Come see Plowshares into Swords – a special exhibit recognizing the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Plowshares into Swords opens April 12, 2011 at the Michigan Historical Center. A special Plowshares into Swords: Grand Opening event will occur on Saturday, April 16.
Charles T. Foster
In 1861, Charles T. Foster was a young clerk in Turner’s Dry Goods Store in North Lansing. His younger brother, Seymour, later described him as being about five feet ten inches in height, with a light complexion, big blue eyes and a high forehead. Charles also wore a very becoming young mustache. A member of the church choir, he was deemed “a fine singer.” He had a genial disposition and an agreeable manner and was a great comfort to his mother.
Lansing’s First Volunteer
Charles had attended a mass rally at the old capitol in Lansing, on April 13, 1861. It was the day after the attack on Fort Sumter. Cheer after cheer filled the air in the packed hall, greeting fiery speeches by Lansing’s leading civic leaders—Daniel Case, Judge Tenney, Judge Longyear and others. Excitement rose to a fever pitch when Judge Tenney announced that a roll had been prepared. Volunteers could thus come forward and sign up to fight for the Union. A sudden hush fell. Not a soul moved. Seymour, who had not been able to get into the packed hall and had climbed up and perched in one of the windows, saw that someone was working his way to the head of the crowd. He couldn’t see who it was. Then Judge Tenney’s voice rang out: “Charles T. Foster tenders his services and his life—if need be—to his country and his flag.” Charles had just become the Lansing area’s first volunteer. A great cheer went up and others shouldered forward. Allen Shattuck became the second Lansing man to volunteer, and he was soon followed by twenty-nine others. Although Lansing was Michigan’s capital city, it was not then large enough to field its own regiment. Charles and his Lansing comrades made their way to Grand Rapids, where they joined the Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. They became that regiment’s “Company G.”
Charles Foster fought with the Third for the first year of the war. He was engaged in the first Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) and the siege of Yorktown (April 4-May 4, 1862). Then, at the battle of Williamsburg in May of 1862, Charles volunteered to carry the flag (The regular color sergeant was unable to do so.). The next day, he wrote to his mother:
“When the Major called for volunteers and none of the sergeants seeming to want to take the responsible and dangerous position, I felt it to be my duty to do so, for someone must do it, and if none would volunteer a detail would have to be made, and the lot might fall on one who had a wife and children at home and could not be spared, whereas I was single and free, and would not be missed if I was killed.”
Charles’s brother Seymour recalled that Charles never knew the grief that his letter – and particularly his statement that he would not be missed – caused their mother.
“Don’t let the colors go down!”
A few weeks later – at the Battle of Fair Oaks on May 29, 1862 – Charles was again called upon to carry the flag. He did so through charge after charge. Then, suddenly, a minie ball pierced his neck. As he fell, he drove the flag staff into the ground and called out, “Don’t let the colors go down!”
In his memoirs, Ezra Ransome – a member of the Third and a friend of Charles – remembered that moment:
“I rescued the colors from capture. The bearer had when shot fell on his back and threw both arms in a death grip around the flag just as our line had fallen back a little, which left the colors between the rebs and us. I rushed for the flag, pulled it from the arms of the Sergeant, fell flat and so dragged myself back to our men.”
Charles was buried near the scene of the battle but for many years his grave was lost. His family finally located and marked it, He is buried at Seven Pines National Cemetery in Virginia. The marker for grave number 152 reads:
In Memory of Charles T. Foster
January 16, 1839–May 31, 1862
Buried at Seven Pines National Cemetery, VA
Flagbearer Third Mich. Vol. Inf.
After the war, at the suggestion of Allan Shattuck, Lansing’s Grand Army of the Republic post was named after Charles T. Foster, the first Lansing man to enlist and the first to fall.
Michigan History, September 1951. “The Letters of Theodore Foster.”
Michigan In The War by John Robertson, Michigan Adjutant General