Commemorating Another Historical Anniversary That Led to A New Birth of Freedom
This is the weekend we celebrate our nation's birth, and while the official holiday – as everyone knows – is the Fourth of July, many historians think the fireworks would be more appropriate for July 2.
That is, after all, the day the Continental Congress actually voted for independence.
As John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:
"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
This day is historically significant, also, for what happened four score and seven years later in and around a small, crossroads market town in Adams County.
July 2, 1863, was the second of three days of horrific combat between Gen. Robert E. Lee's invading Army of Northern Virginia and newly appointed commanding Gen. George Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac. The Battle of Gettysburg helped turn the tide of the great American tragedy known as the Civil War in favor of the Union.
History books – what passes for "history" in the condensed, Reader's Digest version we are taught and our limited attention span demands – record the deeds of generals and presidents: "great" men and women whose outsized personalities dominated their age and ours.
But as I wrote in a Memorial Day column, "Remembering Those Who Have Gone Before," real history – along with its gender-sensitive counterpoint, "herstory" – includes the humble, the ordinary, the perhaps "not-so-great," whose lives shaped ours, as well.
So we read and hear of Daniel Sickles, the political general from New York, whose colossal blunder led to near disaster for the country on this day 148 years ago when he moved his corps against orders from its place in line – along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top – forward to slightly elevated ground along Emmitsburg Road, covering the now-famous Peach Orchard.
Sickles' mistake also led directly to the death of hundreds upon hundreds of men who served under him or under others who were thrown into the human maelstrom to rescue his corps and salvage the untenable battlefield position.
One was Robert McKay Forster, of Farm School, Pennsylvania.
A year earlier, Forster, 33 had been, in the words of local historian Douglas Macneal, "a solid farmer of Harris Township." Macneal – writing in "The Centre County Regiment: Story of the 148th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers," published by the Centre County Historical Society – reported that Forster also operated a small store and was the first postmaster at Farm School, the hamlet that later became State College (although other sources credit Bernard McClain with that distinction).
Forster, who was one of several Centre County residents issued commissions to recruit volunteers to serve in the Union Army, was named captain in Company C of the new 148th Pennsylvania Regiment.
"Captain Forster was a man in middle life who left a family of a wife and three boys at home, was an intelligent, progressive farmer and merchant and occupied a leading position in his community," the 148th's adjutant, Joseph W. Muffly, wrote in the official regimental history. "He was a mature man, with strong convictions and entered the service because of them. He was, therefore, much relied upon in the Regiment, took a serious view of his responsibility as a company commander and could always be counted for faithful, efficient and intelligent service."
Historian John Blair Linn, relying on the memorial speech of a contemporary, wrote about Forster: "As a disciplinarian he had no superior in the regiment, and took great pride in always having his company in good condition for duty."
And that was no easy task. As Forster wrote to his sister – reprinted in Muffly and Macneal's accounts – on June 23, 1863, while both armies were plodding toward their climactic meeting at Gettysburg:
"We marched some days as much as 20 miles and for the first four days of our march I have never felt the heat so much in my life. The dust in the road was many times shoe-mouth deep. The soldiers gave out by hundreds and it was nothing uncommon to see men drop down as if dead from sunstroke, and in some cases they never recovered. I had command of the Regiment for three days in the start, which gave me a horse to ride, which was a great improvement over walking. Our mess chests have been taken from us and, consequently, we can take nothing with us but what we carry on our backs."
In what is believed to be Forster's final letter, written to his wife on June 28, 1863, he reported: "We have reached a country where we can get plenty to eat. There are fine farms here. The wheat is nearly ripe; in fact, I have seen wheat in shock in the valley and a fine crop it is. I am well and in great spirits."
He would die four days later in another wheat field – The Wheatfield – on the George Rose farm south of Gettysburg.
Private Lemuel Osman, 17, also of Harris Township near Farm School, was with his captain as they marched northward.
"We approached the battlefield that evening [July 1] and lay down for the night," Osman wrote later for Muffly's history. "Captain Forster and I slept together. I can see him on his knees praying that God would be with him and the rest of us. I fell asleep, listening to his prayer. The next morning I asked him what we would have for breakfast and he said, 'Bring my haversack and we will see what I have.' He found some meat and soft bread and told me to bring water and he would make the fire. ... I brought the water. We cooked breakfast and ate heartily. I never dreamed that that would be my last meal with the Captain."
"After breakfast we were ordered to fall in and march out in front, forming in line of battle. The rebs got our range with their artillery and we changed our position and lay down. Some of us were very tired and sleepy. The rebs still kept firing a shot now and then. My uncle, George Osman [also from "Farm School"], who was no doubt asleep, was hit by a spent shell, which struck him on the cartridge box. It was a terrible shock, from which he did not recover. He was the first man killed at that place.
"Our next move was to the wheat field, where in front of us was a stone fence behind which the enemy were gathered thick. Their guns were raised on the fence. The barrels glittered like a looking glass. All at once their line broke, the left of our line having given them a cross fire. They couldn't stand it, and Captain Forster says, 'They are falling back, boys! Forward!' The barrel of my gun had gotten hot and dry, and I couldn't force a ball down. I stepped back and told Captain Forster, who told me to throw it down and hunt another. I threw it down, ran along the line, and got one in Co. I.
"When I came back, the Captain was dead. Blood was running down his cheek. I picked up his cap and laid it on his head, but did not think of getting what was in his pockets. Sgt. John Benner, the color bearer, brought off his sword and belt, and the next winter when on furlough took them home to his sister. I afterwards saw the sword and recognized it by some peculiar marks, having often cleaned it for the Captain."
Robert H. Forster, a relative who served as a captain in another company in the 148th Regiment, wrote to Robert McKay Forster's brother-in-law, Mark Halfpenny, on July 6. A portion of that letter is reprinted in Muffly's history of the 148th.
"It is with feelings of the most profound sorrow that I take this, the very first spare moment, to give you the sad intelligence of the death of your brother-in-law, Capt. Robert M. Forster, who fell while gallantly leading his company into the action of Thursday evening near Gettysburg, pierced through the head with a musket ball. His death was, of course, instantaneous. His body was brought from the field and now lies buried on the farm of Mr. Jacob Himmelbach, about one mile from Gettysburg, and is marked. I visited the spot myself, in order that I might be able to render you any assistance in my power to recovering it at some future time. You will, of course, convey this sad and heartrending news to his mother.
"I will not attempt to offer any vain words of consolation of my own to hearts that I know will be almost over-powered with grief and sorrow at the receipt of the sad intelligence this letter bears. I can only add that we all feel that the Regiment has lost one of its bravest and most efficient officers, while, for myself personally, I am fully conscious that as a valued friend and camp companion his place will never be filled."