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Wednesday, December 30, 2009


As indicated in Part One, which ran yesterday, a footnote in a book by historian Allan Nevin set Donald on the path toward solving a 146-year-old mystery regarding the fate of a family member who died at Andersonville. Today's post picks up where Part One left off, with William Forster and a small band of Union soldiers being tracked as hunted men.

Much of the land in the southeastern sector of Colleton County, South Carolina had been under cultivation as rice growing fields by generations of large scale plantation owners, with water drawn for irrigation from surrounding wetlands. Even today the area remains largely rural with a sprinkling of small towns, most prominent of which is Walterboro, the County seat which boasts a population of a little over 5,000 residents and plays host to a Rice Festival every April. Hard core film buffs are probably aware that a number of scenes in the movie Forrest Gump were shot at various locations around the County.

Lowndes, a surname easily recognized by students of South Carolina history, was preeminent among the County's planters and one, Charles Tidyman Lowndes, had a personal estate valued in the neighborhood of $300,000 in 1860, which by today's standards is equivalent to seven million dollars. His plantation, encompassing hundreds of acres, and dominion to 491 slaves, was part of a tract William Forster would crisscross for more than 24 hours in an attempt to evade those in pursuit.

The most immediate pursuit came from Green Pond Station, where Lt. Col. Williams Stokes ordered 15 troopers from the 4th South Carolina to search fields and forests between Green Pond and the Combabee River, which flowed about two miles to the west. Additional pickets were set up along an adjacent road, however, strangely enough, they allowed an estimated group of eleven men to pass through their line unchallenged. Angry and disbelieving that Union soldiers could simply pass unmolested, Stokes was forced to temper his emotions and call off the search when darkness began to set in.

The following morning Stokes, while on foot, heard firing from a rifled gun near a mill on C.T. Lowndes' property. Mounting his horse Stokes galloped to a position manned by Company C of the Eleventh South Carolina Infantry. Stokes was informed that the gun had been fired in the direction of strange sounds emanating from the river bank. The Confederates closed in and discovered a makeshift raft on the opposite shore. At that moment men were seen sprinting away and after a short pursuit three, including Chaplain Fowler, a first lieutenant, and a private named Robert DeFoe were taken prisoner. Although not clear, at least one black captive taken over the next two days, possibly DeFoe, was later returned to the custody of his owner.

The search now intensified throughout the morning, reaching its climax when bloodhounds were brought onto the scene. How much longer Forster was able to evade capture is not known, but it's clear that he made a desperate attempt to throw off the dogs by removing pieces of clothing. When discovered he was described as being half-naked and submerged to his armpits in a mosquito and leech infested inlet bordered by marsh grass.

While the methods used in his interrogation are unknown and could have been simple question and answer sessions, or could have involved beatings, Forster was not forthcoming about his mission or information he was privy to. Others weren't as tightlipped and disclosed a heretofore undetected Union encampment on Williman's Island.

Forster's fate, of all those captured, is ironically the only one fully documented. Shipped off to Columbia, he was held there until his transfer to Andersonville shortly after that prison opened in February 1864. He would last about two months, or about the same time it took to finally find his telegraphic equipment and spool of wire, both of which had been hidden on the edge of Charles T. Lowndes' Laurel Springs plantation. Another month would go by before his valise containing mildewed clothing and rotting paper and envelopes was discovered. The equipment and wire would be forwarded directly to Gen. P.T. Beauregard's headquarters while the valise was probably allowed to continue to rot in the same way that Forster was allowed to rot at Andersonville.

I can remember very clearly sitting on the ground in front of grave number 2332 and can remember thinking how strange that a man would surrender his life for a cause in which he ultimately had no stake. His end would not have been dignified, but rather marked by crippling abdominal pain, vomiting, fever, and bloody stools. It's likely that he suffered under whatever shelter he had been able to construct, until it was recognized by those fellow prisoners around him that he was beyond saving grace and at that moment merciful arms would have reached out and assisted him to the hospital on the same day the last gasp for breath filled his lungs.

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Comments

Donald - Thank you SO MUCH! That was one of the most thrillings tories I've read in some time and you must be very happy to have found some additional information about that ancestor. As a civilian would he not have been subject to execution as a spy? Why do you think they sent him to prison instead? What an amazing - and inspiring - story. Jim

Posted by Jim Schmidt at Thursday, December 31, 2009 12:30:36

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