a visit to Niagara Falls (p. 45), and the National Bank system (p. 53). Volume II (September 13-November 13, 1863) contains another account of the Battles for Chattanooga (pp. 22-31), and discussion of slavery and both sides of the conflict. Volume III (September 25-November 26, 1863) describes travels through Missouri with a German friend, and also covers the Battle of Chattanooga, but more briefly and informally. It may have served as a field notebook. Volume IV (November 15-December 15, 1863) contains further discussion of the Chattanooga Campaign and the war, as well as a description of people that Thompson encountered during his travels to Brooklyn, New York.

The Lecture Notebooks series contains two items: a rough draft and an apparent final draft of a speech on the Battles for Chattanooga, given by Thompson at Harrow School on March 7, 1865. The lecture gives a very detailed description of many aspects of the battle, including troop movements, casualties, supplies, and the role of the United States Sanitary Commission.

The Documents series contains an 1862 "Requisition for Forage" for the Confederacy, and essays entitled "Then and Now at the University of Cambridge" (1918) and "The American Lectureship" (n.d.).

The Maps series contains just one item: a manuscript map illustrating the geography and positions of troops at Chattanooga on November 23, 1863.

The Printed Materials series, spanning 1865-1941, primarily contains printed materials related to Thompson's proposed lectureship on American history at Cambridge. Also included are several obituaries for Thompson, and a book by Christopher Chancellor, Thompson's great-nephew, containing excerpts from the diaries and letters. Published in 1971, the book is entitled, An Englishman in the American Civil War: The Diaries of Henry Yates Thompson, and is housed in the Clements Library's Book Division.

Subject Terms

  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Chattanooga, Battle of, Chattanooga, Tenn., 1863.
  • Isles of Shoals (Me. and N.H.)
  • Freedmen.
  • Keene (N.H.)
  • Lectures and lecturing.
  • Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
  • Grant, Ulysses S., 1852-1929.
  • Maryland--Description and travel.
  • May, Samuel J. (Samuel Joseph), 1797-1871.
  • Missouri--Description and travel.
  • Slaughtering and slaughterhouses.
  • United States--Description and travel.
  • United States--Social life and customs--1783-1865.
  • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--African Americans.
  • United States--Politics and government--1783-1865.
  • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Foreign public opinion, British.
  • University of Cambridge.
  • Thompson, Henry Yates, 1838-1929.
Genre Terms:
  • Diaries.
  • Letters (correspondence)
  • Maps.

Contents List (Request Materials)

Request materials for use in the Clements Library
Container / Location Title
Correspondence [series]
Box   1  
 May 31, 1863-June 17, 1918 (9 folders)
Diaries [series]
Box   1  
Volume I:  July 10, 1863-November 3, 1863
Volume II:  September 13, 1863-November 1, 1863
Volume III:  September 25, 1863-November 26, 1863
Volume IV:  November 15, 1863-December 15, 1863
Lecture Notebooks [series]
Box   1  
 1865 (2 folders)
Documents [series]
Box   1  
  April 11, 1862-1918
Maps [series]
Box   1  
Chattanooga,  1863
Printed Materials [series]
Box   1  
 1865-1941 (3 folders)     The book "An Englishman in the American Civil War: The Diaries of Henry Yates Thompson" is housed in the Book Division. 
Box   1  

Additional Descriptive Data

Alternate Locations

The Book division holds the following item: Thompson, Henry Yates, and Christopher Chancellor. An Englishman in the American Civil War: The Diaries of Henry Yates Thompson. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

Related Materials

The Clements Library has an additional map depicting battles in the Chattanooga Campaign: Betts, Edward E. Map of the Battlefields of Chattanooga: Battle of Lookout Mountain And Sherman's Crossing of Tennessee, September 23-24, 1863.... [Washington]: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Park Commission, 1901.