Sunday, September 20, 2009

James Lascelle Forbes

Occasionally descendants of 13th Mass. soldiers contact me via email to share or request information. The correspondence always proves interesting. Sometimes I get a great story about a particular soldier. Other times I can provide the descendant with photos or stories about their ancestor. Sometimes nothing at all turns up. This summer I received 3 fascinating inquiries from persons living in England. The life story of James Lascelle Forbes was particularly intriguing as I received it, and, I was able to add some missing links to the story.

Forbes' descendant was writing a biography of James for the family genealogy. He contacted Art Rideout and me, seeking information about James, and his brother, Douglas Forbes. (Art maintains the website of the 13th Mass Roster.) James and Douglas Forbes immigrated to the US from Ireland, and fought in the Civil War, James with the 13th Mass., Douglas with an unknown unit. Art found records of Douglas in the 1900 census and sent them along to our English correspondent. I wasn’t much help with Douglas. An internet database search revealed four regiments with a ‘Douglas Forbes’ listed in the roster. I passed this information along to the descendant, who was also trying to identify a medal James Forbes received for service in the 13th Mass. Again, I could only guess that it was a GAR medal.

James record from the 13th Mass Vols roster states:

James L. Forbes; age 21; born, Dublin, Ire; theatre; mustered in as priv., Co. A, July 16, ’61; was discharged by War Department in ’63.

The story is that James L. Forbes, and his younger brother Douglas, with their widowed mother and another brother came to Boston following their father’s accidental death in Ireland.  James made his living as a scene painter in New York City's thriving theatres. When war broke out he enlisted in the 4th Battalion of Rifles (The nucleus of the 13th Mass) Aged 18 and a teamster, Douglas enlisted in March 1864 at Watertown, Mass, as a private in the Ordnance Corps of the Regular Army.  He was granted a disablity discharge at Watertown Arsenal, Mass, in March 1865.

Family lore had it that James fought at Bull Run, was wounded at Gettysburg, and was nursed back to health by Ella Rosalie Small, and her mother, at a hospital in Harrisburg, PA. He later married Ella.

My only contribution to this tale, was that James fought at 2nd Bull Run, not 1st Bull Run. I couldn’t document James wounding at Gettysburg; I don’t yet have a detailed casualty report for the regiment at that battle, but I promised to keep James in mind when I someday acquire that material.

I requested a copy of my correspondent's biography of James when the final draft was completed, and was grateful to receive it in July. From this I learned James Forbes met his future wife Ella at the German Reform Church Hospital in Harrisburg, PA. I have several descriptive letters written from this hospital by John B. Noyes, Company B, following the September 17, 1862 battle of Antietam. Noyes and several other men of the 13th Mass went there to recover from their battle wounds. Forbes wasn’t mentioned specifically in these letters, but Noyes comments about the number of ladies who frequented the hospital to visit the Massachusetts men. Then, I found a letter in the 13th Mass Circulars, written by James H. Lowell of Company A, (the same company as James L. Forbes) dated September, 1920. The letter reminisced about the battle of Antietam, an important engagement in the annals of the regiment. Lowell’s letter states in part:

“Antietam has always been a theme of deep interest - a sort of starting point in my life…

“…I had two assistants from the firing line to the hay stacks on the farm of Samuel Luffenberger. One was a Penn. bucktail, who, when we got past the rear guard, bolted. There came along, under fire, a fellow about my age in civilian rig, who stuck to the job to the hay Stacks. He took down my name, regiment, etc., saying, "I am a correspondent of the New York Sun." How stupid of me not to take his name and address, that I might remember to commend his bravery, later ! The space at this stack hospital was crowded and we remained there till evening, during that time first aid only was given. And there was disclosed the machine like habit of the drilled soldier - more interested in the fortunes of the firing line he had just left than the injury he received there. "How are things going?" was the topic discussed, while the surgeon was making his rounds. The tragedy of the firing line was the tragedy of the wounded, and its fortunes, their fortunes.

That night we were taken to Hagerstown, and our second hospital was "The little White Church," thence the next day through the Cumberland Valley to Harrisburg, where a hospital on Chestnut Street - the Sunday School room of the German Reformed Church was opened for some of us - a frame dining room in the rear. It was a new thing there and our treatment was lavish for quite a while, and always of the friendliest. Eight boys of the 13th were there, possibly I may miss others - John B. Noyes, Robt. Armstrong, Eugene A. Fiske, James L. Forbes, L. L. Dorr, James Dammers, William S. Soule. Alfred Brigham…

“…Dorr, Dammers and self survive. An intimacy life-long with Forbes, Soule and Fiske, has been my good fortune. Forbes inherited a large landed estate in India through an uncle.”

This letter placed James L. Forbes at the hospital where he met his future wife Ella. Oddly, James does not appear on the casualty list for the battle at Antietam. This doesn't dispute his wounding at Gettysburg, but it defines the time and place where he met Ella, the girl who nursed him back to health. It is possible that James rejoined the regiment and fought at Gettysburg before mustering out on May 3, 1864 at Harrisburg. The rest of James' and Ella's story is fascinating:

Around 1868 - 1869 James traveled to North-western India to help manage his maternal Uncle’s indigo plantation. By December, 1873, James had re-located to another region of India, and changed jobs. He was one of 3 managers of the Tarapore Tea Company in Cachar. That’s when Ella Small set sail from America to marry James. They were wed in Calcutta, January 31, 1874. Soon they had two children, a son and daughter. Between extended trips to America, to visit Ella’s relatives, James Uncle died. He left 1/3 of his indigo plantation to James and Ella. James' siblings, who shared in the inheritance, agreed James should run the estate. In early 1881, the family, now with 4 children, settled on "Uncle’s" remote Indigo plantation in NW India. The plantation thrived and the family prospered.

It was a lonely existence with neighbors spread wide apart across the region. The social center was a club located at the nearest town 22 miles away. Celebrations, parties and dances were sometimes hosted there, giving the European population a chance to congregate.

"We would go into Azamgarh, and we would have a whole week there of very good times. We had races: races for men, races for the women. For instance, you had to mount your horse and ride around the course so many times, holding a tennis ball on your tennis racket, and get right round without letting it fall off." So wrote Mary Forbes; James & Ella's eldest daughter.

James died in 1899 at age 60 and was buried in India next to his uncle. His wife Ella continued to travel extensively through Europe and America with her daughters. In 1905 Charlotte, the youngest, married a member of the British Indian Civil Service. The plantation estate was sold in 1920. Ella settled in Paris, France with her two un-wed daughters. Later, her daughter Ella wrote a wistful poem in remembrance of bygone days, and the romantic life she led on a remote indigo plantation in India. Ella senior died in 1925 in Paris. The two girls later relocated to the US, settling finally in Boston, Mass.

Such was the life of James Lascelle Forbes, a one-time Union soldier who made his career in British Colonial India, and his wife Ella, the girl from Harrisburg who nursed him to health.

1 comment:

  1. This post was updated in July 2011 with new information and a photograph provided by James Forbes's descendant. I am very grateful for both and hope you enjoy the added material.