Webster was a common Bangor surname in the mid-19th century.
Then the Civil War intervened, one Webster household from the Queen City dispersed several sons throughout the Union army, and Dr. Bill Hopkins of Wisconsin discovered two of those Webster brothers in Florida many years later.
One day “as I was researching Union soldiers buried in Old City Cemetery” at Tallahassee, Florida … I came across a Webster from Bangor, Maine,” said Hopkins, whose great-great grandfather, Dr. William Bixby Hopkins, was also from Maine.
Hopkins knew there was a “Queen City” Webster just three generations up and one limb over on the trunk of his family’s tree. “My great-grandfather’s brother, George Hopkins, married Mary Ellen Webster from Bangor,” he recalled. “I visited their gravesite [at Mt. Hope Cemetery] in Bangor in 2005, next to a John Webster plot.”
Mary Ellen was the only daughter and youngest child in a family containing seven brothers. After the Civil War started, oldest brother George Webster joined the 12th Maine Infantry. “He ‘mustered in’ as a second lieutenant,” Bill Hopkins noted. Promoted to major in 1864, George served with the 77th United States Colored Troops.
Frank and Robert “joined the 18th Maine Infantry” as a corporal and a private, respectively, in late summer 1862, Hopkins said. That regiment became the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery in January 1863; Frank was soon promoted to major in the 3rd USCT, “a black regiment out of Philadelphia,” according to Hopkins.
Younger brothers William and John Webster served in the Maine militia during the war. Youngest brothers Edgar and Charles stayed at home. Known as the “Princess of Bangor” — she was obviously the apple of her father’s eye — Mary Ellen watched her brothers vanish one by one into uniform.
The “Bangor” Webster whom Bill Hopkins discovered in a Tallahassee cemetery was John Henry, who died from consumption (tuberculosis) on March 7, 1878. His listing in an Old City Cemetery survey identified him as “From Bangor, Maine.”
Hopkins “never found” John Webster’s marker in Old City Cemetery, but he did discover a stone belonging to William Thayer Webster, who died on Aug. 2, 1895. “Webster is a common name, but Websters from Bangor, Maine rang a bell,” said Hopkins, who remembered Mary Ellen Webster of Bangor.
William and John Webster arrived in Tallahassee sometime after the Civil War because “the bonds of warfare pulled Captain Frank Webster back to” the Florida capital after the war ended, Hopkins discovered.
In fact, Frank Webster of Bangor had fought in the Sunshine State.
He joined the 3rd USCT as the captain of Co. G, comprising roughly 100 black soldiers. Writing from “Head Quarters 3rd U.S.C.T.” in Jacksonville on May 29, 1864, Co. D orderly sergeant Thomas R. Rockhold described what Frank Webster and the regiment had been up to during its “Florida Expeditions.”
The 3rd USCT departed Hilton Head, S.C. for Jacksonville on Feb. 6 and landed there on Feb. 8. Immediately the regiment “received orders, in the night, to surprise the rebel”-held Camp Finagan some 10 miles from Jacksonville, Rockhold noted. The camp was named for Gen. Joseph Finegan, the senior Confederate officer in central and eastern Florida.
Frank Webster and the 3rd USCT arrived “too late to do any good; but we had the pleasure of liberating some of our flesh and blood,” wrote Rockhold, revealing that he may have been a former slave. The black soldiers freed “about two hundred slaves at that place.”
Advancing to Ten Mile Station on Feb. 9, the 3rd USCT was nearby when Union mounted infantry “had a little skirmish with Gen. Finagan’s men, and we captured four pieces of artillery from the rebels,” Rockhold reported.
On Feb. 10, the 3rd USCT reached Baldwin Station, “the junction of all the railroads that lead to Georgia, Mobile, and Charleston,” Rockhold detailed the campaign. Among these railroads was the “Jacksonville and Tallahassee,” along which the regiment was advancing.
Some companies deployed as pickets or provost guards; Frank Webster and Co. G (along with Co. D) marched farther to Barber’s Station, “about fifty miles from Jacksonville,” Rockhold recalled.
The two companies relieved the 115th New York Infantry Regiment. The weary 3rd USCT soldiers stood duty for 24 hours; “though tired and fatigued out … there was not a word said about our duties to our superior officers, for they all knew what soldiering was,” Rockhold commented.
Except for a few black regiments formed in New Orleans early in the war, organized black units — including artillery batteries and cavalry regiments — were led by white officers, right down to the second-lieutenant level in a company. Black soldiers held non-commissioned rank (corporal and higher); his status as orderly sergeant reveals that Rockhold was educated and literate.
Promotion-hungry Union soldiers lobbied for commissions in black regiments. “Nearly a year of guard duty with the 1st Maine [Heavy Artillery in Washington, D.C.], against an assault on the Capitol that never materialized, had left Frank [Webster] chomping at the bit for any chance at action,” Bill Hopkins explained why Frank sought a commission in the 3rd USCT.
At Barber’s Station Frank Webster and his black soldiers discovered 10 wounded Union boys and two wounded Confederate soldiers, one of whom “died while we there,” according to Rockhold.
“We buried him with pleasure,” he succinctly noted. “Although we were convinced in our own minds, if it were us [sick], they would not even give us a drink of water. But we had a Christian spirit in us.”
Webster took Co. G on a short patrol on Feb. 11. The day dragged past sunset; “late in the night,” after “we had given them up” as lost, “as God would have it, they came back all safe and sound,” Rockhold said.
On Feb. 13 the two companies withdrew to Barber’s Ford on St. Mary’s River. The black troops escorted three captured Confederates “and best of all, about fifty colored people,” Rockhold said. Rejoining the rest of the 3rd USCT, Webster and his men remained at Barber’s Ford for several days.
On Saturday, Feb. 20, Confederate troops led by Joseph Finegan collided at Olustee with the Union troops (including the 35th USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the black regiment of “Glory” fame) advancing along the railroad toward Tallahassee. The black regiments fought well and lost many men, including some captured soldiers murdered while surrendering to Confederate troops.
Remembering how “that awful slaughter came off at Olustee,” Rockhold was grateful that “as God knew best, we did not have to go up there to be murdered like dogs.”
Wounded Union soldiers arrived at Barber’s Ford, the place where the railroad crossed St. Mary’s River. Frank Webster would have seen the same horrors as described by Rockhold; “the worse of all [being] … the poor soldiers come in with no hats on, and some with arm and hands off.”
With Confederates victorious at Olustee, the 3rd USCT fell back on Jacksonville and garrisoned Fort Clinch. Frank Webster remained with the regiment when it was “stationed in Tallahassee in peacekeeping operations” until mustering out in autumn 1865, Bill Hopkins said.
Frank returned to Bangor for Christmas 1865. Brother Robert was already home; George Webster, a brevet colonel with the 77th USCT, served with that regiment in New Orleans until May 1866.
In time Frank returned to Tallahassee to work “at Freedman’s Bank, the institution for former slaves and the US Colored Troops,” Hopkins has discovered. Younger brothers John Henry and William later joined Frank in Tallahassee, where John Henry worked as an accountant.
He left for the Upper Midwest in 1875 and married a Minnesota woman in 1876. They traveled to New Orleans and Florida by ship; “somewhere along this journey John began coughing up blood” as tuberculosis infected him, Bill Hopkins said.
Bed-ridden the next two years, John Henry Webster died in March 1878. His brother, William, married a Tallahassee woman and died childless in 1895.
Frank Webster had settled near Chattanooga, Tenn. by 1900. Retiring with his wife to Washington State, he died there in the 1920s. His one child, Mary, married a Chattanooga man; Frank’s descendants live there today, according to Bill Hopkins.
The Bangor Websters certainly got around during and after the Civil War.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.