Tuesday, December 29, 2009
A paragraph and a footnote in a book he's currently reading helps Donald to finally solve a 146-year-old mystery regarding the fate of a family member who died at Andersonville.
The old Methodist hymnal, which measures twelve inches by nine inches, is five inches thick and weighs close to three pounds, has been passed down through five generations. It was purchased in New Brunswick, Canada and, after being carefully packed inside a trunk, brought by my great-grandfather's emigrating family to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1887. Brief newspaper obituaries announcing the passing of family members, including aunts, uncles, and cousins, have been carefully arranged and pasted on inside pages, a chronicle of death and mourning.
One of those obituaries reads simply: "In the Confederate Hospital at Andersonville, GA. June 28, 1864, William Forster, age 23 and nine months, a native of Richibucto, Kent County.
The story, as passed down, was that William Forster, my great-great-grandfather's first cousin, was employed as a civilian telegraph operator for the Union Army and taken prisoner in 1863 when caught cutting Southern telegraph lines. Like so many others, he died at Andersonville due to the ravages of dysentery. I've made two visits to his grave, the first being in 1996 and the second about eight years later. Although speculative, it's very possible that I was the first family member to have ever made that pilgrimage.
Richibucto, New Brunswick is a small town located near the mouth of the river by the same name. When William Forster's grandfather and my fourth great-grandfather, Wilfred Forster, emigrated from England in 1826 and established himself as a gentleman farmer there, but five houses were standing. By 1860 the town had grown in importance as a fishing and lumber port and three churches ministered to the spiritual needs of its 800 residents. Among those residents was my great-great-grandfather John Thompson who, having been apprenticed to a boat builder when he was 17, would go on to establish his own boat yard.
Although more was known about the Forster family, including the fact that William Forster's brother John was a telegraph operator in Richibucto at the time of the Civil War, William's life story dead ended. Then a little more than a week ago I found this citation on page 298 of Allan Nevn's "The War for the Union: The Organized War 1863-1864."
Nevin's, in writing about the use of the telegraph during the war, stated: "Eight telegraph operators were lost in battle during the war; many others died during Army service, or were captured." Footnoted as the source was William R. Plum's 1882 book, "The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States." Volume Two of Plum's work, which I accessed through Google Books, finally brought the circumstances of William Forster's capture to light. But there was more, because I was also able to peruse H. David Stone, Jr.'s 2008 book "Vital Rails; The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina," in which he also detailed Forster's capture.
The specific details of Forster's capture differs somewhat between the two books and it's readily apparent that Stone dug digger with his research. But the basic facts remain consistent throughout. Too, I was able to further supplement their details through my own research.
Forster was an employee of the American Telegraph Company, which had a monopoly on telegraph lines running from New England to New Orleans, and at war's start contracted their services to the Union Army. Assigned to the Beaufort, South Carolina area, then under Union control, Forster volunteered for a mission in early September 1863 to tap into the main Confederate telegraph line which ran parallel with the Charleston & Savannah railroad line. Whereas Plum states that Forster was guided by a group of runaway slaves, Stone relates that he was accompanied by a small detail of Union soldiers, including a contingent of blacks from the 1st South Carolina Infantry and their Chaplain, James H. Fowler. The 1st was then under the command of Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the famed writer and abolitionist who had helped bankroll John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.
The party, which carried an estimated one-half to one mile of telegraphic wire sealed in gutta percha, reached its destination, 30 miles north of Beaufort, sometime between September 10th and 12th, 1863, secreting themselves about a mile from Green Pond Station in Colleton County. Forster not only carried his telegraphic equipment, but a valise, later identified as belonging to him, containing two additional shirts, a pair of pants, as well as paper and envelopes for transmitting intercepted messages.
Once again Plum and Stone deviate in their stories. According to the former, Forster tapped into the Confederate telegraph line and listened for two days. Of importance was an intercept of a planned Confederate attack on Folly and Morris Islands, later cancelled when Union troops were observed strengthening their defenses. Stone only goes so far as to state that Forster successfully attached a wire to the main cable. Regardless, Forster's mission was soon to come to an abrupt end. Plum states he was spotted by a train crew standing beside the track and drew attention when he began running as the locomotive approached, while Stone said the vigilant engineer took note of Forster's wire tap and sounded the alarm when he pulled into Green Pond Station. Both authors are in agreement that the discovery triggered a manhunt wherein Forster and members of his band were hunted like prey through the surrounding plantations and wetlands by cavalry and bloodhounds.
Note: Part Two to follow.