Pvt. Frederick C. Anderson won the nation’s highest battlefield honor. In Part 1, we examine what can be found about his childhood.
On the morning of Aug. 24, 1861, four months after the surrender of Fort Sumter, several hundred men comprising the eight companies of the 18th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment gathered at Camp Brigham in Dedham.
These men, answering President Lincoln’s call for troops, were not professional soldiers and had been enlisted from all walks of life. Among the group mustered in that day were “nailers,” “fish dealers,” “bonnet pressers,” “tinkers,” “carriage makers” and as one man, Horatio N. Dallas, put it, “gentleman.”
The majority of the men were farmers, including Pvt. Frederick C. Anderson of Raynham.
Recruiting, so easy at this point of the war, would become quite a different matter by 1862 when the long casualty lists being posted in local papers began to dampen the enthusiasm of potential soldiers.
In August 1861, patriotism and love of adventure could be counted on to fill the ranks.
Almost 3 million men would serve in the Union forces over the next four years.
Less than 1 percent of these soldiers (1,520) would be awarded the nation’s highest battlefield decoration, the Medal of Honor.One of the 1,520 was Frederick C. Anderson.
Much of Anderson’s life remains a mystery. Like a ghost, he moved through the landscape without leaving an imprint. He emerges occasionally in census reports and service records, only to retreat again into the murk of history.
“The information we’ve collected on Frederick C. Anderson is more than we have on some, but less than we have on many others,” writes Donald Thompson, an author currently working on an extensive history of the 18th Regiment. “We’ve never found any letters or diaries written by him and we’ve never found letters or diaries from comrades where he was referenced.”
Listed in regimental records as “19 years old, 5 foot 3 inches in height, with a light complexion, blue eyes and sandy hair,” Anderson was smaller and younger than the typical Civil War soldier.
According to historian Bell I. Wiley, who pioneered the study of the common Civil War soldier, the average Yank or Reb was a “white, native-born, farmer, protestant, single, between 18 and 29.” He stood about 5 foot 8 inches tall and weighed about 143 pounds. Most soldiers were between the ages of 18 and 39, with an average age just younger than 26.
Anderson would serve with the 18th throughout the war, seeing action in several major battles including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
It was for his actions during the somewhat obscure Second Battle of Weldon Railroad on Aug. 21, 1864, that Anderson earned his Medal of Honor.
On that day, Anderson captured the battle flag of the 27th South Carolina Infantry.
It had been a long, lonely and sometimes harrowing road on the way to that field of glory in Virginia.
Anderson had survived a childhood as grim and hopeless as any Dickensian fiction. It is telling that after three years of war, Anderson re-enlisted in 1864 for another three-year tour of duty. Perhaps he had found a home in the army that he had never known in civilian life.
Born to Frederick C. and Elizabeth Anderson on March 25, 1842, in Boston, Anderson next appears in the 1850 U.S Census as an 8-year-old residing at an almshouse in South Boston called the House of Industry.
Josiah Quincy, seeking a sensible approach to public welfare, had established the House of Industry in 1823.
Quincy was content to extend municipal charity to what he called the “impotent poor”- infants, the sick and the disabled.
The “able poor,” roughly everyone else - including young children like Anderson - would be required to work for their keep at a House of Industry.
“The Boston House of Industry was regarded when it was built as the perfect model for a new type of labor- providing workhouse,” writes Albert Deutsch in his book “The Mentally Ill In America.”
The Utopia didn’t last long. Only 10 years later, the House of Industry was assailed in a scathing report to the Massachusetts Legislature:
“The institution has become at once a general infirmary. An asylum for the insane and refuge for the deserted and the most destitute children of the city - so great is the proportion of the aged and infirm, of the sick and insane, idiots and helpless children in it.”
Anderson escaped this bleak existence with the advent of the “Orphan Trains.”
A forerunner of modern foster care, the Orphan Trains were an ambitious and controversial effort begun in the 1850s to rescue poor and homeless children in America’s teeming Eastern cities.
Some of these children, infants to age 15, were orphans. Many were homeless street kids and others were given up by parents unable to provide for their well-being. Some had been abandoned by their families, were runaways, or had been removed from abusive homes.
It’s impossible to say from which of these backgrounds Anderson came, though the disappearance of his parents, Frederick C. and Elizabeth Anderson, from all public records after 1850, points to Anderson being an orphan.
The PBS documentary, “The Orphan Trains” describes the plight of one city’s forgotten children:
“Thousands of children roamed city streets in search of money, food and shelter and often fell prey to disease and crime.”
Many of these children sold matches, rags, or newspapers to survive. For protection against street violence, they banded together and formed gangs. Police, faced with a growing problem, were known to arrest vagrant children -- some as young as 5 -- locking them up with adult criminals.”
The Orphan Trains ran from 1854 until 1929, carrying hundreds of thousands of destitute city children to rural homes across the country.
Handbills would be posted in towns along the train route heralding the arrival of cargoes of children. As the trains pulled into towns, the youngsters were cleaned up and paraded on stages before crowds of prospective parents.
The kids would be inspected, poked and prodded in an effort to ascertain their fitness.
Those who weren’t selected were packed back onto the trains and moved on to the next town.
“The trains were part of a Placing Out program developed by the Children’s Aid Society of Boston,” said National Orphan Train complex curator Muriel Anderson. “The kids were to be placed in good Christian homes as a rehabilitation effort. They would work on the farms, learn a trade and become self-supporting. They would remain under the control of the original sending agent until they were 18 years old. At this point they would be liberated unless they chose to stay.”
It was under this relocation program that 14-year-old Frederick Anderson found himself at the Raynham farm of Stilman Wilber in 1856.
The site of the former Wilber Farm, still undeveloped, is located at the intersection of King and Locust streets in Raynham.
The House of Industry would have received a fee for hiring out kids like Frederick to farm families.The record of the program was mixed.
Some children found good homes; others found a new life of indentured service or even abuse. Others ran away or moved on to another family.
According to “The Orphan Trains,” “Some of the farmers saw the children as nothing more than a source of cheap labor. Many of the older boys simply ran away. Some children were rejected by their new parents.”
Again, it’s impossible to say in which of these situations Frederick Anderson found himself.
What is known is that at age 19, tired of indentured servitude, filled with patriotic fervor or perhaps just looking for adventure, Anderson left the Wilber farm to go off to war.