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UW Libraries receives family papers of General James W. Forsyth; Includes 732 Civil War letters penned to his wife, Lizzie

January 16, 2011
UW Libraries receives family papers of General James W. Forsyth; Includes 732 Civil War letters penned to his wife, Lizzie

1865 photo portrait of James W. Forsyth


Contact: Anne Jenner
Pacific Northwest Curator, Libraries Special Collections
(206) 685-2856 / (206) 543-1929

Media Contact: A.C. Petersen
Libraries Communications Officer
(206) 543-9389


UW Libraries Special Collections has received the papers of James W. Forsyth (1834-1906), a United State Major General who had a distinguished military career during the Civil War and served as General Philip Sheridan's Chief of Staff. Prior to the Civil War, Forsyth served at Fort Bellingham and Fort Pickett in Washington Territory (see scan of J.W.F. at Fort Bellingham). Forsyth was involved in numerous Indian wars and i n December 1890, was in command of troops in the Battle at Wounded Knee in Pine Ridge, South Dakota which spurred an official investigation. Forsyth was cleared of any wrongdoing and went on to serve as Commander of California and was promoted to Major General.

In August 2010, University of Washington pathologist Melissa P. Upton donated her family's papers to Special Collections. Dr. Upton, a great-great-granddaughter of James W. Forsyth and a history major herself, hopes that the papers will be of interest to historians of military history, Pacific Northwest history, Native American history and social history.

While a portion of the papers pertain to the Forsyth and extended families, the bulk of the collection documents and illuminates Forsyth's military career. Forsyth attended West Point, served as an Official Observer to the Franco-Prussian War, spent time in Gulf of Mexico following the Civil War, and was assigned posts at various locations on the frontier during the Indian Wars.. Embedded in his career, he corresponded with military leaders who are significant in our country's history: William Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and Ulysses S. Grant. Also included in the papers is a letter from Elizabeth Bacon Custer (George Custer's wife).

What is remarkable about this collection is that Forsyth wrote over 732 letters to his sweetheart, and later wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Dennison over a period of 20 years which are rich with detail of military campaigns and emotion at being separated from his wife during their courtship, and long after their marriage in 1867. These letters shed light on Forsyth, the man, husband, and father, in addition to his military exploits.

(See the Forsyth Marriage Certificate ).

An October 4, 1868 letter written by Forsyth at Fort Hays to his wife Lizzie, who was then living with her parents (her father was William Dennison, Jr., Governor of Ohio 1860-1862) demonstrates his affection and discusses George Custer, who--after being convicted of desertion and mistreatment of soldiers earlier that year in a military court-- was reinstated to lead campaigns against Indian tribes:

I wrote you, my darling, last night, and sent the letter off by Gen'l Sheridan, it will leave Fort Harker tomorrow morning, and go directly through to you. From the conditions of affairs out in this district of the country, it's impossible for me to tell when I will be able to go home, and see you, my love. I may as well tell you now that you had better direct all letters to me at this place. The General will make his Head Qrs. here or some time come.
The Comanches and Kiowas have just taken the war path, so that we now have a general Indian War on our hands. At the urgent request of Gen'l Sheridan, appro [approved] and strongly recommended by Gen'l Sherman, the unexpired portion of Gen'l Custer's sentence has been remitted, and he has reported in person, today, at these Head Qtrs for assignment, to day. He has been ordered by Gen'l Sheridan to go to Fort Dodge, and take command of the 7th Cavalry, and will start to his post tomorrow morning.
The 7th Cavalry will go south to the Arkansas River and attack against the Indians in that section of the country. I am to go to Fort Dodge tomorrow with Custer, and exert myself in hurrying off this command of busters, after the completion of which I am by my instructions directly to return to these Head Qtrs. Don't forget my darling to write to me at this place and not at Leavenworth. I can't tell you how much I am disappointing my little wife…I had been make just perfection in my mind, of being back with you, my sweetheart, and the first anniversary of the happiest day of my life, the day that you you , my darling , to me for all my life , as my hope , my guardian angel , and my own little loving and devoted wife ….

3 days later, on October 7, 1868, another letter, this time written from Fort Dodge in Kansas begins:

We arrived here last night my darling. Did not even see Indians on the whole trip. I hope that you….not imagined accidents of misfortunes etc. etc. Gen'l Custer is here with me, he is writing to his wife. I wonder if our wives are writing to us??? I don't expect to write much as the courier for Hays starts very soon…We were out last night in one of the most terrible storms that I ever experienced, rain, thunder, lightening, a perfect hail storm of sand and gravel and the cold north wind blowing so strong that they had to brace themselves with both bands on their horses neck to keep from being blown off….

A November 22, 1868 letter from Lizzie in response to Forsyth's October 4 th letter replies:

Many thanks my darling Tony [her nickname for James] for the speedy letter written one past before you left Fort Hays, which reached me only yesterday. It was received with all the joy of my heart, darling, and such with great eagerness for I hardly expected to hear from you again before you reached Fort Dodge….

The papers of James W. Forsyth place him into a social context through which we can better understand his perspective on military events and his actions. (Information and link to finding aid)

There are two other academic institutions that hold the papers of James W. Forsyth: Yale and the University of Michigan.

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contact: A.C. Petersen, Libraries Communications Officer