Friday, July 10, 2020

Soldier Profile: Private Foster Sellers, part 2: Military Life

My most recent post explored Foster Sellers’ civilian life, but what had first brought him to my attention and sparked my interest in his story was his service in the Civil War, which is, of course, the main reason he’s a topic for this website.

In October of 1861,at the age of 24, Foster enlisted in Company H of the 15th Kentucky Infantry . Records on state he enlisted at either Camp Webster or Jamestown, Kentucky on October 19 or 21, though I cannot find any reference to Camp Webster other than on the service records of Sellers and other men I’m researching in this unit., on the other hand, provides information from the Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky showing that Foster enlisted on October 2 at Camp Pope, the same camp mentioned in a book I had recently read, The Battle Rages Higher

At the time of his enlistment, Foster was 5 feet, 7 3/4 inches tall and had a light complexion, light hair and blue eyes. He joined for a standard 3-year term. Bracken County was his birthplace and farmer his occupation.

He officially mustered into the army on December 14, 1861 at New Haven, again matching what the book reported.

The first few muster roll cards in his Fold3 file listed him as present with the regiment, which in its early days in service found itself visiting several places as the National Park Service (NPS)
shows that the regiment organized at New Haven, Ky., went to Bowling Green Ky., then moved to Tennessee, where the regiment headed towards Murfreesboro and Nashville, before arriving in northern Alabama. (The link includes more details.) The men then took part in the Union army’s pursuit of Braxton Bragg’s Confederates in Kentucky, ending with a fierce fight at Perryville, the largest battle of the war in the unit's home state.

The Battle Rages Higher describes their fight near the Bottom House at Perryville, including this brief section which mentions Forest’s captain, Joshua Prather. (page 72)
The Fifteenth formed two lines across the top of the hill, feeling the full force of a storm of bullets whizzing past them, and delivered their first volley into the Confederate lines. A horse near the center of the Fifteenth’s line screamed, barely audible over the controlled chaos of the fight...Major Campbell was directly behind Company H, shouting orders left and right when he fell from his saddle. A ball had passed through Campbell’s right arm and lodged in his side. Major Campbell was carried off the field by Capt. Joshua Prather of Company H and Capt. James Allen of Company I.
Something different - and totally unexpected to me - then appeared in Foster’s file, on forms such as a “detachment roll.” These papers listed him as “absent, detached on Pioneer Corps” for August 31, 1862 through February of 1863.

(This new unit did not exist until early November 1862, so the paperwork was probably inexact, trying to cover five months on one form, meaning it is likely that Foster was with the 15th Kentucky until at least early November, including at Perryville. Additionally, an “appears on returns” form for the 15th Kentucky in the file is very faded but seems to show that Foster served as company cook in November then “absent, on detachment” for December.)

When I saw the reference to the Pioneer Corps, I figured it was a small selection of men detached from the regiment to improve roads and build bridges for the army, but, though those were among the unit’s duties, the Pioneer Corps was a bigger, more specifically organized group than I had realized, as it was special unit of the Army of the Cumberland. Foster was in Company A of the 1st Battalion of this group.

I found two sources that describe the Pioneer Corps. The first source, is a good read, including this excerpt about how and why the unit came into being:
In the western theater these problems were especially obvious. There the army’s supply lines often stretched hundreds of miles and the challenging terrain only served to exacerbate the problems. But in the fall of 1862, Maj.Gen.William S. Rosecrans took command of the Army of the Cumberland.He was well versed in military engineering and not only served in the Corps of Engineers after graduation from West Point, but returned to the Academy in 1843 to spend two years teaching engineering. With a solid engineering foundation, Rosecrans envisioned a solution to the problems facing his army. There were not enough engineering officers or enlisted soldiers in the regular army to solve the problem. The solution would have to come from the troops he already had at hand. He imagined a larger and more systematic approach. So, on November 3, 1862, he issued General Orders No. 3.
(The general orders gave the specifics of the brigade’s organization. Please read the rest at the above link.)

It provides general overview of the unit’s duties:
George W. Morris of the 81st Indiana describes his observations on General Oder No. 3: “In the latter part of 1862 while the army lay at Edgefield, Tennessee, there was an order issued by General Rosecrans to form what was called the Pioneer Corps...Their work was to build bridges, railroads, cut roads through the cedars for the ambulances, and everything else that the army had to do. A number of times they were fighting like the balance of the army.“
While Foster was in this brigade, the  men of the 15th remained in Kentucky and Tennessee, with stops including Bacon Creek and near Munfordsville, Ky, before advancing to Murfreesboro, Tn., where they were in another of the western theater’s most famous contests, the Battle of Stone’s River. They remained near Murfreesboro until June 1863.

A blog entry from Craig Swain at provides more details. This post is not as long as the previous story, but still adds good perspective about this unit, including description of some of the work these men did at Stones River.

Foster’s paperwork shows he did not remain with the pioneers very long, indicating that he was “ordered back to regiment” by special field order number 67 on March 11, 1863 while at Murfreesboro. No reason is given for this order, though the first link reports:
But for all their success, the Pioneer Brigade had its problems. Because of their detached status, soldiers were often still in their original unit rosters. This created complications with pay and equipment issues. In contrast to their laudable work in the field, the brigade created a reputation that was less than positive. Shaman writes, “While the Pioneers performed well enough when concentrated for engineer work under Morton’s watchful eye, they did particularly badly when scattered on pioneer duty with the army.
Few details about his time immediately after he left the Pioneer Corps are available, but records show he had a new assignment by November and December of 1863 - part of the regiment’s provost guard.

According to the American Battlefields Trust, Veteran or disabled soldiers frequently served as a "provost guard" that would enforce discipline in the armies.

When Foster rejoined the 15th Kentucky, it was of course in the same area as the pioneers, but became busier over the next few months. Some of their movements included being part of the Tullahoma Campaign, along with the Battle of Chickamauga, another tough, bloody battle. They also joined in the campaign leading to and through the Siege of Chattanooga; these men were in reserve during the Battle of Missionary Ridge, as they served as the Chattanooga garrison force, processing prisoners and deserters  as two of their duties, as well as acting as city police force. This assignment - courtesy of their former commander Lovell Rousseau, according to the book - was less dangerous than marching and fighting. The 15th Kentucky remained in Chattanooga until April 1864.

As the new year began, Foster apparently did not ring it in happily, as a card for January and February 1864 lists him as “sick in quarters,” though without further detail.

Some of his 1864 paperwork is missing, but his regiment remained busy during this year. Some of the regiment’s service in this crucial year included serving in reserve at Chattanooga, then participating in the battles of William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, including the “Siege of Atlanta” from July 23 through August 25 and operations against John Bell Hood's Confederates.

During the Siege of Atlanta, Foster became a casualty of war. One document reports him as absent, wounded near Atlanta, Ga, Aug 7, 1864, in Hospital, Chattanooga, Tn., while a “hospital muster roll of No. 2 U.S.A. General Hospital Nashville, TN” reports that in July and August 1864, he was attached to the hospital as a patient, remarking pay is due me for the mos. of July & Aug.

His injury happened at the Battle of Utoy Creek. That link includes these words that provide an interesting example of perspective on a battle: 

Even the Fourteenth Corps...finally got into action, incurring nearly 200 casualties in sallies against the Rebel works. (Major General William T.) Sherman termed the whole day's proceeding "a noisy but not a bloody battle.")

I added the emphasis as I wonder if those 200 men, including Foster Sellers, agreed with Sherman’s description.

The Battle Rages Higher also briefly mentions this fight. Here is part of that description: 
As the remainder of Carlin’s brigade came up to entrench along the pits, the lead storm from the Confederate works a few hundred yards away - both musket fire and artillery, shell and canister - continued unabated. The men held on through the rest of the day under what Lt. Col. William Halpin called “trying circumstances,” with six men from the Fifteenth Kentucky wounded during the long afternoon as the men stayed low and waited for nightfall. (page 236)

The Battle of Utoy Creek by Marc Stewart
Find it on his website

Here is an informative blog post about the battle, including information about the above painting and its artist.

All of this was during one of the smaller battles this unit, including Foster Sellers, fought, but questions remain about the exact nature of his injury. One form says G.S.W. back, indicating a gunshot wound in his back. A hospital form, not the easiest to read, appears to indicate a gunshot wound in his back and left knee joint at Atlanta on August 7, due to a conical ball.

Per one document, he returned to duty October 3, 1864, which seems to be a quick comeback. It also contradicts other paperwork, but maybe he tried to rejoin the regiment only to find out he physically could not yet handle it. This form was stamped Jeffersonville General Hospital and indicated that he resided in Kenton County and that his nearest relative was his sister Martha Sellers, who lived in Covington.

A casualty sheet in his file states wounded, rt. leg fractured though other writing on the form is difficult to read.

A pension card - again the writing is not perfectly clear and is partially scratched out - appears to mention a gun shot wound in the back and perhaps gun shot wound of left thigh and “dis” (disease?) of eyes.

The Campbell County Genweb site that is such a great local genealogy tool includes a transcription of 1883 pensioners information which mentioned he had a wound in back.

I suppose this is another case for which I should try to acquire a copy of any pension paperwork the National Archives has for him to see if it provides resolution to this uncertainty, but my bigger question is how he suffered the apparent back injury. Soldiers during the Civil War did not want to be seen as cowards or as running away from battle, and one book I read years ago told of a soldier requesting comrades that, if he died, to tell his family he died "with my face to the enemy," not running from the opponent. Did Forest turn his back to escape the Confederates, or did they just move to an angle where that shot was possible? Or did a bullet come through his leg and then his back? Does that really matter now? Surely no current citizen can question his bravery even with a back injury.

Other forms in his file also mentioned his injury and the follow-ups it required. A muster roll form for September and October reports his wound again, but this time he was “in hospital, Jeffersonville, Ind.,” which was Jeffersonville General Hospital.

He was apparently a pawn in a game of musical hospitals, as he is marked present on a November and December 1864 hospital muster roll for the Seminary General Hospital in Covington, Ky.

Covington is now the largest city in Northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, so I searched for more information about this hospital. I knew some buildings in Covington had been used as hospitals or prisons during the war, but I found some specific information that was new to me.

The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky describes the Seminary Hospital, one of five Civil War hospitals in the city:

The second in size in Covington was the 218-bed Seminary U.S. General Hospital, on 11th St. near Madison Ave., in a building once part of the Western Baptist Theological Institute; it began in September 1862 and closed in late April 1865. In 1867 that site became St. Elizabeth Medical Center.
St. Elizabeth, aka “St. E’s,” retains a major medical presence in the region.
According to the website of the Kenton County Public Library:
There were three buildings that constituted the Western Baptist Theological Institute. The largest structure was the classroom and dormitory building...The cornerstone of the building was set into place on August 3, 1840.

During the Civil War, the hospital was utilized as a convalescent hospital for wounded Union soldiers. In 1867, the building was purchased by the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis. The sisters relocated their St. Elizabeth Hospital to the site. St. Elizabeth Hospital occupied the building until 1914 when the current hospital was completed. In 1916, the main building of the Western Baptist Theological Institute was razed.
Here is an image of the Seminary building, again from

After his tour of the hospitals, Foster did not remain in the army much longer, though one form creates some confusion that no other paperwork definitively clarifies.

An undated “descriptive list of deserters, no. 19 USA general hospital, Nashville” gives his physical description while noting that he “deserted Nov 11 1864,” and “furlough expd Nov 10, 64.”

Nothing else in his file refers to either a desertion from or a return to the army, but since a different form shows that he was in a hospital in Covington during November and December, this was likely a case of so much bureaucracy and paperwork struggling to keep up with so many movements of so many men.

Another sign that he did not desert is a muster out roll from January 14, 
1865, completed in Louisville. It notes his wound again, and states he was last paid to December 31, 1863, with an amount advanced for clothing of $35.35, further noting “stop for transportation from Nashville to Louisville $3.80.” It seems unlikely he would have been allowed to appear on a muster-out roll if he had deserted (though it is conceivable that he would have been forgiven if he returned almost immediately.) 

Battle Rages indicates that on December 1, 1864, the regiment had been ordered to Louisville to report to the Superintendent of the recruiting service of the state to be mustered out of service. (page 251)

It also states that 969 men served in the 15th Kentucky throughout the war; of these, 134 were killed and 240 wounded. (page 254)

Private Foster Sellers was wounded in battle, but survived three hard years of war and returned to what became a long civilian life in Campbell County, Kentucky, where he married, raised two sons and farmed. He passed away one hundred years ago, in 1920, at age 83.

Rest In Peace, Soldier.

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