1863: William Edward Foster to Martha (Williams) Foster

These two letters were written by William Edward Foster (1844-1894), the son of Solomon Foster (1811-1867) and Martha F. Williams (1814-1897) of East Abington, Plymouth county, Massachusetts. William’s father, Solomon, was a currier by trade. He moved his family to East Abington in 1852 where the shoe industry demand for leather employed a great number of residents, including his two oldest sons, Solomon Boardman Foster (1841-1862) and William, the author of these letters.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the patriotic Foster family—the father and his two oldest sons—set their tools aside and took up their rifles, all three stepping forward to sign the muster rolls of Co. G, 12th Massachusetts Infantry. The father served a little over a year before his age and infirmities resulted in his discharge for disability. The eldest son, Solomon B., served with the regiment until the Battle of Second Bull Run where he was mortally wounded. He died on 4 September 1862. And so William was without his father or older brother by his side when he entered the Battle of Gettysburg with his regiment on 1 July 1863 as part of Henry Baxter’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 1st Corps.

“The 12th Massachusetts approached Gettysburg with their brigade in mid morning via the Emmitsburg Road, listening to the growing noise of cannon as they marched. As they reached the Codori Farm, they left the Emmitsburg Road and obliqued northward through farmland towards Seminary Ridge. They came to a halt in front of the Lutheran Seminary about noon. Baxter’s regiments were soon deployed along McPherson’s Ridge to meet the rising tide of Confederates streaming in from the west and north. The 12th Massachusetts took a position in the form of an inverted “V”, refusing their flank along the Mummasburg Road. Other regiments formed up to their southwest and southeast. The 12th Massachusetts formed the salient point. In this position, the 12th Massachusetts could be attacked either from the left or right, but their line being bent back upon itself, they faced both directions prepared to fight. And they were indeed attacked from both sides, first from the right and then, more strongly, from the left. This second attack required the 12th Massachusetts to change front, now facing entirely northwest along McPherson’s Ridge. The second attack was repelled.

“Then occurred one of the most bizarre and terrible episodes of the Battle of Gettysburg. Catching their breath, the 12th Massachusetts hunkered down along a stone wall, fairly well concealed behind the crest of a ridge. The other units of Baxter’s brigade on their right and left did the same. Before long a force of Confederates appeared in their front marching in perfect order as though on parade. They had no skirmishers deployed, meaning there was no screen to prevent their entire line from blundering into the Union position. This was General Alfred Iverson’s brigade of North Carolinians, 1,400 strong, and they apparently had no idea how close the Union lines stood.”  [Header painting by Dale Gallon depicts Alfred Iverson’s North Carolin Brigade advancing into Henry Baxter’s 1st Corps Brigade hidden behind a stone wall on 1 July 1863]

This description of the 12 Massachusetts comes from the scholarly blog by Patrick T. J. Browne and I would refer the reader to the balance of his article at Historical Digression–12th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg.

In the first letter we learn the particulars of William’s wounds and how they were received during the first day’s fight at Gettysburg. In the second letter we learn that he had been transported to Ft. Schuyler in New York where he continued to recuperate from his wounds. In March 1864 he was transferred to the 24th Veteran Reserve Corps but four months later he was discharged for disability. After the war, William married Rachel Abbie Lane (1841-1919) and he resumed his trade as a shoemaker.

[Note: The first letter was posted on the Heritage Auction Site where it was offered for sale without transcription. The second letter is from the personal collection of Jim Doncaster and is published by express consent.]

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Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
July 6th 1863

My own dear Mother,

You have heard ere this of the terrible battle that has been fought in which I took a very active part and came off a little the worse for wear. I will begin from the time we left Emmitsburg [Maryland]—our last place of encampment. We left there July the 1st in the morning and marched to here. We got here—or just outside of the town—about half past ten. We then rested and started for the field of battle. I was detailed in the rear guard to drive up stragglers so when we got to the battlefield the Captain of the rear guard asked the General what he was going to do with the rear guard. The General said you can fight them. We all spoke up them and told him if we fight at all, we will fight with our own regiment. The General then said, “Well go join your regiment double quick,” and away we went.

I got to the regiment just as they had formed in line. We then marched up on top of a little hill in front of which was the enemy. They were not more than a hundred yards from us and they were thick as hops. We commenced firing and such a fire I never desire to hear again. It was one complete roar all the time and the bullets flew as thick as hailstones and in less than fifteen minutes we had Johnny Reb skedaddling like a good one—all that could run, for there was about as many laying on the ground as there was to run.

Christ Lutheran Church was used as a Union Hospital during and after the Battle of Gettysburg

After firing about an hour, we fell back. Just as we began to fall back, I saw one of our boys that was wounded and I took hold of him to help him off. I had got him about a quarter of a mile and sat him down to rest when three balls struck me all at once. One struck me just below the shoulder on the left arm. Another struck me on the belly, and the third went through my left leg but did touch the bone. The first two wounds are nothing but scratches but the one in my leg will be a long time before it is healed so that I can make a long march.

I am now in a Lutheran Church in Gettysburg, Pa. ¹  The people are very kind and do all in their power to help the wounded. But I will draw this to a close as I am getting tired. I am in tip top spirits so do not worry on my account. I shall come out all right in the spring. I have had no chance to send a letter and don’t know how I am going to send this. As soon as I find out how to have a letter directed to me, I will write and let you know. If you write to me, direct to Gettysburg P. O., Adams county, Pennsylvania

From your loving son, — William E. Foster

¹ The Christ Lutheran Church Hospital was located on Chambersburg Street in Gettysburg. It was designated the hospital for the 1st Corps, 2nd Division. The basement, auditory, chancel, choir, front yard and back yard were soon crowded with the wounded. Horatio Stockton Howell, Presbyterian chaplain of the 90th Pennsylvania, who wore a uniform, was killed here by a Confederate skirmisher. On another occasion, Assistant Surgeon Edgar Parker, 13th Massachusetts, was slightly wounded as he was descending the front steps.


Fort Schuyler, New York
September 4th [1863]

Darling Mother,

I have just received one of your kind letters and as I could find nothing better to do so I will answer it. Rather short your letter was, I think, but never mind. One word in your letter is worth ten of anyones else so you know how much I prize one of your letters but I like to have them long for all that. Perhaps you think too much of a good thing will make me sick. So it would if it was good grub, but I have not seen much of that since I left Gettysburg.

By the way, that makes me think that I have had quite a number of ladies in to see me. This week there was one woman from Pittsfield, Mass. She was looking for some of the Mass. boys when she saw my card (we all have cards at the head of our beds with our name age, regiment, state, and the nature of our wound). As I was saying, she saw my card and stopped and I had quite a long talk with her. She was a very nice lady. Her name was Carpenter. She gave me a nice linen handkerchief and yesterday she came in and bid me goodbye and hoped I would get well soon.

Besides her, there was three other ladies came in yesterday and one of them I was glad enough to see. It was Mrs. Eales—the lady that took such kind care of me at Gettysburg. I believe I mentioned here in my letters from there. She has been there ever since doing more good than fifty doctors, that’s so. The day after I left Gettysburg she went home and the next day she said she was flooded with letters from the hospital begging her to come back. They said if she did not, they should all day. She said she took compassion on them and went back and has been there ever since till she was called to New York by her sister being very sick. She gave me a lot of tobacco and said she should come again and see me before she went back. I tell you, she is just as nice a woman as rides in the cars. The other women were relatives of hers.

I got a letter from Horace yesterday and he says he shall come and see me just as soon as he can get away. He is well and likes [soldiering] first rate. He says he has not been homesick since he. has been there but I will draw this to a close. I don’t know as you can read it for when I got your letter, it was just five minutes past twelve and I have read your letter, eaten my dinner, and written this, and it is now just twenty minutes of one. What do you think of that for quick writing? Please write again soon to your ever loving son, — W. E. Foster

P. S. I am well acquainted with Charley Adams that Clarinda spoke about.


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