Monday, May 2, 2022

The Webber Brothers of Lockport

Civil War Cannon. Courtesy
 One of the greatest thrills of doing historical research is not necessarily finding something you’ve been looking for to complete the project you’re working on. Sometimes, it’s finding something entirely unrelated that takes you on a whole new journey. That’s how we got to this article. What started out as an endeavor to prove an address ended up so much better. 

While looking for an advertisement in old Lockport newspapers that proved the address of Arcade Hall on Pine Street for another project I’m working on, I found an article describing a lecture there by General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick about his experiences during Sherman’s March to the Sea. Kilpatrick was introduced by “General Webber of this city” who also gave a short lecture on the purpose of the Grand Army of the Republic Organization.

Alonzo Watson Webber was born in Lockport on February 17, 1839, the son of Alonzo C. Webber and Emeline Tenney. His father died young, either December 16, 1848 or 1849, leaving Emeline as a widow with four small children, according to the 1850 census. The senior Alonzo was not quite 40 when he passed, an unfortunate trait that he seemingly passed down to three of his children.

When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, A. Watson Webber almost immediately joined the army. For reasons as yet unclear, he was residing in St Louis, Missouri, despite that he appears in Lockport for the 1860 and 1865 censuses. Webber enlisted in the aftermath of the Camp Jackson Affair in St Louis in May. The Camp Jackson Affair was an altercation between the pro-secessionist and anti-secessionist factions in the city of St Louis. 

While Missouri was technically a slave state, there were not many slaves nor slave owners there. The political atmosphere was one of public apathy but private convictions. Many of the state’s leaders sympathized with the Confederacy and supported secession behind closed doors, in opposition to many of the residents who did not support leaving the Union even though they related more with the southern rebellion. As a result, the state as a whole voted not to secede, but vowed to stay neutral and not provide aid to either side in the conflict. 

In the midst of this, the St Louis Arsenal housed over 40,000 rifles and muskets which would be of great benefit to either the Union or the Confederacy. The city suddenly had a target upon it. Governor Claiborne Jackson was one of the leaders who privately wished for secession and broached the subject of seizing the arsenal and its contents. He contacted Jefferson Davis to provide howitzers and siege guns to accomplish the task. While waiting for an answer, Jackson set up a militia camp about five miles from the arsenal and christened it after himself. 

All this was unbeknownst to Captain Nathanial Lyon, who was in command of the Department of the West, of which St Louis was a part. After Confederacy supporters seized a smaller arsenal in Liberty, Missouri, Lyons believed that St Louis was next. He ordered a majority of the guns there to be secretly moved to another location, then set about to find out the truth behind the militia forces at Camp Jackson. 

After secretly entering the camp in disguise, Lyons determined that an attack on the arsenal by the rebel forces was imminent. He returned to the camp on May 10th with 6,000 volunteers and forced the surrender of Governor Claiborne’s opposition troops. As the prisoners were marched back through the streets for parole, secessionist supporters lined the streets berating the Union soldiers, and throwing rocks and garbage at them. Ultimately, shots were fired at some point, resulting in the fatal wounding of Captain Blandowski of the 3rd Missouri Infantry. When the troops returned fire, it resulted in 28 civilian deaths, including women and children. Several days of civil unrest followed.

Governor Jackson declared martial law on May 11th and the Missouri Legislature passed legislation that created the Missouri State Guard and ultimately gave Jackson nearly dictatorial powers in the state. Pro-unionists declared that the legislation was a “secessionist act in all but name.” It was in this immediate aftermath that A. Watson Webber enlisted in the 1st Missouri Infantry on May 18, 1861 as a 1st Lieutenant.

Webber was only a part of the 1st Missouri Infantry for a short time before transferring in July to the 5th Missouri Infantry for a short while. During his time with his original unit, Webber took part in the First Battle of Boonville on June 17th. The battle was little more than a skirmish, but it played a major role in the Civil War, especially in the western theater. Federal troops were able to hold control on the Missouri River and stopped the state from joining the Confederacy completely.

Webber continued at his rank of 1st Lieutenant in his new regiment, the 5th Missouri Infantry. He would only serve with this unit a month before it was disbanded after a devastating failure in August during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. During that engagement, Sigel mistook Confederate troops from Louisiana for Federal troops from Iowa, and allowed them to attack his troops from point blank range. The 5th Missouri was forced a hasty retreat to Springfield and Rolla, before being recalled to St Louis for disbandment.

Webber’s military service between August 12th and October 11th is unknown, but he ends up in the 3rd Missouri Infantry as a 1st Lieutenant and with a promotion to Adjutant. He would serve in the 3rd Missouri for the next year and half in this capacity. During his tenure with this regiment, Webber saw much of the Mississippi Delta and American Mid-South. In early 1862, he was in the pursuit of Confederate General Sterling Price through Missouri and Arkansas. In the latter, Webber once again took part in a battle that confirmed Union control on most of the Mississippi after a victory over superior Confederate forces at the Battle of Pea Ridge March 6-8, 1862. The lone Confederate stronghold remained surrounding Vicksburg.

After spending most of the rest of the year 1862 on expeditions around Arkansas and Missouri, the 3rd Missouri finished out the year and into 1863 taking part in the Yazoo River Expedition as Union forces sought a way to get around the Confederate guns at Vicksburg. Webber and the 3rd Missouri were part of the fruitless endeavor to dislodge rebel guns from the heights on Chickasaw Bluffs December 26-29, and they retreated to Arkansas. There, they rebounded with a Union victory with the capture of Fort Hindman.

The regiment moved to Louisiana afterwards until March, when they moved towards assisting Admiral David D. Porter’s foray around Vicksburg through Steele’s Bayou and Deer Creek. Ironically, this engagement also included another Lockport native, Michael Huskey. Huskey was serving in the Navy on the USS Carondelet, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in the tug, Ivy, while under fire. It is unlikely that they knew of each other, but it is interesting that two men from Lockport and two divergent places in life would meet up in the remote wilds of the Mississippi Delta.

Almost all of the first half of 1863 saw the 3rd Missouri in action around Vicksburg, as Grant dedicated himself to the surrender and capture of that city. Webber was present at the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. Shortly after that decisive victory, A. Watson Webber was given a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and was transferred to the 1st Mississippi Infantry of African Descent. As a leader in this regiment, Webber remained encamped around Vicksburg to support the Union control of the city and the river into the early months of 1864.

During the time that the 1st Mississippi was entrenched in defense of Vicksburg, an atrocity of war reared its ugly head. On February 14, 1864, a detachment of soldiers from Company G was foraging for food at a plantation along the Mississippi River when it was discovered by Confederate cavalry from Missouri. Gunfire was exchanged between the rebel contingent and Union guards. When the rest of the detachment heard the shots, they formed a line of battle and fired on the approaching horsemen. Unfortunately, the encroaching troops were too close to allow them to reload. They were forced into an unorganized retreat.

The Confederate soldiers quickly subdued the fleeing African-American men. There are conflicting reports as to whether the entire detachment was killed or if only thirteen were killed. What is not in dispute is that the rebels pinned the dead Union soldiers to the ground with their own bayonets. Also killed in the fray was the 1st lieutenant of Company G, Thaddeus K. Cock of Ohio. These actions were likely a direct result of a decision by the Confederate Congress that Black soldiers and their white officers should be treated more severely than their white counterparts. Abraham Lincoln responded with a threat of reprisal on Confederate prisoners of war. Aside from the action here and the massacre at Fort Pillow in April, the rebel order was mostly ignored after Lincoln’s proclamation.

On March 11, 1864, the 1st Mississippi Infantry to melded into the Federal Army as the 51st United Color Troops (USCT) officially, although the troops were considered to be part of this larger unit as early as July 28, 1863. It was in this unit that the Webber brothers were reunited.

Alfred Thomas Webber, the younger brother of A. Watson, was born in Lockport on March 23, 1841. He initially volunteered for service during the Civil War while in Ohio, enlisting in the 84th Ohio Infantry on May 26, 1862 as a private. During his time in that unit, Alfred was in Maryland and West Virginia, attached to the Railroad District. He was stationed at Fort Fuller at New Creek to protect the railroad there. He fulfilled his three-month enlistment and was mustered out at Camp Delaware in Ohio on September 20, 1862. Like with his brother, there is no indication why Alfred was in Ohio during this time. Alfred would re-enlist on August 22, 1863 in Louisiana as a lieutenant in Company B of the 51st USCT.

Meanwhile, Watson was given another promotion from lieutenant-colonel to colonel of the 51st USCT on March 15, 1864. This regiment spent most of 1864 in Louisiana and Mississippi through relative inaction. There were a few minor skirmishes where they saw action, but nothing major. By December, 1864, they were back at Vicksburg to defend the city from possible Confederate attack. By February, 1865, they were on the move again with orders sending them to Algiers, Louisiana and then to Pensacola, Florida. During the time A. Watson was at Pensacola, he was breveted to Brigadier General. Also, Alfred was promoted to Captain of Company B on December 23, 1863.

Alfred was under arrest at the end of December with a trial for his court-martial taking place on December 31st. “One officer thought it was his business to personally order the cleaning of a gun and the police of quarters and afterwards to attend to the punishment of the soldier, Captain Webber, with many mistaken notions of his position, attempted to tie the soldier and thus got into a personal difficulty with him, and after shooting him, very familiarly addressed him by his Christian name.” He was found not guilty of disorderly conduct, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. 

The Webber brothers and the 51st USCT engaged in the final major battle of the Civil War with the Battle of Fort Blakeley in Alabama. As part of the Column from Pensacola in the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, the 51st were part of the troops that surrounded the fort on April 1st. Union soldiers built rings of earthworks around the fort, creeping ever closer to the walls. After the fall of Spanish Fort on April 8th, Brigadier General John Hawkins sent an additional 16,000 troops to Blakeley. The Confederates at the fort surrendered shortly after 5:30pm on April 9th. The 51st then occupied the surrendered city of Mobile, Alabama on April 12th.

Despite the war being over, the 51st continued in its duty. They occupied Montgomery, Alabama from April until June. During this time, Alfred Webber resigned his commission and made his new home in Mississippi. He claimed that chronic illness forced him to retire and find a healthier lifestyle. Meanwhile, A. Watson continued his service. He and his troops were ordered to Texas for duty along the Rio Grande. They were finally mustered out on June 16, 1866. 

For young men, they had very short lives after the Civil War. Alfred remained in Mississippi for the rest of his life, working in the grocery business. He died March 27, 1872 at Carson’s Landing in Bolivar County, Mississippi. Despite the distance from Lockport, the funeral was held from the home of his mother at 94 Niagara Street. He was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. 

Alonzo Watson Webber returned to Lockport after he was mustered out in June 1866, engaging in the business of law with Scripture & Gardner. After the retirement of Henry D. Scripture at the end of 1867, Watson was promoted to partner with Hiram Gardner, forming Gardner & Webber in January 1868. During the same time period, Webber was the secretary of Lockport’s Grant Club, which was a fraternal organization of like-minded Republican war veterans who were promoting Ulysses S Grant for President in the election of 1868. In 1869, he was still in Lockport as evidenced by his introduction at General Kilpatrick’s speech at the Arcade Hall on January 28, 1869. He is shown as living with his mother in the 1870 Census for Lockport. 

Sometime after the 1870 census, Watson moved to Jackson, Mississippi. He is shown as the editor of the Mississippi Weekly Pilot by December 10, 1870. This was a Republican paper that was firmly in support of President Grant and supporting more rights for Blacks across the nation. It is unclear how long he was editor of the paper, but by 1875, he is no longer listed as such on the masthead. An article from that newspaper in August 1875, states that he was visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas and was a resident of Washington County, Mississippi.

Alonzo Watson Webber died on July 5, 1876 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 37 years old. Just like his brother, Alfred, his funeral was held at his mother’s house. On July 10, 1876, William W. Bush ordered that the veterans of the city meet at Bush’s Hotel at 33 Main Street in order to attend the funeral of Webber as one group. Webber was interred at Glenwood Cemetery next to his brother. 

As for Watson’s and Alfred’s other brothers, only one survived beyond the age of 40. Luman Webber, born on April 13, 1844 in Lockport. According to Alfred’s obituary, Luman was the sheriff of Washington County, Mississippi. He did not have the same auspicious career of either of his brothers. In 1875, he was brought up on charges that as tax collector for Washington County, he was pocketing about half of the taxes that he collected for the entire county. In October 1875, he was removed from his position by county leaders. On June 10, 1876, a grand jury was investigating the claims, preparing to move forward. On June 16, 1876, while in Lockport, Luman died at the tender age of 32. Again the funeral was held from 94 Niagara Street and he was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. 

Edward was the youngest brother, and the only sibling to survive beyond his thirties. He was born in Lockport on November 11, 1848. In 1870, he was still living with his mother on Niagara Street. On September 3, 1873, he married Kate Patterson at Grace Episcopal Church, and a year later they had a daughter. However, by 1879, Kate is listed as a widow and according to the 1880 census, he was in Buckeye Station, Arizona. Ever the wanderer, Edward is married a second time in South Dakota in 1885. Meanwhile, Kate was still alive, living in Lockport with her parents and listed as a widow in the city directories. It is likely they were divorced. 

In 1890, Edward is one of prominent businessmen in Seattle. He finally found a home by 1894 when he was living in Yolo County, California. He is listed in the 1900 census as living in Woodland, California and was the manager of the Woodland Opera House. Edward died in Woodland on July 20, 1917, and is buried in the Woodland Cemetery at that place.

In a time that many of us believe that people didn’t travel, the four Webber brothers saw much more of the country than many of us have. They saw it when it was still the wild frontier, waiting to be “tamed” by progress. They saw some of the ugliest moments that their fellow man had to offer. From Lockport to Ohio, Missouri, California, and the Dakotas, the Webber brothers saw much. 

When the winds of war arose, Watson and Alfred both volunteered to fight for the soul of their country. Their devotion put them into leadership positions among the United States Colored Troops, stationed in a part of the country that could have brought deeply more dangerous consequences for their lives. Yet they persevered. Despite all their travels around the country, three of the four brothers ended up buried in their hometown. For them, Lockport was home, no matter where else they roamed.

Craig Bacon is the Deputy Historian for Niagara County, and is the historian for the City of Lockport. Do not reproduce without permission from the author.