Free black family, the Foresters, a lasting example of triumph in face of adversity

Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 2/15/17

In 1853, family patriarch, Cyrus Forester had managed to purchase his and his son Louis’ freedom from a supportive plantation owner. They began homesteading in the settlement of Magnolia Mills just …

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Free black family, the Foresters, a lasting example of triumph in face of adversity

Posted

In 1853, family patriarch, Cyrus Forester had managed to purchase his and his son Louis’ freedom from a supportive plantation owner. They began homesteading in the settlement of Magnolia Mills just north of Green Cove Springs.

Only three or four years later, the two had significant holdings of livestock and most of the land, including an additional purchase by Louis, was in crop production. They had also purchased freedom for the rest of the family and Louis’ new wife.

Threatening stirrings of war were in the air and Cyrus was nearing 85 years old and felt the need to pass the torch to lead the family. He foresaw the threat of the family shattering in tense times without a clear leader and called the adult children together. He gave the land to Louis with the understanding that he would care for his parents and, when his father died, distribute portions to his brothers and sisters as he saw fit.

As their neighbors around them, mostly white, the Foresters stayed close to home and stayed alert to goings and doings around them. Union ships were cruising up and down the St. Johns River; Confederate troops were in and out of the area. Both armies seemed to see Magnolia as a buffet of forage they could use at will.

Word of a Rebel troop raid to steal the large stored grain crop, abduct the men for forced labor and the family women to work in hospitals reached Louis. He waved down the Union gunboat Uncus to shell the raiders and transport the family to safety.

Sadly, safety was achieved at a high price. Shelling completed, the ships’ crew came ashore like a hoard of locusts and allowed the family to take only token possessions. By the next day, when they arrived in Fernandina, two men’s great coats and the family’s $311 in gold coins tied in their mother’s apron had disappeared.

The three boys served in the Union military, one, Isadore, gave his life. The family stayed in Fernandina.

The homecoming to Magnolia was a mix of relief and sadness. Grieving the loss of both parents, the family arrived to fields gone fallow and buildings much in need of repair. Louis was not surprised at the absence of any stock. While stationed in Hilton Head, he saw more than one ship unload herds of cattle sporting his own distinctive notched ear brand accompanied by steers with marks of his neighbors.

Like others, Louis filed a claim with the government for reimbursement. His tally for lost livestock – 100 cattle, 103 hogs and 125 chickens – amounted to a little over $2,000. He didn’t hold his breath but instead with his family went back to work and nearly 10 years later, he received a check for $480 minus attorney’s fees.

Note: All the Civil War reimbursement claims filed in Clay County are available in The Clay County Archives. The Forester case depositions are extensive and paint a vivid picture of real people and real lives.

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