Friday, June 6, 2014

Melvin A. Foss - A hard-luck soldier in the Union Army

Family lineage: 1  Melvin Alan Foss, 2  Melvin Edward Foss, 3 Estella Elizabeth Foss,
4 Harold Victor Hayward, 5 Judith Ann Hayward

1844 – 1926

This Union Army soldier was born February 22, 1844 in Fairfield, Vermont, the 4th of 5 children. Although his family had been living in New Hampshire and Vermont for almost 200 years, Melvin seems to have felt the urge to head to new places - away from family expectations and traditions.  He was described as 5 feet, 8 inches tall, fair complected; with light colored  hair and blue eyes.

There is no documentation on when or why he left Vermont, but the 1860 census taken in Worth, Iowa showed 18 year old Melvin living with a Stanley family, whose household also included a 17 year old girl from Norway named Ann Lee. The “what ifs “ and “maybes” have been buried in time, and there is no record of whether Ann and Melvin were ever an “item” or simply shared a home with the Stanleys.  But we do know that sometime after that census was taken, he continued his long journey until arriving in Mankato, Minnesota where, in 1863, he met and married Sarah Ann Nelson, a first generation American.

Just a few months after their marriage, Melvin traveled over 90 miles on horseback to Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota to enlist in the H Company of the Second  Minnesota Cavalry.  This regiment  remained in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory for its entire three year existence in order to guard against incursions by the Sioux Indians. 

Poor Melvin did not have a successful career in the cavalry. In fact, his life could have been likened to “Joe Btfsplk”, a character in Al Kapp's popular cartoon, “Little Abner”, who would have had no luck at all if it wasn't bad!  On April 14, 1864, while participating in a Company drill, his horse became unmanageable. Although he desperately tried to get it back under control, Melvin was unseated and fell to the ground, landing hard on the left side of his body. Seeing what had happened, a friend managed to carry him to his quarters in the hope he would recover with a little rest  But as the pain increased instead of decreasing, he was soon taken to a hospital where he was treated for two fractured ribs (if you've ever cracked or broken even one rib, you have an idea how painful that injury was and how long it would take to heal under "normal" circumstances - and riding a horse was not one of them).

However, by June he had recovered sufficiently to re-join Company H, which was supporting General Alfred Sully's Indian Expedition. General Sully had been ordered to establish several forts along the Missouri River and the eastern Dakotas in order to secure the communication routes to the goldfields and to eliminate the Sioux threat to the settlers east of the Missouri River. Sully's army was the largest ever assembled to combat the Plains Indians and was comprised of more than 4,000 men.

Remember “Joe Btfsplk”?  While riding in the Expedition, Melvin contracted diarrhea so severe that he was taken by hospital boat ambulance to Fort Rice in the Dakota Territory, where he remained until the return of his fellow soldiers from the Yellowstone territory several weeks later. By that time he was feeling considerably better, so Melvin rode with his company to Fort Wadsworth in the  Dakota Territory where (you guessed it) not only did he have to be treated for a recurrence of diarrhea but he was also still experiencing pain from his still unhealed broken ribs.

That was it for his wartime activities!   From that time on, he continued to be weakened and felt severe pain on his left side. Even though he couldn't perform his duty as a soldier, he had been obliged to ride his horse to the hospital in Fort Wadsworth, where he remained  until he was discharged with the rest of his company in April 1866. Despite his painful and shortened active military career, he received a $14 per month pension until 1884, which helped support his and Sarah's nine children and continued to live in Minnesota.

Melvin A. Foss
Sarah Nelson Foss
Surprisingly, despite all his earlier health problems he outlived his wife, Sarah by nine years, and died at age 82.