Sunday, April 8, 2012

Letter of William Forbush

    Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island is one of my favorite books.  Who hasn't thought about finding treasure ?  I found a small personal treasure a few weeks ago, when a collector friend tipped me off that a letter written by my Great Great Grandfather, William Henry Forbush, Co. K, 13th Mass., was for sale on ebay.  I purchased the letter and posted a transcription of it in the previous blog post.

    The only reference to my ancestor's war time letters is in a statement by his widow, in 1882, on  a pension form claim, that she possessed a few letters he wrote to his mother during the war.  I have no idea what happened to them after that.  The seller of this letter did not have any others, or know of any other letters by William,  and informed me the collector who had previously owned it, was interested in military chaplains.  He passed away a few years ago and the collection was sold off.

    In William Henry Forbush's diary of 1863, which was handed down in the family, he notes all the letters he wrote home, to his mother, sister, friends and cousins.  His diary entries are very sparse.  They give a brief note on weather conditions, troop movements, and other small observations.  It was incredible to find and purchase this particular letter written at Harper's Ferry in 1861.  The  descriptive detail given in the letter is great, and there is a lot I can interpret from its contents.

    The handwriting matches that in the diary of course.  William had a habit of crossing t's so that the cross appeared over the next letter, or letters, in the word he was writing.  The t's are never crossed properly.   He also used capital letters indiscriminately, and there is little punctuation, like several other letters I have seen.
He writes two days after the killing of John L. Spencer, the first man of the regiment killed by enemy fire, and describes the somewhat elaborate funeral service of Spencer.

 He wrote Sgt. Kimball came into our "Mess room yesterday..."   this corroborates Lauriman Russell's maps and statements by Sgt. Austin Stearns that Company K, was quartered in a building between the canal and the mountains.  I think the remains of this structure are still standing.

      I have information on the men mentioned in the letter too.
Sargent Kimball, is William B. Kimball, who was later promoted 2nd Lt. in May, '62, 1st Lt. in Feb. '63, and captain of Co. K, in October of '63.

    Fly, is John Fly who he also mentions in his diary of 1863.  I think Fly, was his friend.  Williams pre-war occupation was 'sleigh-maker."  Westboro, Mass. was known for its manufacture of economical sleds.  John Fly was a blacksmith, and sleigh-makers worked closely with blacksmiths in the manufacture of sleds.  Fly was killed at Gettysburg.  Austin Stearns, who was at the First Corps Hospital (Christ Church) in the town of Gettysburg, July 2 & 3rd, 1863,  recorded Fly's death in his memoirs:

On going back towards the church I saw a rebel ambulance standing before the door with several of our Surgeons standing besides it earnestly talking.  On getting near I heard they were talking about some one in the ambulance.  On looking in I saw there, dressed in a rebel uniform and very weak from the loss of blood, John Flye, the first man  of our company hit.  I told the surgeons that I knew that man, that we were of the same company, and they immediately ordered him to be taken in.  Flye was left on the field, and the rebs finding him, and seeing his cloths covered and growing stiff with blood, had exchanged his pants for one of their own, and brought him in.  The surgeons seeing him in grey, could not believe he was a union soldier.  Flye died in a few days.

     The man on the right in this photo is credited as being John Fly, of Company K.  The photo is close up of an image of the Co. K cookhouse at Williamsport, Md. the winter of '61- '61.

     William Henry's letter gives a good account of Captain William P. Blackmer's eulogy of Spencer.  Blackmer was the  Methodist Minister from the town of Westboro, who helped organize the company, and became its captain.  The sermon seems to confirm certain criticisms of Blackmer. Stearns wrote,

Of Captain Blackmer, I have but a word to say.  He entered at the big end of the horn, with a loud flurish, declaring he would "wade in blood to his ears," and then in three months came out at the little end, from a hole too small to be seen with the naked eye.

    Capt. Blackmer alludes to the accidental wounding  of a Co. I man.  Spencer sat up with him the night before he was killed.  I have a mention of this incident in the Westboro Transcript Newspaper dated Sept. 28th 1861, and my own notes in parentheses suggest it was John Pierce of Co. I, who was discharged in May, 1862:

‘Since the regiment came out here there has been one killed, (SPENCER ) one wounded by the enemy, one by our own men, (EDWIN SMITH) and one by his own carelessness.’(JOHN PIERCE).

    Its interesting to know that William was one of the pall bearer's that helped carry  Spencer's coffin 2 miles from Harper's Ferry to Sandy Hook.I'd done a lot of research on Spencer's death, so its interesting to learn my own ancestor had an important part to play in his funeral service.

    The coffin was draped with the American flag, and the body decorated with "green leaves at the head of the coffin and a bunch of snow balls on his breast."

    At the end of the letter he tells his mother he is scheduled for guard duty and, "I am on the Post with Mr. Joseph Fairbanks today."  At age 55, private Joseph Fairbanks was one of the oldest volunteers in the regiment.   I like the respect he shows for his older comrade.  William was just 18 at the time.   Fairbank's occupation is also listed as sleigh-maker.  Perhaps Mr. Fairbanks was his employer ? or at least someone he knew professionally before the war.  This re-enforces the idea that volunteers served together with friends and colleagues from their home towns.

     Joseph Fairbanks was forced to muster out in May of '62, along with several other recruits, who it was thought were not up to the rigorous campaigns about to commence.  Up until that time, he shared in all the company work.  In 13th Regiment Association Circular #28, Sept., 1915 Charles E. Davis, Jr. recalls Joseph Fairbanks:

"We recall distinctly that when we were at Warrenton, Junction, VA., in the spring of 1862, in anticipation of the hardships of the approaching campaign and the deprivations that were to be required, all men of doubtful physical endurance were discharged.  Among this number was our Comrade Joseph H. Fairbanks, who was then 56 years of age.  Up to that time he had performed all the duties of a soldier and could not see why he should be excluded from continuing in service. He was a patriot of the highest order and felt aggrieved that his age should be considered a bar to his performing the duties required of a soldier, the order was imperative. His advanced years, in the eyes of his superiors, did seem to be against him, but he resented any such conclusion. When he left the regiment he carried with him the respect and admiration of his comrades.

     A last observation, is that William does not sign his name, as just 'William,' but rather "Wm. Forbush."  His father had died when he was only 7. I'm not sure if his mother had re-married.  She is listed in the family genealogy as Mary Wood (Morse).  I do know William had an Uncle Gilman Morse, with whom he entered into a business partnership after the war.

     Not bad for one letter.

     Again - you can read the letter on the post preceding this one.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The First to Fall & A Surprise

     Shortly after 3 p.m. September 15th 1861, shots rang out from across the Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry, and private John L. Spencer  fell dead from his horse.  The other six men in his scouting party jumped from their horses and took cover in the water on the banks of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  Lt David L. Brown commanded the squad.  They fired back at the concealed Confederates until their ammunition ran out.  They used up Spencer’s ammunition too.  Enemy fire kept them pinned down for 2 1/2 hours. 

     Spencer was the only Union death in the engagement along the river that day, known as ‘Pritchard’s Mill” but he was the first man in the 13th Mass. Regiment killed by enemy fire.  His death was keenly felt. 

     Moses Palmer, who organized the company, kept the bullet that killed Spencer and his family has it to this day.
“This is the ball that killed John L. Spencer of Co. “I” 13th Regt. Mass. Vols. Spencer was shot on the tow path of the Canal near Sandy Hook, Md. and was shot by the Rebels from the Harpers Ferry side of the River Potomac -- first man killed in the Regt.  His body was sent to Marlboro.  The ball passed through his body killing him instantly.”  M. P. Palmer, Comdg Co “I”

     It was still early in the war, and there was time to reflect on the death of a soldier.

     A letter describes the funeral service held for Spencer two days later by Co’s. I & K, the two companies of the 13th Mass detached at Harper’s Ferry:

Harpers Ferry Lock Sept 17th 1861

Dear Mother
                  I have rote you two letters this week and now I will write you another in My last I told you that one of Com. I Men had bin killed and now I will tell you of his funeral  the Orderly Sargent Kimbal came into our Mess room yesterday Morning and wanted 12 Men to go as Berriers to the Funeral and Fly and Myself and 10 others went   we went without our Equipments then we went into the room and placed the coffin or rather a box on two barells  the American Flag was wrapped around the coffin   the coffin was made of rough boards
And he had one of our New Winter under Coats on and pants and Stockings and green leaves at the head of the coffin and a bunch of snow balls on his breast   after we fetched him out and placed him on the Barrells then the Company made there Apperance   Comp I of which he was a Member . they had there Guns and Equipments on they fell in front of the Coffin and then Capt Blackmer came out and Spoke to them and us telling them that there was some thing Singular about this Mans death   only the Night before he was up all Night with the Man that Shot himself accidentally and did not leave his side all Night and then to think he was the first one to be shot dead the
P 3
Next day  but he said it was glorious to die in such a noble cause and at his Post  he said who will be called next   God only knows   he said we had bin verry Lucky about Loosing our Men since we Started   the man stood the first Man in the ranks of his company in the lines

Then he offered a prayer and then we started for Sandy Hook a distance of two Miles and we carried him all the way   6 of us would carry him and then 6 more when they got tired,  we carried him in the Midle of the ranks and the Company on each side  the two drummers had there drums Muffled and drapped in Mourning  and they played all the way   and when we got there we sat
P 4
The coffin down and the Company came up and fired 3 rounds over the coffin   some 300 Shotts and then we placed him in the cars and left there Sargent with him to go to Massachusetts  Marlboro Mass  his Father Living in New York State somewhere but they didn’t Know where and so they were goin to take him there to the Man that he used to work for and then we came back  but the Minister said perhappse this mans was [when? It? came?  bravest? because?]  that Such a hour as we think not we may be taken   Mother I am on guard to day and it is most time to go out and relieve My Man   I am on the Post with Mr. Joseph Fairbanks today  but I must close

I am all right and  [page torn] some and Tough as a nut(?) but I must close   Good bye  Love to All
Wm Forbush

     The letter describing Spencer’s funeral is written by my Great Great Grandfather, William Henry Forbush of Company K.  Until I purchased it on ebay two weeks ago I had no idea it existed. 

To be continued.