The following is an essay written by Mr. Stephen C. Sisson. Mr. Sisson is the ancestor of Private Foster Sisson who served in the 21st Michigan. This essay is based on letters Private Sisson wrote to his wife during the war.


U.S. Army
Michigan 21st Infantry, I Company
Foster S. Sisson
Enlisted September 1864-
April 1865

Compiled By Stephen Sisson
12/03


“The Blow at Last Fallen. War! War! War! The confederate Batteries Open Fire on Sumter Yesterday Morning.” -Detroit Free Press, April 13, 1861

This blazing headline, and the Battle of which it spoke, must have seemed a distant reality to many in the sleepy towns of Southwest Michigan. Even so, Lincoln’s call for loyal American men to stop an insurrection of forces “too powerful to be suppressed by ordinary course of judicial proceedings” was answered by many in this area. Indeed, by the end of the war, “…more Michigan men had donned the blue than Lincoln had called for in his April proclamation (of 75,000 militia). Besides raising a total of forty-five regiments, …Michigan contributed soldiers to over fifty other military units and sent nearly six hundred men to serve the Union Navy.”(Williams,1, parenthesis added) Many of these loyal soldiers’ names, stories, tribulations and triumphs have unfortunately been swallowed up by the ensuing years, and will never be known by those who owe them a debt of gratitude. Thankfully, this is not the case for all. Some soldiers, out of great concern for their loved ones, took the time to relay their daily activities, thoughts, and emotions in letters to their friends and families back home. It is doubtful if any of these brave men had any idea, nor any concern for how many generations their words would touch. One of these loyal Americans, I am proud to say, is my ancestor, Foster Sisson. Through his voluntary enrollment in the Michigan 21st infantry, Foster demonstrated his love for his country. And through his letters to his wife, Sarah, and their children, Hudson (“Hud(d)y” -age 10) , Lewis (“Lewy” -age 7), and Clara (“Clarry” -age 3), he showed his intense love and concern for the welfare of his family, even in the midst of his own sufferings.

Foster S. Sisson was a simple farmer from Hastings, Michigan, when on September 6, 1864 he heeded the call from his president, Abraham Lincoln, as a volunteer in the Union Army. It had been nearly three and a half years since formal hostilities had begun in the American Civil War at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April of 1861 (Brinkley, 404). Foster was mustered to Camp Draft, in Jackson, Michigan, where he stayed for a period of about ten days, and wrote four letters to his wife Sarah, and his children. Though these letters are of little historical/military significance, they provide invaluable insight into the daily life of a common Union Soldier, as well as the ideals and values of the man whom we are attempting to better understand.

  Note: For the first several weeks of Michigan 21st I company troop movements, there are few resources outside of his letters that tell of their location or their actions. They were not yet joined with the rest of regiment, nor were they involved in any recorded skirmishes until after they had joined it in mid-October.  

In his first letter, dated September 16, 1864, Foster writes of common events in the barracks, including in-fighting among the soldiers; “Sometimes there is plenty of fighting agoing on here Some of them gets there heads cructd every knight…”(Sisson, 1), thievery; “While we was gone to dinner old powers the blacksmith at hastings got caught Stealing in our quarters So they put him in the guard house”(1), the expected departure of his brother Henry to the south; “W H Sisson goes south today,”(1) and false rumors of Union victories -“I have just heard that grant occupies petersburg how that is I don’t know but hope it is true”(1). He also asks his wife to write often, keep him posted on the conditions of the farm, and implores Sarah to “Tell the children that I have a plate like little Clarrys to eat from…” undoubtedly as a means of helping the children remember him while he is away.

In his second letter, dated September 18, Foster writes of the weather, the possible desertion of one of his fellow volunteers; “Sam has not got back yet probably he has skedadled…”(Sisson, 2), daily life “There is everything a going on here Some a singing Some a raiseing the devel there is a prair meeting in the other room now… a lot of fiddling and dancing…”(2) and his first hints of home sickness –“I should like to eat dinner with you today butter and potatoes would taste good …we have had no letters from none of you yet,” and his concern for Sarah having too much work while he is gone “I am afraid you will work too hard do not work to hard let the work go first –if we stay here I shall try to get a furlow and come home as soon as I can.” Again, he asks his wife to “write as soon as you get this…” and asks that “Lewy and little Clary make some marks in the letters.”(2)

His third letter, dated the 21st and 22nd September 1864, concerns more of the same daily life as his first two letters, excepting that Foster tells Sarah that he had received one-third of the one-hundred dollar bounty paid volunteer soldiers, and says that he will send her twenty dollars as soon as he finds a safe route to send it.
Foster’s fourth and final letter from Camp Blair (September 30) is especially touching. As of this letter he is truly heartbroken, realizing that he will not be able to see his family before he leaves for battle. He writes “I Should like to see you all before I go but Shall have to give that up …it is hard to go without seeing you and the children once more but it must be so Do not forget me like Some do their husbands because I am gone from you… I Shall do my best to come home as Soon as my time is out Do not let the children forget me Don’t let little Clarry forget where I be I am afraid she will forget all about me before I get back take good care of her How I would like to See her and all the rest of you but it is of no use to think of it… I wish I could have a letter from you to read today I 11/18/2008 19:52 t got no letter…” Later that day, he finally received a letter from Sarah, and his words take a noticeably brighter tone than in his previous writings “…got a letter from you I was twice glad to hear from you, I am glad that you are getting along so well am glad to hear that george is so good to help you tell him that I will write him a good letter as soon as I get time…” In closing he says simply, “Tell all to write I must go on parade they have called me out.”

“I” Companies’ first movement was by rail on Monday, September 26, from Jackson Michigan to Nashville, TN. The regiment stopped in Louisville, KY for one day, and Foster relates in his letter from Nashville, “we stopped at louisville one day I had a chance to look around a little the place is an awful nasty city …the women are dirty and black as a crow they don’t but a few of them wear any hoops nor much of anything else but rags they are a hard looking set the most of them are peddling something apples or tobacco cakes or pies or some thing else they are a great many of them bare footed and are as humbly as the devel”. But Foster had also seen the mountains of Kentucky and the beautiful Cumberland Valley, where he wrote again to Sarah, “it (is) six hundred miles from you and the children but I have not forgot you yet neither do I think I shall either I should like to see you all but I don’t expect to at present but live in hopes that I shall some time …If I don’t get so dirty and lousy by the time I get home that you will perhaps hate me I shall be glad I have not had my clothes off since I left home …I should be glad to write letters to you all of the time but I have such a hard place to write I sit on the floor and lay my paper on my napsack and I am setting so humped up but I will finish the sheet…” (Sisson, 5)

Between October 12, and October 29, 1864, Foster wrote five more letters to Sarah and his children in Hastings. He wrote mainly of the days events, of his concern for his family in his absence, and inquired the reason for the lack of correspondence from Sarah. Even so, he writes, “I want you to have things good and comfortable,”(6) “…write whether you get the house fixed or not and whether you have a chimney built or not and whether you have got a new stove or not if you have not, I wish you would get one and a good one that suits you get the boys some boots dress yourselves warm and good send the boys to school when it is fit for them to go but don’t let them freeze take good care of little Clarry as well as the rest don’t let her forget that she has a paw …I don’t get many letters from you and I cant tell why it is”(6) “…don’t let little Clarry forget me…”(4,7,12,16)
His letter dated November 7, from Kingston, GA, has a decidedly more melancholy tone than in his previous writings. After marching from Chattanooga, TN to Kingston, GA, he writes, “I am sick and tired of seeing them (battlefields) all the way from Chattanooga to here is a perfect battle field every little distance the trees and fences and buildings are all shot to pieces and a great many cannon balls and everything else a laying by the side of the road I am perfectly confused with the site…” In this letter Foster again relays his longing to see his family “I and dave jordan has been and got some water and got our diner but it was not you that cooked it nor you and the dear children that I eat it with…” (10-2) and mentions that at times he eats well, yet at other times goes hungry (a statement which he later recants in his December 18 letter, for the effect that it has on his wife and children.)

The relative frequency of Foster’s letters abate at this point, as he was less than one week from significant troop movements, including Sherman’s March to the Sea. He had yet to see any fighting, but his regiment had moved from Chattanooga, TN, to Dalton, Georgia, where they would soon receive orders to march to Kingston and join the 14th army corps.

  …on arriving there (the 21st) was assigned to the 2nd brigade, 1st division, when it started for Atlanta, and on the march assisted in tearing up the railroad track and verything in its rear, reaching that point on the 15th, and on the following day after the destruction of that place (Atlanta), moved with General Sherman’s army toward Milledgeville. …During the 25 days occupied on the march from Atlanta, only two and a half days rations had been issued to the regiment, it being mainly supplied with the subsistence procured by foraging on the inhabitants of the country which it passed. (Robertson, 418)  

In The Personal Memoirs of WT Sherman, Sherman himself writes:

  On the 10th of November the movement may be said to have Fairly begun. All the troops designed for the campaign were ordered to march for Atlanta …As we rode on toward Atlanta that night, I remember the railroad-trains going to the rear with furious speed; the engineers and the few men about the trains waving us an affectionate adieu. …I was strongly inspired with the feeling that the movement on our part was a direct attack upon the rebel army and the rebel capital at Richmond, though a full thousand miles of hostile country intervened, and that, for better or for worse, it would end the war.” (Sherman, Vol II, 169-170)  

On the 22nd of November, Fosters company reached Milledgeville, then turned towards Savannah, “…and arrived at the works in front of that place on the 10th of December, …on the south side of the canal, being the most exposed position on the whole line. There the men being obliged to lay in trenches, without tents and lightly clad, few of them having blankets, suffered extremely from the cold, and also from hunger, as their rations were short. The regiment continued in that position until the 18th, when it moved back north of the canal, and remained there until the evacuation of Savannah on the 21st…”(Robertson, 418)

On December 18th, Foster wrote to Sarah with his most descriptive account of the fighting, yet he spared his family the details of the grievous difficulties of the previous few weeks. He writes:

  Dear wife and Children I received seven letters from you Yesterday they found me as well as usual and on pickets in my hole Within shooting distance of the rebel fort the reb pickets are within 20 rods of us they shoot it us every time we show our heads and we do the same for them one of our men said he made two of them hollow oh yesterday …the other day when we was on picket one of our boys was shot near me his name was whitney he was careless got out of his picket hole the balls whistle over my head while I am writing but I don’t fear them as much as I do the shells they send at us …I cannot give you much of an idea bout things here because I don’t know my self what is a going on but sherman does I think I was glad to get so many letters from you and was glad to hear that you was all well and was glad to get all your likenesses (photographs) they look so sweet but I could not talk to them nor play with them consequently the tears fall from my eyes when I look at them …the time will come when I can see you if I live I feel as though I should see you again if i did not think so I should be dead before this time it would be no object to live if there was no prospect of seeing you all again but I take as good care of myself as I can possibly my health is good as ever …I am very healthy now it is a mistake about me being sick at any time since I left home Some days I have not felt as well as others but I have never been sick I have the best health of the whole of the boys I always have been able to do my duty every day …it makes me feel so bad to hear that you are so sorry for me …I have so much feeling for you now that I take no comfort I know that you do have a great deal of feeling for me …tell the children not to cry when you read my Letters if they can help it for that makes me feel so bad too Oh how I wish I could see them now …continue to be good and love pa and ma and go to school and try to learn …be good children and wait with patience…(Sisson, 11)  

In another letter dated December, 1864, Foster writes of “…the long march We marched 400 miles in 4 weeks …we had a pretty good time on the march we took everything that we could eat and burnt the rest houses fences any amount of cotton and everything else was burned to the ground …we expect to gobble all there is here in a few days old sherman is a figureing after them every day …we can hollow to the rebs so that they can hear what we say they can do the same by us so we sauce each other every day.(12)
On January 15, 1865, Foster writes an interesting story about how they procured their morning meal “…We had a mess of potatoes this morning the first that I have had since I left home I will tell you how we got them we was down in (?) to work on the fortifications at the time we started for camp an old fellow came along with some in a wagon and one barrel of them fell out of the wagon and the boys run and picked them up as fast as they could the old fellow hollered all sorts but he soon found the best thing he could do was to get away with the rest of his load” He closed this letter, as always, with the affectionate “…So good by ma and good by hudy good by lewy and good by little Clarry”(13)

Two more letters home were written between January 18, February the 15th. They re-iterate his concern for the well being of his family, his disappointment in not receiving correspondence, and tell of the presents that he will bring his children upon his return. “…I will write a little to the children I should be glad to see you all but I cannot yet I hope I shall one of these (days) and then I will play and talk with you and tell you some good storys I did not get any presents for you for I could not find anything nice or pretty here for you but I will try to find some things one of these days hudy and lewy must be good boys and go to school and mind ma and help do the chores and write some letters to paw and little Clarry must be a good girl and play with her kitten and her horse and wagon and remember pa and when I come home I will fetch you some nice things to play with So no more for this time…” (14)

By March 14th, the date of Foster’s last letter, the tide of the American Civil War had long since shifted in favor of the Union. As the men continued their long march toward Raleigh, there were fewer and fewer Confederate forces to stand between Foster and his hopes of returning to Sarah and the children. After the battle at Fayetteville, N.C. on March 11, he penned one of his most memorable and honorable experiences. The context of this story is especially important, as Foster and his battalion had been marching for many weeks, hundreds of miles through snake-infested swamps and treacherous mountains, with just enough rations for a few days. “…Near Fayetteville, North Carolina …Now while I am here I will write a few lines to the children One day while I was eating my dinner two little boys about as large as hudy and lewy came up to me the smallest one looked very wishfull at me and then I thought of my children at home so I asked him if he was hungry he said that he was he said that the soldiers had taken everything that his maw had he said that his paw was in the army and that his ma had seven little children and nothing for them to eat I had but three hard tack hardly enough for my dinner but I gave each of them one and eat the other myself I felt better than I would if I had eat the whole myself for I thought if my children was hungry how bad I should feel and I knew that the most of the soldiers had no mercy even on little children…” Again, he closed his letter with “…write often take good care of the children don’t let little Clarry forget me tell all to write hudy and lewy must be good children and write some in the letters and mind ma and when I send the trinkets that I have got there will be a present to all of you So write soon So good by ma good by hudy good by lewy and good by little Clarry (16)
F.S. Sisson

On March 18, Fosters division, in the left wing of Sherman’s army under General Henry Warner Slocum, had become separated from Sherman’s right wing. “Slocum’s column halted late in the day near the village of Bentonville, and went into camp. On its roads to the east, Howard’s wing was six to twelve miles distant. For all his resolve to keep the moving army concentrated, Sherman had allowed it to straggle apart.” Confederate General Joseph Johnston took advantage of this division of forces and ordered a major concentration of Rebel troops right in the path of Slocum’s wing. “He approved, sight unseen, a spot two miles south of Bentonville …as an ideal site to assemble the troops for a surprise confrontation. He then called together his three corps.” (Davis, 232)

  Reveille sounded at 4:00 am in the camp of Carlin’s division (General Carlin was to lead Slocum’s wing on the days’ march). The night had been mild, and rather than pitch their tents, the men had spread out their bedrolls and slept under the stars …these soldiers knew that they were just two days march from Goldsboro, where they would receive mail from home and new clothing and shoes. All signs indicated that the Rebels had fallen back toward Raleigh. Victory must have seemed no more than an arms length away to these weary veterans of the XIV Corps. Yet many of them would face their sternest test of the war on this March Sunday, and some of them would not survive it. (Bradley, 153)

General Carlin …rose before his usual hour and put on a new uniform so that he could be properly identified in case of his capture or death. Positive that the day would bring battle, Carlin sent wagons and mules the rear and marched forward at 7 a.m. Rebel skirmishers halted his troops at the edge of their camp, and the bluecoat veterans sent back an ominous report: “They don’t drive worth a damn.” (Davis, 233)
 

What ensued in the early afternoon of March 19 was a routing of Federal forces, and later a fierce battle for ground between the Blue and the Grey. As Confederate Colonel McClure, who had seen Sherman’s army on many occasions said, “Seldom have I seen such continuous and remorseless roll of musketry. It seemed more than men could bear …Soldiers in the command who have passed through scores of battles …never saw anything like the fighting at Bentonville.” (Davis, 237)

It was here at the Battle of Bentonville that Private Foster Sisson received a mortal wound to his head. Ten days later, on April 1, 1865, he succumbed to his wound and died We read in a letter from Foster’s Brother in Law Alfred E. Fowler to Foster’s wife Sarah, “…after Foster was wounded Augustus (Foster’s brother) helpt him off the battle field the rebs was driving us at the time he had his knapsack on all of his things he had to leeve it on the ground and the rebs got it …Sarah bee of good cheer Foster dide in a good cause alltho its hard to part with a friend” (A.E. Fowler, 2)

One almost wishes for the ability to return, recover and re-write this script, to provide the happy ending that so many of us hope for. We can almost imagine the homecoming celebration, the tears of joy and the long missed embraces. But this is no work of fiction, and we can only know from Fosters’ great affection for his family, that the tears that his family shed were of great sorrow, for the loss of their dearly loved father and husband.
I do not mean to over dramatize this event, nor make it seem as though Fosters’ death is unique.

It is not. Foster is but one loyal American who gave his life in the service of his country, and the tears shed by his family and friends upon learning of his wounding and death have been shared by over a million families throughout American history. Although each time it is a great tragedy, we must also remember with pride that these great citizen soldiers have not died in vain and the flag, for which they sacrificed all, still flies in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

…Some of these soldiers, out of great concern for their loved ones back home, took the time to relay their daily activities, thoughts, and emotions in letters to their friends and families. It is doubtful if any of these brave men had any idea, nor any concern for how many generations their words would touch.

 

“…tell the children not to cry when you read my Letters if they can help it for that makes me feel so bad Oh how I wish I could see them now …continue to be good and love pa and ma and go to school and try to learn …be good children and wait with patience…

So good by ma good by hudy good by lewy and good by little Clarry
…don’t let little Clarry forget me…”

 

Foster S. Sisson


Bibliography


Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation; A Concise History of the American People, Vol I. McGraw Hill, 2000.

Davis, Burke. Shermans March. Random House, New York. 1980.

Fowler, Alfred E. Letters home. As yet unpublished.

Robertson, JNO (compiled by) Michigan in the War, Revised Edition. W.S. George and Co. 1882.

Sherman, Gen’l W.T. Memoirs of W.T. Sherman. Charles Webster and Co., New york. 1891.

Sisson, Foster S. Letters home. As yet unpublished.

Williams, Frederick D. Michigan soldiers in the Civil War. Michigan Historical Commission, 1960.

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