Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Many interesting Civil War stories, besides those of famous battles, regiments, or generals, exist in a cloak of obscurity, hiding among the lives of the privates who made up the majority of the war’s armies. This story, of two brothers from northern Kentucky, is one of them.
Earlier this year, I read the book The Battle Rages Higher about the Union’s 15th Kentucky Infantry and was pleasantly surprised to learn that several of the regiment's soldiers had connections to my home of Campbell County, Kentucky. This discovery inspired me to research these men and to find out more about the war, or at least some of its soldiers, in my home area.
I began my research with Foster Sellers, whose brief biography in that book indicated he may have lived near my ancestors. As I investigated his story, I found that he had a twin brother, Israel, who also served in the war, though in a different unit. That was an unexpected find, one I believed would make a good story to share.
Foster and Israel Sellers were born in early January 1837 in Bracken County, Kentucky, the location of the town of Augusta, where George Clooney attended high school, and, for Civil War enthusiasts, the town which Basil Duke and his men attacked in September 1862.
They were the sons of Phillip and Kaziah (Green) Sellers. Phillip was a native of Pennsylvania while Kaziah had been born in Ohio. Foster and Israel had two older sisters, a younger brother, and a younger sister.
In April of 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War. Six months later, in October, Foster, then working as a farm laborer, enlisted in Company H of the 15th Kentucky Infantry Regiment, beginning his army adventures.
At the time of his enlistment, Foster measured 5 feet, 7 3/4 inches tall with a light complexion, light hair, and blue eyes. He joined for three years.
His regiment, like many, was an active one. Early in its existence, it travelled to sites from its organization at New Haven, Ky., (near Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace), to Bowling Green, Ky., and then to Murfreesboro and Nashville in Tennessee, before arriving in northern Alabama. The men then took part in the Union army’s pursuit of Braxton Bragg’s Confederates in Kentucky, ending with hard fighting at Perryville, the largest battle of the war in the unit's home state.
The Battle Rages Higher describes their fight near the Bottom House at Perryville, including this brief section which mentions Forest’s captain, Joshua Prather. (page 72)
The Fifteenth formed two lines across the top of the hill, feeling the full force of a storm of bullets whizzing past them, and delivered their first volley into the Confederate lines. A horse near the center of the Fifteenth’s line screamed, barely audible over the controlled chaos of the fight...Major Campbell was directly behind Company H, shouting orders left and right when he fell from his saddle. A ball had passed through Campbell’s right arm and lodged in his side. Major Campbell was carried off the field by Capt. Joshua Prather of Company H and Capt. James Allen of Company I.
Paperwork in Foster’s file then listed him as absent, detached on Pioneer Corps for August 31, 1862 through February of 1863. This new unit did not actually exist until early November 1862, so the paperwork was technically incorrect, meaning it is likely that Foster was with the 15th Kentucky until at least early November, including Perryville.
This Pioneer Corps was something about which I had not read much previously, and was a bigger unit than I had realized. It was not just a few men from one regiment, but, rather, men from the entire Army of the Cumberland. Foster was in Company A, 1st Battalion of this group. One article provides an informative read on the pioneers, including this excerpt about how and why the unit came into being:
In the western theater…the army’s supply lines often stretched hundreds of miles and the challenging terrain only served to exacerbate the problems. But in the fall of 1862, Maj.Gen.William S. Rosecrans took command of the Army of the Cumberland…He was well versed in military engineering and not only served in the Corps of Engineers after graduation from West Point, but returned to the Academy in 1843 to spend two years teaching engineering. With a solid engineering foundation, Rosecrans envisioned a solution to the problems facing his army. There were not enough engineering officers or enlisted soldiers in the regular army to solve the problem. The solution would have to come from the troops he already had at hand. He imagined a larger and more systematic approach. So, on November 3, 1862, he issued General Orders No. 3.
(The general orders gave the specifics of the brigade’s organization. Please read the rest at the above link.)
It also gives this general overview of the unit’s duties:
George W. Morris of the 81st Indiana describes his observations on General Oder No. 3: “Their work was to build bridges, railroads, cut roads through the cedars for the ambulances, and everything else that the army had to do. A number of times they were fighting like the balance of the army.”
While Foster was in this brigade, the men of the 15th remained in Kentucky and Tennessee, eventually advancing to Murfreesboro, where they were in another bloody contest, the Battle of Stone’s River. They remained near Murfreesboro until June 1863.
Craig Swan wrote a nice piece about the Pioneer unit with some information about its performance at that battle.
Foster’s paperwork shows he remained with the pioneers for only a few months, as he was ordered back to regiment on March 11, 1863 while at Murfreesboro. No reason is given for this order, though the first link reports:
But for all their success, the Pioneer Brigade had its problems. Because of their detached status, soldiers were often still in their original unit rosters. This created complications with pay and equipment issues. In contrast to their laudable work in the field, the brigade created a reputation that was less than positive. Shaman writes, “While the Pioneers performed well enough when concentrated for engineer work under Morton’s watchful eye, they did particularly badly when scattered on pioneer duty with the army.”
Few details are available about Foster’s time immediately after he left the Pioneer Corps, but he was part of the regiment’s provost guard in November and December of 1863. The provost guard helped enforce discipline among the troops.
When Foster rejoined the 15th Kentucky, the regiment remained active over the last few months of 1863. Their movements included the bloodless Tullahoma Campaign, along with the bloody Battle of Chickamauga. They also joined in the campaign leading to and through the Siege of Chattanooga; these men were in reserve during the Battle of Missionary Ridge, serving as the Chattanooga garrison force, with processing prisoners and deserters being among their duties. This assignment - courtesy of their former commander Lovell Rousseau, according to Battle Rages - was easier on the men than marching and fighting. The 15th Kentucky remained in reserve at Chattanooga until April 1864. When 1864 arrived, Foster did not celebrate, spending January and February sick in quarters. His regiment faced another busy year. Its service in 1864 involved post duty around Chattanooga, then marching and fighting in the Atlanta Campaign, including the Siege of Atlanta from July 23 through August 25, and operations against John Bell Hood's Confederates. During the Siege of Atlanta, Foster became a casualty of war. One document reports him as absent, wounded near Atlanta, Ga, Aug 7, 1864, in Hospital, Chattanooga, Tn., while a hospital muster roll footprints a Nashville hospital reports that in July and August 1864, he was attached to the hospital as a patient, remarking pay is due me for the mos. of July & Aug.
His injury happened at the Battle of Utoy Creek. That link includes these words that provide an interesting example of perspective on a battle:
Even the Fourteenth Corps...finally got into action, incurring nearly 200 casualties in sallies against the Rebel works. (Major General William T.) Sherman termed the whole day's proceeding "a noisy but not a bloody battle.") (emphasis added)
I wonder if those 200 men, including Foster Sellers, agreed with Sherman’s description.
The Battle Rages Higher also has a brief description of this fight, including:
As the remainder of Carlin’s brigade came up to entrench along the pits, the lead storm from the Confederate works a few hundred yards away - both musket fire and artillery, shell and canister - continued unabated. The men held on through the rest of the day under what Lt. Col. William Halpin called “trying circumstances,” with six men from the Fifteenth Kentucky wounded during the long afternoon as the men stayed low and waited for nightfall. (page 236)
The Battle of Utoy Creek by Marc Stewart Find it on his website
This blog post discusses the battle as well, and adds information about the above painting and its artist. All of this was during one of the smaller battles this unit, including Foster Sellers, fought, but questions remain about the exact nature of his injury. One form says G.S.W. back, indicating a gunshot wound in his back. Another hospital form appears to indicate a gunshot wound in his back and left knee joint at Atlanta on August 7, due to a conical ball. Per one document, he returned to duty October 3, 1864, which seems to be a quick comeback. It also contradicts other paperwork, but maybe he tried to rejoin the regiment only to find out he physically could not yet handle it. This form was stamped Jeffersonville General Hospital.
A casualty sheet in his file states wounded, rt. leg fractured. A pension card seems to mention a gun shot wound in the back and perhaps gun shot wound of left thigh and “dis” (disease?) of eyes. The Campbell County Genweb site includes a transcription of 1883 pensioners information which mentioned he had a wound in back. One question is how he suffered the apparent back injury. Soldiers not want to be seen as cowards or as running away from the enemy, wanting to be remembered for dying "with my face to the enemy.” Did Forest turn his back to escape the Confederates, or did they just move to an angle where that shot was possible? Does it matter now?
A form for September and October reports his wound again, but this time he was in hospital, Jeffersonville, Ind.
He played the role of a pawn in a game of musical hospitals, as a hospital form for November and December 1864 marks him as present in the Seminary General Hospital in Covington, Ky. Covington is the largest city in Northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. I knew some buildings in Covington had been used as hospitals or prisons during the war, but still uncovered some details that were new to me. The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky describes the Seminary Hospital, one of five Civil War hospitals in the city:
The second in size in Covington was the 218-bed Seminary U.S. General Hospital, on 11th St. near Madison Ave., in a building once part of the Western Baptist Theological Institute; it began in September 1862 and closed in late April 1865.
According to the website of the Kenton County Public Library:
There were three buildings that constituted the Western Baptist Theological Institute. The largest structure was the classroom and dormitory building...The cornerstone of the building was set into place on August 3, 1840.
During the Civil War, the hospital was utilized as a convalescent hospital for wounded Union soldiers. In 1867, the building was purchased by the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis. The sisters relocated their St. Elizabeth Hospital to the site. St. Elizabeth Hospital occupied the building until 1914.
St. Elizabeth remains a major medical presence in the region.
After his tour of the hospitals, Foster did not remain in the army much longer, though one form creates some confusion that no other paperwork clarifies. A “descriptive list of deserters” form for no. 19 USA general hospital in Nashville notes that he deserted on November 11, 1864, and furlough expd Nov 10, 64. Nothing else in his file refers to either a desertion from or a return to the army, but since other paperwork shows that he was in a hospital in Covington during November and December, this was likely a case of so much bureaucracy and paperwork struggling to keep up with so many movements of so many men. The red tape may have gotten stuck on itself. Another sign that he did not desert is a muster out roll from January 14, 1865, completed in Louisville. It notes his wound again, and states he was last paid to December 31, 1863, It seems unlikely he would have been allowed to muster out if he had deserted so late in the war.
Battle Rages states that 969 men served in the 15th Kentucky throughout the war; of these, 134 were killed and 240 wounded, including Foster (page 254)
Once Foster was out of the army in early 1865, he returned to civilian life. He married 16-year-old Sarah E. DeMoss on February 2, 1865, while the war was still ongoing.
The region was largely rural, and Foster took up farming as his occupation for most of his remaining years, raising two sons along the way.
an 1883 book of pensioners reports that he had suffered a "wound in back,"which helped him receive a pension of $8 per month and an 1888 road tax assessment list recorded that he owned 21 acres of land, valued at $400, and $150 worth of stock.
In 1890, his name was included on a Schedule of War Veterans and noted that he had been discharged due to a "wound in back & leg.”
1891 became a sad year for the Sellers family as son Franklin passed away on December 6, at just 25 years of age.
By the time of the 1900 census, Foster still was farming and living with Sarah, while the 1910 census list shows him with an occupation of "own income," which may mean that he had retired, being 73 years old, with a war wound.
Foster Sellers died on April 3, 1920, 83 years old, and was buried in Persimmon Grove Cemetery, the same place his son was buried.
Unfortunately, Foster’s last name was misspelled as "Sellars" on his headstone (but a form on Fold3.com and some records for his parents and brother on the genweb site use that same spelling.
As of September 28, 1864, Foster Sellers’ twin brother Israel stood 5’7” tall, with light complexion, blue eyes, and light hair. He was a farmer who had just enlisted for a one-year term in company F of the 53rd Kentucky Infantry Regiment in Newport, Ky.
Even though Israel’s enlistment form listed Campbell County as his birthplace, this was a mistake. Along with his twin brother Foster, Israel Sellers was born in Bracken County, as mentioned earlier.
Per the 1850 census, Israel’s family lived in Covington, but by 1860 Israel lived with his parents and a younger sister in Carthage, Campbell County.
One year later, on July 25, 1861, Israel married 18-year-old Nancy DeMoss in nearby Pendleton County.
The Sellers lived in a rural area and likely spent the next few years farming, as well as hearing about the ongoing Civil War. Word-of-mouth from friends and neighbors may have kept them informed of the events of the war.
Because he enlisted so late in the war, Israel did not participate in a lot of famous battles, but his unit, the 53rd Kentucky, did help guard the Kentucky Central Railroad between Cincinnati and Lexington, Kentucky, protected the region against guerrillas, and also attacked Confederate salt works in Saltville, Virginia, as part of a raid into Virginia led by George Stoneman.
Israel’s paperwork lists him as present from November 1864 through February 1865, but then the March and April records list him as absent, stating he was in a hospital at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, since April 20, 1865. No details of his illness are given.
He then appears on a detachment muster-out roll, dated May 25, 1865 in Lexington. He had last been paid to February 28 of that year and had been advanced $62.28 in clothing and/or money but was still owed $66.66 in bounty money. His paperwork specifies that his clothing account had never been settled as he mustered out under provisions of general order number 27 from the headquarters of the Department of Kentucky.
A company muster-out form confirmed this information, adding he was at the General Hospital in Lexington.
Once out of the army, Israel Sellers resumed civilian life. At some point, his first wife, Nancy DeMoss Sellers, probably passed away, though I have not found what happened or when. (One theory is that she died in 1864 or earlier and that depression over her death may have motivated him to volunteer to join the army, three years after his twin brother had done so.)
His first known post-war activity is his second marriage, to Mary Carter DeMoss in 1868. Mary was probably a sister to Israel’s first wife Nancy, according to one record on ancestry.com, but other records do not show the same information. That same site indicates that Mary - and, thus, Nancy - were half-sisters to Sarah DeMoss, the wife of Israel’s twin brother Foster.
Additionally, the Sellers’ oldest sister Lydia married John Fletcher DeMoss, brother of the DeMoss ladies mentioned above. (Fletcher also joined Israel in Company F of the 53rd Kentucky.) In their case, this was a “brothers-in-law war.”
By 1880 Israel was a farmer living with Mary and children John, Gertrude, Charles, and Elizabeth. This arrangement tragically changed when Mary died on October 31.
Membership records of the Persimmon Grove Baptist Church lists Israel and Mary as members, but also show that the church dropped him from its rolls on September 16, 1882, so perhaps Mary had been the driving religious force in the household.
Israel married for a third and final time on June 16, 1887, when he wed 44-year-old Melvina Orcutt.
A road assessment list shows that he owned 53 acres of land worth $800 and $150 of stock in 1888 and the 1890 Veterans’ Schedule indicates that he suffered from “piles” (a term for hemorrhoids) and bronchitis.
Israel Sellers passed away on September 6, 1904, at age 67. He was buried in Persimmon Grove Cemetery. His wife Melvina died on July 28, 1923.
Israel’s brother Foster lived until April 3, 1920, when he was 83 years old. He also was buried in Persimmon Grove Cemetery, Unfortunately, his last name was misspelled as "Sellars" on his headstone (not the only instance where the same spelling mistake occurred.)
Neither Foster nor Israel Sellers garnered fame, fortune, or, apparently, much recognition (neither even received the normal headstone that memorialize so many of their comrades) for their Civil War service, and, other than being twins, were similar to hundreds of thousands of other young men who fought to defend their country. Stories like theirs certainly deserve a place in studies of the war and the people it involved.