Tuesday, September 1, 2009

George Foster

George Foster was an 18-year-old orphan when he enlisted in the Federal Army on September 6, 1862. His father, John, died in 1856 at the age of 45, leaving behind five children and a pregnant wife. His mother, Sarah, gave birth to a sixth child in December of 1856, then died month later.

John and Sarah Foster had come to America from England in 1843 aboard a ship called the Tallahassee that departed from Liverpool. Both were from the Staffordshire area and they were following Foster's sister, Mary, who had emigrated nine years earlier.

John and Sarah settled in Central New York's Otsego County, an area of lush rolling hills and rich farmland. It was the ancestral home of James Fenimore Cooper and the setting for some of his novels about the settlers and Indians in the years before the American Revolution. Cooperstown, the Otsego County seat, was named for the author's father but is better known as the home of baseball's Hall of Fame.

After their parents' death, John and his four siblings were likely taken in by friends or relatives. The 1860 census lists sixteen-year-old George and his seven-year-old brother, William, living in Otsego County with John and Hephzibah Frone.

After the Civil War began, Central New York became a rich source of recruits for the Union Army. In the fall of 1862, when President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 more men, the war was not going well for the Union. That summer, the Federals had been defeated for a second time at Bull Run. Robert E. Lee's army had crossed the Potomac River and was not far from Washington, and Confederate troops had marched into Kentucky and almost brought the state into the Confederacy.

To fill their quota of recruits, the citizens of Otsego and neighboring Herkimer counties created a camp near the town of Mohawk and began building two new regiments, the 121st and 152nd. In his book recounting the history of the 152nd, Henry Roback said young men from nearby towns would visit the camp, start talking with their friends and soon find themselves seduced by "the dark blue uniform and glittering brass buttons." Another inducement was the cash bounty offered by the regiment's organizers and that had to be attractive to a young man like George Foster who had few prospects in his home town.

Alonzo Ferguson
Col. Leonard Boyer from Little Falls was placed in charge of the 152nd along with Lt. Col. Alonzo Ferguson from Cobbleskill. Foster joined Company G, which was made up of men from his home village of Otsego along with neighboring towns such as Butternuts, Oneonta, and Exeter. Twenty-five-year-old Edmund C. Gilbert was the company captain and Josiah Hinds, 28, was the first lieutenant. The boys from Otsego included Amos Beach, William Bunnell, Joshua Bayard, Parker Coats, Herman House, George Johnson, and Charles and William Fenton. Another member was Joseph C. Frone, who was likely related to George's foster father.

The regiment officially became part of the Union Army on Oct. 15, 1862 and six days later, the troops boarded a train bound for New York City. Using trains, ferry boats, steamships and their feet, they made their way across New Jersey and through Philadelphia and Baltimore to the outskirts of Washington where they built a winter camp along the Potomac River They called it  Camp Marcy. The regiment spent three months guarding roads and building fortifications that would be used two years later to help repel Confederate General Jubal Early when he invaded the Washington suburbs.

New York City riots
In February of 1863, the regiment moved into the city of Washington where Ferguson replaced Boyer as the regiment's commander with George R. Thompson as his lieutenant colonel. The troops were shipped to Virginia in April where they joined in some minor skirmishes around Norfolk and Suffolk. In July, the regiment was sent back to New York City to keep order during a series of ant-draft riots. Roback said the regiment was housed in the Colored People's Church on Mulberry Street and that its troops were used to find stolen weapons and guard homes in wealthy neighborhoods.

After helping keep order in other cities in New York, the 152nd went back to Virginia in October and by early December it was in winter quarters near Stevensburg, about halfway between Washington and Richmond. Col. Ferguson, who had been in poor health, resigned his commission and left the regiment in the hands of Lt. Col. Thompson.

Through the winter, men in the regiment stayed in contact with soldiers in the 121st, the other regiment from their home area. Delevan Bates was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 121st who would go on to become a brevet brigadier general and Medal of Honor recipient. After the war, Bates wrote a series of articles about both regiments for newspapers in Nebraska and New York. In one of them, he described the winter of 1863-64 as "rather pleasant for the whole army. The Christian Commission furnished literature, many extras in the way of clothing and rations were received in boxes from home, entertainments were gotten up by the members of each regiment, brigade drills and also company and regimental exercises were regularly observed."

The Wilderness

Battle of the Wolderness
In Virginia, the 152nd was part of the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the Second Corps. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock was the corps commander, and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon was in charge of the Second Division. The brigade commander was Gen. Joshua T. Owen, a former educator from Philadelphia who had a checkered career in the army.

Owen was commander of the Philadelphia Brigade which defended Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, but did so without Owen. The unit had been accused of poor discipline and Owen had been replaced shortly before the fight. When he returned to the brigade in Virginia, it was composed of four regiments from Pennsylvania, the 69th, 71st, 72nd and 106th, plus New York's 152nd.

Joshua T. Owen
In the spring of 1864, Grant and Hancock were ready to go on the offensive. Roback wrote that on May 1, men in the regiment were issued new canteens and ammunition and eight days of rations when they left camp on May 3. When the army approached Chancellorsville, the troops were sent into a thick, dark woods that would become known as The Wilderness, an area that had seen other battles earlier in the war. "We entered the woods, passing over the bodies of those who had fallen before," Roback wrote. "We forced a passage through the thick undergrowth, becoming separated and considerably mixed up."

At first, the Yankees seemed to have the advantage. Civil War historian James M. McPherson wrote in "Battle Cry of Freedom" that the Federals put more than 70,000 men into action compared to fewer than 40,000 rebels. "But the Southerners knew the terrain, and the Yankees' preponderance of troops produced only immobility in these dense, smoke-filled woods where soldiers could rarely see the enemy, units blundered the wrong way in the directionless jungle, friendly troops fired on each other by mistake, and gaps in the opposing line went unexploited because unseen, while muzzle flashes and exploding shells set the underbrush on fire to threaten wounded men with a fiery death."

Troops in Foster's company spent the night of May 4 sleeping on the ground, clutching their muskets. The fighting resumed at dawn and again it was more chaos. "The enemy could be felt but not seen," said Roback. "Nor could they see our force as we drove them onward. The forest was so dense and covered with a thick undergrowth of scrub oak, laurel and sassafras, that the aim was taken only at flashes and lines of smoke."

The New Yorkers and other units pushed the rebels so far back that they stumbled into a clearing where Gen. Lee had his headquarters. Lee retreated to safety, but one of his top generals, James Longstreet became one of the casualties of chaos when he was severely wounded by shots from another Confederate unit.

Spotsylvania Court House

Spotsylvania Court House
By May 7, both sides had withdrawn from The Wilderness, but only to move south toward the town of Spotsylvania. Lee's cavalry got to the town first and when the Union troops arrived, they found the rebels waiting behind strong defensive barriers.  For several days, the Federals tried to break through the rebel lines and on May 12, they assaulted a series of trenches dug in a horseshoe shape that came to be known as the Bloody Angle. For eighteen hours, from early morning until midnight, the two sides fought a desperate battle to take and hold the network of trenches. Union forces would repeatedly storm the Confederate stronghold using musket fire and bayonets in close combat. Some units would claim and hold a portion of the works only to be ousted minutes later when Confederate reinforcements poured in from the rear.

"The dead, dying and wounded are lying literally in heaps, hideous to look at," wrote Roback. The firing was so intense and continuous that the oak trees were torn to shreds and one oak with a two-foot trunk was toppled by gunfire. When the fighting ended on May 13, the 152nd counted 49 men killed or wounded.

Cold Harbor

Cold Harbor
As the two armies moved south through the Virginia countryside, they clashed again near Cold Harbor, a tiny crossroads village about six miles east of Richmond. Philip Sheridan's cavalry, armed with new Spencer repeating rifles, captured the town and held it while Union infantry followed. The Confederates dug in about a half mile to the southwest.

Foster and the rest of the 152nd Regiment marched all night and arrived at Cold Harbor, exhausted, early on the morning of June 2. Grant wanted to attack that evening, but he postponed the assault when a severe thunderstorm moved into the area. The delay gave Lee more time to strengthen his defenses and when nearly 50,000 Union troops launched their assault the next morning, the rebels were ready for them.

"Ascending the hill, we madly charge across the level space, and are met with a cyclone of bullets," said Roback. His unit captured three cannon, but were soon forced to retreat a few hundred feet from the enemy fort where soldiers "began to throw up breastworks using case knives and tin plates." For the rest of the day, both sides kept up a continuous barrage until Grant called a cease file.

Although the attacks stopped, Lee refused to allow a truce to remove the dead a wounded. For four days, soldiers on both sides huddled behind their embankments listening to the cries and moans of wounded comrades they could not reach. Anyone who ventured into no man's land to help was an easy target for snipers. When the two armies finally broke off after two weeks of almost constant fighting, the Federals had lost 12,000 killed, wounded or captured while the Confederates suffered almost 4,000 casualties.

In the 152nd, the count was eight killed and five wounded. And Cold Harbor would be the last battle for Gen. Owen.  He was arrested by Maj. Gen. John Gibbon on charges of cowardice and was later discharged from the army.


Brig. Gen. William Mahone
Grant's next target was Petersburg, a busy rail center a few miles south of Richmond that provided a steady flow of troops and supplies to Lee's army. Instead of direct assaults, the Federals first tried to cut the Confederate supply lines.

On June 21, 1864, a Union cavalry force, supported by the Second Corps, attempted to destroy the Weldon Railroad, which linked Petersburg and Richmond to Western Virginia, Tennessee and the Southern states. The Union force reached the railroad and began tearing up the tracks. But the following day, troops led by Brig. Gen. William Mahone counterattacked and forced the Union troops to retreat to positions on the Jerusalem Plank Road.

With Mahone's forces attacking the regiment's left flank, Roback said Major Timothy O'Brien, who was in command of the regiment, tried to get his men to fall back. "But the confusion was so great with the shot and shell and the rebel horde closing around with furious and exultant yells that few heard the order. Every one acted independently and used their own judgment and legs in getting away a few running into the ranks of the enemy amid the blinding smoke and were captured. Our regiment lost 49 men and four officers."

Delevan Bates wrote a similar account in one of his newspaper articles. "I think this was the worst day the regiment ever saw on the battlefield," he said. "The skirmish line under Captain Hensler was captured, and when the rebel line reached the regiment things got awfully mixed. The firing was so rapid and the confusion so great that every man used his own judgment, some going in one direction and some in another."


Andersonville Prison
The fight took a toll on Company G. Foster and William Bunnell, another Otsego recruit, and Capt. Edmund Gilbert were among the men captured by the Confederates. The enlisted men were among hundreds of prisoners sent west from Virginia to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Charles Shaw, who compiled a list of Civil War veterans from Otsego County, lists 10 men from the 152nd Regiment who died at Andersonville, including three from Foster's company: John Rowley, James A. Miller, and Irving Banker.

Capt. Gilbert was sent to North Carolina where he would escape in the spring of 1865 and make his way back to the regiment. Foster and Bunnell weren't so fortunate; they would stay at Andersonville until the war ended. So would J. N. Daniels, a soldier from Company C who was in the prison camp and wrote about greeting the two men when they arrived. "Of course they were promptly adopted by our little colony and faithfully returned what they seemed gladly to receive, sympathy and friendship," Daniels said in a newspaper story published in 1904.  
Nellie Foster
After 10 months in the camp, Foster was released along with other Union soldiers on April 21, 1865, about a week after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. He was mustered out of the army on July 18 and returned to Butternuts to take up farming. In 1868 he married 20-year-old Mary Hutchinson from Painted Post, a satellite community near Corning in New York's Finger Lakes region. Three years later, they gave birth to a daughter they named Nellie.

In 1891, when Nellie was 20, she married 30-year-old Thomas Stanley Harding. Harding's father, Vernon, had come to the United States from England in 1841. He had spent five years as a locksmith's indentured apprentice in Wolverhampton, Stafford County. Vernon Thomas became a citizen in 1847. Nellie and Thomas had six children. One of them was Hamilton Ross Harding, my grandfather.


New York in the War of The Rebellion
By Frederick Phisterer
Weed, Parsons, 1890

The Veteran Volunteers of Herkimer and Otsego Counties in the War of the Rebellion
By Henry Roback
Press of L. C. Childs & son, 1888

Reminiscences By J.N. Daniels of Morris NY
Company C, 152d Regiment NY Volunteer Infantry
Published in the Morris Chronicle 1904

Civil War stories by Gen. Delevan Bates
Published in the Otsego Republican, 1896

Unit History: 152nd Infantry Regiment
New York State Military Museum

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