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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

More Adventure Than He Wanted: William Foeste Sr.’s Civil War

William Foeste Sr.jpg
William R. Eddleman Collection.
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William Foeste Sr. in about 1890. Note his GAR medal.

German immigrants comprised over 25% of recruits among the 110,000 Missourians who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. They came to America to escape military service to authoritarian governments, to benefit from economic opportunity, or to own land. It is a testament to their commitment to their new homes and support of the Union that they enlisted in such numbers.

Many made substantial sacrifices. Such is the case with one Cape Girardeau County immigrant—William Foeste Sr. Foeste came to America from the village of Groß Lafferde in the Kingdom of Hanover in about 1844. His father, stepmother, and brothers eventually followed. He married Henrietta Maevers, lived near Egypt Mills, and by 1861 had three surviving children. William joined Co. F, 29th Missouri Volunteer Infantry at Cape Girardeau on August 24, 1862. He was age 36, 5 feet seven inches tall, with blue eyes and brown hair, and was a farmer.

The regiment mustered in on September 18 in Cape Girardeau. After marches and patrols in southeast Missouri, they departed for Vicksburg, Mississippi on December 8. During the Vicksburg campaign, they fought in the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. After Vicksburg fell, Company F served as Provost guards until late September 1863. The regiment traveled to Memphis, then northern Alabama, before deployment to Chattanooga, Tennessee. They participated in the attack on Missionary Ridge on November 25. Union troops under General Hooker pursued retreating Confederates into Ringgold Gap, Georgia on November 27, thinking they faced few defenders. However, the rear guard under Gen. Patrick Cleburne, sprang a trap. Texas troops cut off the 29th, captured the regimental colors, and killed or captured many, including William Foeste.

Prisoners went to overcrowded prisons in Richmond, Virginia. However, a new POW camp opened in Georgia, to which Foeste traveled on February 15, 1864. The camp is synonymous with the horrors of war: Andersonville. A stockade enclosed the sixteen and a half acre prison. A small stream bisected the enclosure, providing water at the upper end, and sewage disposal at the lower. By June, Andersonville housed 26,000 men. Shelters were mostly makeshift tents and food was scarce. Of 45,000 men housed in the camp, over 13,000 died of disease, malnutrition, and exposure.

William gradually became debilitated from poor diet. He entered the camp hospital with scorbutus, or severe scurvy, on October 11. His captors transferred him to Savannah, Georgia in mid-November. There authorities paroled and exchanged him. His recovery continued in Charleston, SC, then Annapolis Junction, Maryland by December 4. Foeste received a furlough December 22 to January 21, when he was to report to Camp Chase, Ohio. However, he returned to Cape Girardeau’s post hospital by January 19.

Foeste remained hospitalized until March 22, 1865, when he received a discharge for general debility “from Scorbutes with some ulceration of inferior extremities and a general aedemic condition caused by exposure and deficient nutrition while a prisoner in the hands of the rebels.”

William Foeste lived another 50 years, dying at age 89 in 1916. He was active in the Justi Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. The horrors of his war captivity can be summed up by his own words, spoken years later to a hired man on his farm. “They damn near killed me in that camp.” Comparable stories survive of German immigrants from the Civil War, some surviving unscathed, others dying in battle or of disease, and still others, like Foeste, surviving wounds or captivity in service to their adopted country.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.