- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

On July 3, 1863, a young Confederate stood near his Napoleon cannon trying to quiet the restless team of horses.

To the west, he could see rising clouds of smoke accompanied by the rumble of far-off artillery fire. Could it be that the long-awaited Confederate army of relief finally had begun its offensive to save the besieged city of Vicksburg, Miss.? No order had been received, however, to move on Vicksburg, and by day’s end, the distant battle noise had slackened, to be followed the next day by the news that the city had fallen to the enemy.

As word spread from unit to unit along the Big Black River, the Confederates made ready to retreat back to the capital city of Jackson, some 30 miles east. By his campfire that night, the young cannoneer might well have penciled a letter to his home in Georgia describing the sad events — a letter signed, “Your loving son, Benjamin Forbes, Croft’s Battery.”

On July 3, 1863, more than 1,000 miles away at Gettysburg, Pa., another young man, a civilian, made his way through the bustle of the Union Army as it prepared for battle. Arriving at Cemetery Ridge, he sought a vantage point to observe the action expected for that day.

Across the fields to his front, he could see the tree line along Seminary Ridge sparkling with bayonets and flashes of cannon fire. Closer in, just below his position, was a long stone wall trailing off to his left to a copse of trees. Union soldiers shouldered into position along the wall as lines of Confederates burst forward from the opposite ridge.

Oddly for this setting, the young man pulled from his pack a pad of paper and began rapidly sketching the panorama before him. As his pencil skated across paper, he recorded the repulse of a great Confederate charge that barely reached the stone wall. The young man was satisfied that he had accurately portrayed the mighty battle, and he sent the drawing to his editor in New York at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The drawing was titled “Pickett’s Charge” and bore his signature, “Edwin Forbes.”

The two young men, Benjamin Forbes and Edwin Forbes, were the sons of brothers, first cousins of a divided family.

Edwin Forbes, in today’s terms, was a battlefield artist “embedded” with the Union Army in Virginia. His graphic war reporting for Leslie’s reads like a gazetteer of Union campaigns in the East. His drawings portray the major battles at Shiloh, the Shenandoah Valley, Second Manassas, Cedar Mountain and Brandy Station. He continued on to record the bloodletting at Antietam and Fredericksburg with its “Mud March” retreat. He sent to his paper dramatic sketches of the Union defeat at Chancellorsville and the fighting in the Wilderness, at Cold Harbor and at the siege of Petersburg. His realistic pictures of battles and soldiers’ lives overshadowed his prewar efforts as an artist and became the focus of his postwar life.

Benjamin Forbes had enlisted in an artillery battery and had begun his soldiering in the rather benign defenses of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. As Union offensives along the Mississippi River became more threatening, his battery was posted to Canton, Miss., as part of the force being assembled to relieve Vicksburg. After the city fell to the enemy, Forbes’ battery fought back and forth across Mississippi: the Big Black River and the Yazoo and the towns of Jackson, Canton, Brandon and Meridian.

When northern Georgia was threatened, he marched with his battery across Alabama to join in the great battle for Atlanta until it, like Vicksburg, fell. From there, Forbes’ battery was part of the ill-fated winter campaign to retake Nashville, abandoned when the Confederates suffered terrible losses at Franklin, Tenn.

With this defeat, surviving units were parceled out to various commands that were still operational, and Forbes was sent to the defending forces at Mobile, where another defeat awaited. It was near Mobile that he was surrendered with his battery, thus ending four years of star-crossed battling that spanned the southern tier of the Confederacy.

In the wake of peace, Edwin Forbes returned to New York and tried to capitalize on his wartime art by publishing his sketches and pictures as recorded for Leslie’s. He was only marginally successful, although some of his more important collected works were purchased by notable buyers such as Gen. William T. Sherman and financier J.P. Morgan. Morgan donated the collection to the Library of Congress, where it remains today.

Edwin Forbes died in New York City in May 1895. The following year, at Burkittsville, Md., another war correspondent, George Alfred Townsend, dedicated a great monument to all Union and Confederate correspondents and artists. Edwin Forbes’ name is there, inscribed in marble as an acknowledgment of his valued portrayals of the war.

Benjamin Forbes eventually made his way back home to LaGrange, Ga. He and his family faced a new life amid the sparse leavings of a conquering army’s “Reconstruction.”

In the following years, the family became scattered, some going to Texas, some to Alabama and some remaining in Georgia.

Hoping for better opportunities, Benjamin Forbes moved to Columbus, Ga., where he set up a tailor shop, which provided him with enough income to marry and raise two sons. He died in Girard, Ala., in February 1902, shortly after qualifying for a Confederate veteran’s pension of $10 a month.

It is not known whether these two cousins were aware of their contrasting roles in the war or of what happened to each other in the aftermath.

The cousins in this article are both ancestors of William Forbes, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who lives in Chevy Chase.

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