William Archibald Forbes was the youngest son of John and Elizabeth Forbes, of Richmond, Virginia. His father was a native of Scotland, but came to Virginia in early life, and was a fine scholar, and a lawyer of some reputation. His mother was a daughter of Archibald Bryce, Esq., of Greenfield, Goochland County, Virginia.
William was born in the city of Richmond, May 31, 1824. He was a high-spirited boy, and his parents found it necessary in his earliest years to exercise great firmness in their management of him. So judicious, however, were they in the exercise of parental authority, that they found no difficulty in training him so that he loved, reverenced, and obeyed them implicitly. As a boy, he showed a love for reading, but not being strong was unable to make great progress in his studies, yet he had some proficiency in English branches, Latin, and French when he entered the school of Mr. Hawkesworth in his tenth year. At this school he remained during two sessions, during the first of which his father died. His mother's limited means necessitated his withdrawal at the close of the session in July, 1835, and he was under her instruction until his fourteenth year, when she was induced to place him in business with a firm engaged in the manufacture of tobacco. During the year in which he was thus engaged every cent of his earnings were given to his mother to aid in her support.
When the Virginia Military Institute was established, Mrs. Forbes gladly availed herself of the provision made by the State for those whose means were not sufficient to secure a liberal education, and applied to the board for an appointment for her son as a State cadet. The application was granted, and on the nth of November, 1839, he matriculated as a cadet, and graduated in the first class turned out by the Institute in July, 1842. During his first year Cadet Forbes was not a good student, but in the second class he acquired good habits of study, which he retained through life, contributing eminently to his great success as a professor and college president.
In October, 1842, Mr. Forbes entered upon the duties of assistant in the school of Mr. Thomas Hanson, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. During the session in which he resided inFredericksburg he made a profession of religion and joined the Presbyterian Church.
From October, 1843, until July, 1845, he was engaged in teaching in the Richmond Academy, of which Mr. Burke was principal. His leisure hours at this time were devoted to arduous study; he would rarely visit, but taking a walk every afternoon, would return in time to join his family at the tea-table. He was very cheerful and happy, and the hour he gave to his family after the evening meal was the most delightful part of the day to them.
He was made Assistant Professor of Mathematics _in _die Virginia Military Institute in 1845, and performed his duties as such until July, 1847. His health not being good at thistime, he was advised to become a member of an engineering corps, which he did with satisfactory results, the active life proving of great benefit to him. In the autumn of this year, upon the recommendation of the superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Tactics in Georgetown Military Academy, in Kentucky, and entered upon his duties January I, 1848. In September, 1848, he married his cousin, Miss Sarah L. C. B. Bryce, who died in July, 1851, and their only child died before its mother's death.
The life of Prof. Forbes from this period until he came to Virginia as a regimental commander, in 1861, we give in the words of his friend, General W. A. Quarles:
"In the year 1849, when what is now known as Stewart College was considered the best and most flourishing institution of learning in the State of Tennessee, W. A. Forbes was elected to fill the chair of mathematics.
"When he reached Clarksville, where the college was located, he was a total stranger; but before the expiration of a twelvemonth he could count among his staunchest supporters and friends the leading citizens of "that eminently moral and intelligent community. This college, like all others without a special endowment, was greatly dependent for its success upon the energy and enterprise of its faculty; and it is no slur on his worthy colleagues to say that at the expiration of two years Prof. Forbes was regarded by all of them as its main-stay, prop, and support. The trustees soon recognized this to be the case, and as an expression of their appreciation and confidence made him the President of the Faculty.
"With what energy and success he discharged his duties all who lived here can attest, and the high positions held by the graduates of the school in this State both during and since the war illustrate more strongly than language can tell it his success as a teacher. His great energy of character and practical good sense was further exemplified in his connection with all the leading business interests of the county; in feet, in every enterprise that looked to the advancement of the interest of the people with whom he had cast his lot he felt and took the deepest interest, until none was undertaken without his co-operation, advice, or sanction.
"In the year 1853 President Forbes was married to Mrs. Garland, of Clarksville (widow of that distinguished orator and jurist, Hudson Garland, also a son of Virginia), a lady so distinguished for every virtue and accomplishment, so universally respected and beloved, that there was a personal feeling of regret that there should be a monopoly of the affections of one who had been so long the pride and pet of the social circle of her native town.
"President Forbes was, as may be readily surmised, successful in business, and in 1861 was living in the suburbs of Clarksville in a delightful and elegant home, his accomplished wife and manly boy (the fruit of his last marriage) both adorning and brightening his life, when the cloud of war fell upon the whole land.
"President Forbes unhesitatingly, and as a matter of course, embraced the cause of the South. It was known that he was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, and at once all _eyes _were turned to him to take the lead in military movements. His first impulse was to go to Virginia and offer his sword to his mother State; but ever ready to follow the line of usefulness, he felt that in the then ignorance of military matters in Tennessee his duty was to stay.
"The State of Tennessee halted some time before determining to unite her destinies with the Confederate States. Many of her best men thought it the wisest to wait until the other border Southern States would go with her, and in the mean while to organize and equip for the conflict. In pursuance of this view, the Legislature authorized the enlisting, equipping, and disciplining a force of twenty-five thousand men, to be known as the ' Provisional Army of Tennessee.'
"Governor Harris, with his usual promptitude and energy, organized his staff, established camps of instruction, and the work was speedily completed. President Forbes'sservices he found absolutely indispensable; and though at an early day he had been elected colonel of the glorious old 14th, so greatly was his skill and knowledge in demand, that it was rarely the case he could be present with his regiment while undergoing that most important transition stage from the citizen to the soldier; but by an energy of action almost passing credence he managed to most thoroughly drill and discipline his own regiment, and almost all the other regiments of the Provisional Army of Tennessee. The writer of this communication remembers Colonel Forbes's perplexity when he had just reached the camp of his regiment, and was congratulating himself that he could now remain with them and supply all deficiencies, and a succession of telegrams came,—the first ordering him to Memphis, to aid Generals Polk and Pillow, another, to Camp Trausdale, where Zollicoffer was in command, and said he could not get along without him, then a peremptory order from Governor Harris, the commander-in-chief, that he should repair at once to Nashville, to look after the whole of the artillery army of the service.
"That he was the father of the Provisional Army of Tennessee all who remember the history o(the times will admit, and the brilliant service of these regiments fully attest and proudly pronounce his great ability as a military man. As an organizer and disciplinarian Colonel Forbes had no superior; as a commander in the field, he who has the commendation of Stonewall Jackson needs no eulogy from my pen. That he had the confidence of this matchless Christian hero and warrior the last records of the lost cause would show, and but for his untimely death, in the second Manassas fight, his name would have illustrated a broader though not a more perfect page of its history. ColonelForbes was ordered with his regiment (the 14th Tennessee Infantry) to Virginia soon after the first Manassas, and never returned to Tennessee. With the records of the grand old Army of Northern Virginia is the rest of his military life, which I leave for others who served with him to record. In Tennessee his name is a household word. To his instructions not only her private soldiers, but such men as Zollicoffer, Rains,- Robb, Harrell, McCombs, and a host of others owe whatever of efficiency they attained or of honors they won. He belongs, therefore, not alone to Virginia; and when the day shall come, as come it will, for monuments _to our dead, _Tennessee will vie with his mother State in doing him honor. I have thus complied with your request to give you a brief outline of Colonel Forbes's life in Tennessee. Much more might be written, but the space you limit me to will admit of no more. When the biographies of the soldiers of Tennessee shall be written, the details of his life, rich in exemplary illustrations of the soldier and the gentleman, will be found on its pages.
"I passed by his home but a few hours ago. The shrubs that he planted have grown to be trees. The young vines have covered his bowers with their broad foliage and brightened them with their purple fruit.
‘But oh for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still!'
“His wife (still his widow) lives therewith his only child and son, named for him. She exemplifies in a life of modest retirement and usefulness the nobler characteristics of her sex, while the son, with ail the softer graces of his mother's character blends the sterner virtues of his father's life."
About the 12th of July, 1861, Colonel Forbes was ordered to Virginia, but on reaching Knoxville was ordered to report to Brigadier-General S. R. Anderson, commanding the 1st Brigade of the Provisional Army of Tennessee. General Anderson found it necessary to deploy his brigade from Knoxville to Bristol, to protect the railroad between those points, and Colonel Forbes was ordered to Johnsonville. He was very anxious to move immediately to Virginia, but General Anderson deemed it best to remain and protect the railroad, at least until all the troops from the South had passed through East Tennessee. After a week or ten days his command was ordered to Lynchburg, but before they arrived in Virginia the first battle of Manassas had been fought. Colonel Forbes was greatly disappointed that he had not been permitted to be among the first who repelled the enemy from his native State. After a few days at Lynchburg, General S. R. Anderson's Brigade, composed of the 1st Tennessee, Colonel Manney, 7th Tennessee, Colonel Hatten, and 14th Tennessee, Colonel Forbes, was ordered to West Virginia, and reported to General R. E. Lee, in Pocahontas County. There they remained in camp for several weeks, and Colonel Forbes was very active in drilling and disciplining his command. About the 10th of September, 1861, Generals Anderson and Loring moved simultaneously on Croutz and Cheat Mountain fortifications; General Anderson to take possession of the turnpike in rear of Cheat Mountain, and cut the line of communication between these two strongly fortified positions. In this movement General Loring was successful at all points in getting the positions assigned, but General Lee concluded not to attack these strong points, as it would involve so great a loss of life. General Loring was accordingly ordered to fall back to Greenbrier River, near Huntersville. Colonel Forbes and General Donaldson were detached from the command to hold this responsible position, while General Lee moved with the remainder to the support of Generals Wise and Floyd. General Rosecrans finding himself confronted by Lee and Loring, withdrew his army. Shortly after, the command was ordered to join Jackson in the Valley, and with him suffered all the privations, fatigue, cold and wet of the winter campaign of 1862, the severest of the war. Throughout this campaign Colonel Forbes was always at his post, sharing the hardships of his men, never taking a meal nor lodging in a house during the whole time.
After returning to Winchester, General Loring's Division was disbanded, and Colonel Forbes was ordered to report to General Holmes, at Fredericksburg. Here the brigade to which the 14th Tennessee was attached was reorganized, and sent to Yorktown to support General Magruder. When the army was reorganized in April, Colonel Forbes was unanismously re-elected by his regiment.
On the retreat from Yorktown, the enemy landed a large force at the White House, on Pamunkey River, and opened fire, at short range, on Colonel Forbes's regiment, as he was moving to join General Hood. The Colonel, ever quick to decide and act, charged with one-half of his regiment on the enemy's flank just as General Hood charged. Thrown into confusion by this double attack, their lines broke, and a rapid retreat was made to their gunboats. On the 24th of May the enemy, in considerable force, advanced on the Nine-Mile Road, where Colonel Forbes was on picket duty, but he, with his gallant regiment and Captain Braxton's artillery, repulsed them several times, inflicting severe loss upon them, with but little to his own forces.
At the battle of Seven Pines, the Tennessee Brigade, commanded by General Hatten (General Anderson having resigned on account of bad health), was attached to General G. W. Smith's Division. This division was not engaged until late in the afternoon, and at dark ceased attempting to drive the enemy farther, General Smith finding that they were massed in heavy force in front. Colonel Forbes had moved in his regiment as coolly as if on parade-ground, and when the order was given to cease advancing, he remained in position long enough to remove the wounded, and then retreated in good order. In this engagement the loss to the 14th Tennessee was very heavy. Here, too, the gallant Hatten fell.
After this battle the brigade was transferred to A. P. Hill's Division. Wounded slightly at Mechanicsville, and at Cold Harbor Colonel Forbes received such a severe wound that he was forced to go to the hospital for some days, and was thus prevented from being with his regiment at Fraser's Farm and Malvern Hill, where it fought gallantly. Soon after the latter battle he resumed his command.
During the progress of these battles around Richmond*, in (act, the day before he received his wound at Cold Harbor, Colonel Forbes wrote to his sisters in Richmond that by the blessing of God he had been spared through another battle, and at the same time he sent them one hundred dollars to pay their taxes, which he had done in the June of every year, from the time when he could spare it from his limited income. A touching incident, characteristic of the man, that amidst the turmoil and danger of battle he was thoughtful of duties which most men forget under like circumstances.
In the battle of Cedar Run, August 9, 1862, the 14th Tennessee took part, losing, among others, its brave lieutenant-colonel, George A. Harrell. At the second battle of Manassas, August 28, 29, and 30, Colonel Forbes evinced great skill and bravery, acting as if he foresaw that this was the last tribute he could pay to liberty, for here he sealed his devotion to the cause now lost, with his blood. He fell where a soldier would wish to die,—in the forefront of battle, with his face to the foe. His body, uncoffined, was buried where he fell, and there rested until 1866, when it was moved to Shockoe Hill Cemetery, in Richmond, being buried there, on the 10th of July, with military honors by a detachment of the Richmond Grays, under the command of Colonel W. M. Elliott, a friend, college-mate, and comrade of Colonel Forbes.
Of the many noble sons of Virginia who lost their lives commanding troops from other States, no one had done more for his adopted State than Colonel Forbes. As an educator of the sons of Tennessee, as the organizer of her untrained forces, as the commander of her most noble regiment, whose blood stained every field in their colonel's battle-scarred State, he did her service and gained her honor of which she will be never forgetful.
(Source: Biographical sketches of the Graduates and Eleves of the Virginia Military Institute who fell during the war between the States, by Chas. D. Walker. Published 1875. Transcribed and submitted to Genealogy Trails by Linda Rodriguez)