Colonel 12th Mass. Vols. (Infantry), June 26, 1861; killed at the battle of Bull Run, Va., August 30, 1862.
FLETCHER WEBSTER, son of Daniel and Grace (Fletcher) Webster, was born in Portsmouth, NewHampshire, July 23, 1813. He was fitted for college at the Public Latin School in Boston, his father having removed to that city in 1816. He entered Harvard College in 1829, and graduated in 1833. Though not of studious habits, he held a respectable rank as a scholar. His generous character and cordial manners made him a general favorite with his classmates, and he was selected by them to deliver the class oration at the close of their collegiate life, — a distinction more gratifying to a social and sympathetic nature like his than the highest honors of scholarship would have been.
After leaving college he studied law, partly with Mr. Samuel B. Walcott, at Hopkinton, Mass., and partly with his father, in Boston, and was in due time admitted to the Suffolk bar, and began the practice of his profession in Boston. In the autumn of 1836 he was married to Miss Caroline Story White, daughter of Stephen White, Esq., of Salem, and immediately after his marriage put in execution a plan he had previously formed of trying his professional fortunes at the West, — a change which at that time required more enterprise and involved greater sacrifices than now. He went first to Detroit, where he remained till the close of 1837, in the practice of his profession, and then removed to La Salle, in Illinois, where he remained till 1840. During his residence in Illinois, he made the acquaintance of Mr. Abraham Lincoln, who immediately recognized Colonel Webster when they met in Washington in 1861, and recalled their former intercourse to his memory.
Colonel Webster met with fair success in the practice of the law, but the profession was not congenial to his tastes or in harmony with his temperament. He had the quick perceptions, the ready tact, and the easy elocution which are so important in the trial of causes, but he disliked the drudgery of preparation and was not patient in the investigation of legal questions. This repugnance might have been overcome, had he continued a few years longer in the practice of his profession, but such was not destined to be his fate. His whole course of life received a new direction in consequence of the election of General Harrison to the office of President of the United States in the autumn of 1840. Mr. Daniel Webster became Secretary of State, and Colonel Webster removed to Washington, where he acted as private secretary to his father, and occasionally as assistant Secretary of State. This was a sphere of duty congenial to his tastes. He was a clear and ready writer, and was fond of the discussion of political questions. His father has said that no one could prepare a paper, in conformity with verbal instructions received from him, more to his satisfaction than his son Fletcher; and this was a point on which Mr. Daniel Webster's parental affection would not have blinded him. He was very fond of his son, and was not only happy in having him near him, but his happiness was always imperfect if his son were absent from him. So far as the son's advancement in life was concerned, it might have been better that he should have been left to make his way alone, and that his father should have consented to the sacrifice of affection which such a separation would have required; but, now that both are gone from earth, who will not pardon a mistake — if mistake it was — which had its source in the best affections of the human heart ?
In 1843 Mr. Caleb Cushing was appointed Commissioner to China, and Colonel Webster accompanied him as Secretary of Legation. He remained in China till the objects of the mission were accomplished, and reached home on his return in January, 1845. In the course of the year after his return, he frequently lectured in public on the subject of China, and gave interesting reminiscences of his own residence there.
In 1850 he was appointed, by President Taylor, Surveyor of the Port of Boston, an office which he held by successive appointments till March, 1861, when a successor was nominated by President Lincoln.
Immediately after the firing upon Fort Sumter, and the attack by a lawless mob in Baltimore upon the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, he responded to an appeal made to the patriotic citizens of Massachusetts by the following notice, which appeared in the Boston papers of Saturday, April 20, 1861.
"FELLOW-CITIZENS, — I have been assured by the Executive Department that the State will accept at once an additional regiment of infantry. I therefore propose to meet to-morrow at ten o'clock, in front of the Merchants' Exchange, State Street, such of my fellowcitizens as will join in raising this new regiment. The muster-roll will be ready to be signed then and there.
The above call was seconded by the following notice, subscribed by the names of twenty-eight well-known gentlemen.
"There will be a public meeting to-morrow, Sunday, in front of the Exchange, State Street, at ten o'clock, A. M., to aid in the enrolment of the new regiment of volunteer militia called for by Fletcher Webster. Come all.”
At the appointed hour on Sunday, April 21st, an immense crowd appeared in State Street in front of the Exchange. Colonel Webster attempted to address them, but the place where he stood made it impossible for him to be heard except by those who were near him. Some one proposed to go to the Old State-House, at the head of the street, a few rods distant, and the suggestion was received with acclamation and immediately carried into effect. Colonel Webster then spoke from the balcony of the Old State-House, and, among other things, said he could see no better use to which the day could be put than for us to take the opportunity to show our gratitude to Divine Providence for bestowing upon us the best government in the world, and to pledge ourselves to stand by and maintain it. He whose name he bore had the good fortune to defend the Union and the Constitution in the forum. This he could not do, but he was ready to defend them in the field. He closed his remarks with an allusion to his father's devotion to the country, and expressed a hope that we should yet see the nation united, and our flag remain without a star dimmed or a stripe obliterated. He then announced that all who desired to enlist would find papers ready for signatures at the surveyor's office, at the Custom-House.
The meeting was then addressed by other gentlemen in a similar strain. Nothing could surpass the enthusiasm with which the remarks of all the speakers, and especially those of Colonel Webster, were received by the audience. And this was in no small degree owing to the impression made by the fact that it was the son of Daniel Webster who was ready to risk his life for the defence of the Union and the Constitution. The illustrious statesman had been but nine years in his grave; and, of the audience which listened to the son, probably nine tenths at least had seen the father and heard him speak. The scene before them recalled him. To the mind's eye, that majestic form and grand countenance seemed standing by the side of his son, and in the mind's ear they heard again the deep music of that voice which had so often charmed and instructed them. And there was yet another reason for the strong feeling that was awakened. Colonel Webster had been for some years identified with the great party which had been defeated in the election of I860, and he had been removed from a lucrative office by the administration of President Lincoln. But none the less zealously did he come forward in aid of his country in her hour of peril and distress, and the value of his example was appreciated and felt.
The enthusiasm of the meeting was not a transient flame, but a steady fire. The next day a committee of one hundred persons was organized to co-operate with Colonel Webster in forming and providing for his regiment, and among them were some of his own warmest personal friends, and some of the most zealous and devoted of the political disciples of his father. Money was contributed with lavish hand. So rapidly were the ranks of the regiment filled, that in three days the enlistment was completed and the lists closed. Five companies were enlisted in Boston, one in North Bridgewater, one in Abington, one in Weymouth, one in Stoughton, and one in Gloucester. Colonel Pessenden, a graduate of West Point, offered his services as military instructor, which were gratefully accepted. The classmates of Colonel Webster presented him with a valuable horse and equipments. The young ladies of Mr. Emerson's school in Boston made liberal donations to the company commanded by Captain Saltmarsh, which, in their honor, was called the Emerson Guard. The pupils of the Latin School made most generous provision for the equipment of the company commanded by Captain Shurtleff, a graduate of the school, and, in acknowledgment, the company was named the Latin-School Guard.
The three months after the organization of the regiment were spent in Port Warren, in the harbor of Boston, in the discipline and drill requisite to convert fresh recruits into steady soldiers. This was dull work for ardent young men, burning for actual service in the field; but the event showed that it was time well spent. On the 26th of June the regiment was mustered into service. On the 18th of July a splendid standard was presented to the regiment, on behalf of the ladies of Boston, by Edward Everett, who accompanied the gift with a patriotic and soul-stirring address, to which Colonel Webster made an appropriate reply.
On the afternoon of the 23d of July, the regiment left Fort Warren for the seat of war. They were received with enthusiastic welcome on their arrival at New York the next day. The officers were entertained at the Astor House by the sons of Massachusetts resident in New York. With a few stoppages, the regiment arrived at Baltimore about noon on Friday, July 26th, and were cordially received. Colonel Webster and his command proceeded to Harper's Ferry, where they arrived on Saturday, July 27th, and pitched tents on the Maryland side of the Potomac, about a mile from the ferry, calling their encampment Camp Banks. The regiment was soon after removed to Darnestown, where it remained until it was transferred to Cantonment Hicks, about four miles east of Frederick City, in Maryland, arriving there on Thursday, December 5,1861. At that place the regiment remained in camp until February 27, 1862, when it marched into Virginia for more active service.
For the next four or five months the Webster regiment, forming part of the division of the army under Major-General Banks, was mainly employed in guarding the Upper Potomac, and keeping vigilant watch upon the enemy, so as to prevent him from crossing the river into Maryland. It was an important, though not an exciting service, and was of essential value in completing their military training, and giving them that efficiency which is the result of mutual knowledge and mutual confidence.
During all this time Colonel Webster showed himself possessed, in no common measure, of the qualities of a good commander. His discipline was firm and uniform, but not alloyed by petulance or passion. His regiment acquired a good name from the neat and soldier-like appearance of the men, the quickness and accuracy of their drill, and the orderly arrangements of their camp. His men were warmly attached to their Colonel. They appreciated his manly frankness, his simplicity of character, his kindness of heart, and the cheerfulness with which he bore the hardships and privations of the service, though he had no longer the unworn energies of youth to sustain him.
In the early part of August, 1862, Colonel Webster obtained leave of absence for a few days, and came home. This was in consequence of the death of his youngest daughter, Julia, to whom he was tenderly attached, and whose death overwhelmed him with grief, and awakened in him an irresistible longing to mingle his tears with those of his wife and surviving children. It was during this brief absence that his regiment was for the first time set upon the perilous edge of battle in the disastrous affair of Cedar Mountain, August 9th, where that gallant and promising young officer, Captain Shurtleff, was killed, and where so many of our "beautiful and brave" of the Second Massachusetts Regiment poured out their precious blood. It was a source of regret to Colonel Webster that his regiment should have been led into their first battle by any one but himself; but, on the other hand, he had a right to be proud of their excellent conduct and steadiness under a hot fire of two or three hours.
Colonel Webster, on the 16th of August, rejoined his regiment, which was then encamped upon the Rapidan, near Mitchell's Station. It was a part of Hartsuff’s brigade, Ricketts's division, and McDowell's corps, forming a portion of the Army of Virginia, under the command of General Pope. On the 18th of August, the army began a movement towards the North Fork of the Rappahannock, and by the 20th the main body was behind the river and prepared to hold its passes.
On the 24th of August, General McDowell's corps was at or near Warrenton. On the morning of the 27th of August, he was directed to move forward rapidly on Gainesville, by the Warrenton Turnpike. And the required position was reached before the next day. On the next evening a brisk engagement took place at Thoroughfare Gap between the advance of the Rebel force under General Longstreet and the division under General Ricketts, in which the Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment took part, and behaved well, having six men wounded. "The Colonel did splendidly," said one of his officers, writing home immediately after.
The regiment was not on the field on the 29th of August, the first day of the second battle of Bull Run, but in the perils and disasters of the next day it bore a conspicuous part. It was stationed on the left, against which the main attack of the Rebel force was directed, where the fight was most severe and the slaughter most terrible. Colonel Webster led his men into battle with the utmost gallantry; and, encouraged by his voice and presence, they behaved admirably well. Many of them fell, but the survivors did not flinch. Late in the afternoon, some of the regiments on their left, overborne by superior numbers, began to give way, and the Twelfth fell back some twenty paces, to avoid being placed between the fire of advancing foes and retreating friends, but in good order and without breaking their ranks. Not long after this Colonel Webster was shot through the body. Lieutenant Haviland was near him when he fell, and with two men went with him to the rear. They had gone but a few paces when one of the men was shot, and the other, seeing the enemy close upon him, sought safety in flight. Colonel Webster was perfectly helpless, and Lieutenant Haviland, still suffering from an injury received from his horse having fallen upon him at Cedar Mountain, could do no more than find a place of shelter for the dying man under a bush in a little hollow. No one could be found to carry him away, and messages sent for a surgeon proved ineffectual. Colonel Webster desired his friend to leave him, but Lieutenant Haviland was determined to save him if possible; at any rate, not to desert him. Within a short time, a body of Rebel troops came upon them and took them prisoners. They would not carry away Colonel Webster from the spot where he lay, nor yet allow Lieutenant Haviland to remain with him. The officer in command promised to send an ambulance for him, but his pledge was not redeemed. He died on the spot where he was left, and we can only hope that his suffering was not long or severe. His body was recovered and sent home by the generous and courageous efforts of Lieutenant Arthur Dehon, as is told in the memoir of that promising officer and most amiable young man. His funeral services were held at the church on Church Green, Boston, on Tuesday, September 9,1862. The building was filled with a large body of mourning and sympathizing friends, who listened with deep feeling to the well-chosen words of the officiating clergyman, the Rev. Chandler Robbins, and the solemn and appropriate music of the choir. At the close of the services his body was taken to Marshfield and committed to the dust, in the family cemetery, by the side of his illustrious father.
Colonel Webster was long mourned and affectionately remembered by the officers and men who had served under him. And there were others, too, who grieved for his loss; for though not widely known, he had many faithful friends who had known and loved him from boyhood, and had stood by him in all the changes and chances of life. His own heart was warm, his nature was generous and open, and his temperament cordial and frank. His tastes were strongly social, and his powers of social entertainment were such as few men possess. He had an unerring sense of the ludicrous, his wit was ready and responsive, and no man could relate an amusing incident or tell a humorous story with more dramatic power. Nor was he without faculties of a higher order. His perceptions were quick and accurate, he was an able and forcible speaker, and he wrote with the clearness and strength which belonged to him by right of inheritance. The value which his friends had for him was higher than the mark which he made upon his times. The course of his life had not in all respects been favorable to his growth and influence, and he had not the iron resolution and robust purpose which make will triumph over circumstance. But when the golden opportunity came, he grasped it with heroic hand. He rose to the height of the demand made upon him, and dormant powers and reserved energies started into vigorous life as the occasion required them. Had he lived, he might have had a higher place, but it is enough for his friends to know that in the providence of God he was permitted to die a glorious death, at the head of his regiment, with his face to the foe, calmly confronting the shock of adverse battle, in defence of the Union, the Constitution, and the laws, for which his father had lived. Who could ask more for the friend of one's heart or the child of one's love?
Colonel Webster left a widow and three children, — two sons and a daughter. His eldest son has since died.
SOURCE: Harvard Memorial Biographies, Volume 1, p. 21-30