1863: Alfred Thornton Forbes to Kate Marshall Forbes

The following letter was written by 23 year-old Alfred Thornton Forbes (1839-1895), the son of John Murray Forbes (1782-1863) and Sally Innes (1799-1885) of Falmouth, Stafford county, Virginia. At the time of the 1860 US Census, Alfred was enumerated in his parents home as a 21 year-old law student. His father, “Murray” Forbes was a well-to-do merchant in Falmouth.

Alfred wrote the letter to his older sister, Katharine (“Kate”) Marshall Forbes (1822-1896). She did not marry until 1871 when she took Gilbert Moxley Bastable (1812-1886) as her husband and lived at Cedar Run, Fauquier county, Virginia. Alfred mentions his brother Robert Leighton Forbes (b. 1838) in his letter. Other siblings who lived to adulthood included, Frank Thornton Forbes (1826-1904), James Fitzgerald Forbes (1828-1863), William Smith Forbes (1831-1905), David Sterling Forbes (1835-1908), and Sally Innes Forbes (1844-1881).

Frank Forbes served in Co. B (“Fredericksburg Grays”, 30th Virginia Infantry, Corse’s Brigade, Pickett’s Division, 1st Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, C.S.A. He began the war as a private but eventually promoted to Captain in the Commissary Department at Richmond.

James F. Forbes served as a private in Co. A, 9th Virginia Cavalry. He was killed in action at the Battle of Chancellorsville on 4 May 1863 after his promotion to lieutenant as the Assistant Quartermaster of the regiment.

Alfred wrote his letter just three weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg while the Army of the Potomac remained encamped in Falmouth on the opposite side of the Rappahannock river. He advises his sister to remain in Georgia rather than return home as the “old town” (Falmouth) “is a wreck and our house somewhat injured” by the Yankees.

When Alfred wrote the letter, he had not yet joined the Confederate service. He would do so in late April 1863, just before the Battle of Chancellorsville, enlisting at Culpeper as a private in Co. B, 9th Virginia Cavalry. He was wounded on 9 June 1863 at the Battle of Brandy Station and possibly once or twice more—even having his horse shot from under him at “Jones Church” on 8 December 1864—but survived the war.

A few additional details. “In the spring of 1863, as the Union army prepared for action opposite Fredericksburg, the recipient of this letter, Kate Forbes, would take refuge at the home of the Chancellor family—Chancellorsville. But, days later the armies found her there, and she spent the first two days of the Battle of Chancellorsville in the basement with the Chancellor family and several other local residents. They would be driven out by the fire that consumed the Chancellor house on May 3, at the height of the battle. It’s also worth noting that Alfred’s and Kate’s brother, James Fitzgerald Forbes, served temporarily on A. P. Hill’s staff at Chancellorsville and was mortally wounded in the same volley that struck down Jackson on the evening of May 2, 1863. The author of this letter, Alfred (known as Alley to his family) was also wounded at Chancellorsville, in the arm (though not as part of the fated Jackson/Hill entourage). Of the family’s travails, Kate would write from Richmond in June 1863, “I frequently wonder when will these things cease. God in his wisdom only knows.” —personal communication from John J. Hennessy, author and former Chief Historian at Fredericksburg & Spotslvania National Military Park, dated 8 April 2023.

Personal papers belonging to Alfred T. Forbes may be found in the U. S. Army Heritage & Education Center at Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

See also—“If these signatures could talk…” Falmouth Graffiti, by Eric J. Mink on Mysteries & Conundrums.

See also—1844: Francis Thornton to Murray Forbes on Spared & Shared 1


Addressed to Miss Kate M. Forbes, Care of J. M. Forbes, Forest Depot, Bedford, Ga.

Chancellors[ville, Virginia]
January 3, 1863

Dear Sister,

At Ma’s request, I write to tell you, you had better remain where you are till we write you to come home. The enemy are still in Stafford & we know not of their leaving. The old town is a wreck & our house somewhat injured. Every drawer & corner was broken open & you have nothing but scraps. There was not left a whole piece of clothing. Mama says she had partially made up her mind to go to Fauquier to spend the winter with sister (whom brother says he would take home) but for recent reports & when the Yankees go into winter quarters, she will yet do so & hopes to meet sister soon in her new house.

Papa is quite unwell. Robert and myself are the invalids. I am in such pain that I can scarcely write—rheumatism in my leg. Robert is full of pains. Sister Bessie has not moved back to Fall Hill yet. 1 Aunt Lucy Thornton passed through town last week. She stayed a day or so with Aunt Fitz[gerald] & went on to Alabama. Brother is here and came to persuade Pa and Ma to go to Fauquier & stay with sister which I have spoken of. Mama says stay where you are though the people are as kind as can be, yet it is inconvenient. Give our love to all. Can’t write anymore.

Your affectionate brother, — Alfred

Ma wrote you in Richmond Write and direct to Chancellorsville, Spottsylvania County, Va.

Fall Hill in Fredericksburg (built 1790)

1 Fall Hill was was an early 1700s plantation owned by Francis Thornton located near the falls on the Rappahannock river in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Various members of the Thornton family lived at Fall Hill until 2003 (about 300 years). The present house was built in 1790 by Francis Thornton V (1760–1836) when he married Sally Innes and is in the present-day town of Fredericksburg. Its proximity to the Rappahannock River made Fall Hill a strategic point during the Fredericksburg Campaign of the Civil War. Fortifications were built along the river at the house to protect the crossing. The breastworks were built by General Robert E. Lee’s soldiers.  According to a long-time resident, Butler Franklin, at one point Lee ordered the mansion destroyed by cannon fire so he could better see the approach of the Union Army across the river. The house survived because the Union Army advance changed its direction.

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