THE DEATH OF GEORGE FORTSON IN THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR
Capt. George H. Fortson died in a battle with Filipino insurgents
in the Phillipines in March 1899.
FELL AT THE HEAD OF HIS COMPANY.
How Death Came to Capt. George H Fortson.
IN CROSSING THE PASIG.
Shot Through the Body by Filipinos in Ambush.
Details of the Fatal Charge in Which the Intrepid Leader Lost His Life Are Contained in a Letter Received by Mrs. Fortson From First Lieut. M. H. Gormley—Complete Story Here Published for the First Time—Internal Bleeding Resulted From the Wound—Body to Be Sent Home Soon as Possible
Capt. George H. Fortson, First Washington volunteers, the hero of the charge at Pasig, Manila, and the recipient of special commendation from Gen. King for gallant conduct, received his death wound while leading his company across a bridge in the very face of the insurgents’ trenches.
Details of the death of the intrepid hero as told in a letter received in this city yesterday by his widow from First Lieut. Matt H. Gormley, First Washington volunteers, are here published for the first time, the only other news regarding Capt. Fortson’s end having been in the brief cablegrams announcing, first, that he was mortally wounded, and later, that he was dead.
It all occurred at 3:30 o’clock on the morning of March 26. The insurgents had advanced during the night close up to the Washington volunteers’ line and intrenched themselves. Their position was discovered. The order came for Capt. George H. Fortson to take his company out and form a line of skirmishers beyond the main line. In order to do this it was necessary to cross a bridge.
The fearless captain and his brave followers obeyed the order without a moment’s hesitation. They realized that in the darkness there might be a thousand treacherous Filipinos ready to shoot them down, but they had been ordered to the front, and they obeyed.
DEATH IN LEADEN HAIL.
Three-fourths of the length of the bridge had been passed when suddenly the roar of musketry was heard, and a hail of leaden bullets poured in on the gallant Washington boys from right to left. The insurgents had crept up from their trenches and prepared to sweep the bridge from both sides.
Capt. Fortson fell, shot through the body, and Sergt. Covington also fell with a bullet in his thigh. Before the troops recovered from the shock of seeing their beloved leader stricken, a second volley swept across the bridge, and Private Patterson was shot through the right hip.
The boys picked up the wounded and retired to the other side of the bridge. Capt. Fortson was shot through and through. Internal hemorrhages set in and he soon died. But he was as brave in the shadow of death as he was when he led a handful of soldiers against 400 Filipinos. He died with his wife’s name upon his lips. When daylight came the rebels were driven back.
The entire command, from Gen. King down to the privates, mourned the captain’s death. He had a host of friends. He had won the respect of all.
They placed his body in a niche in Paco cemetery, and as soon as possible it will be sent home to his wife in Seattle.
The letter to Mrs. Fortson from Lieut. Gormley was written at Pasig, March 28, and mailed at Manila the next day. It came in care of George F. Frye, Mr. Fortson’s father-in-law. The letter says:
LIEUT. GORMLEY’S LETTER.
“It is hard to commence this letter.
“You have long since learned of your and our terrible loss, and I feel that you would like to learn some of the circumstances connected with our captain’s death.
“Our hearts are sore and our minds dazed, and it is hard to write connectedly, but I will endeavor to describe the action during which George received his wound.
“We were ordered out at 3:30 o’clock in the morning, March 26, and informed that the insurgents were approaching and intrenching themselves just outside our lines.
“Capt. Fortson was ordered to take his company across a bridge that formed part of our line, and to form a line of skirmishers to right and left in front of our main line.
“He led the company across the bridge, but when only three-fourths of the way had been crossed a band of insurgents, who had crept up from their trenches, poured two volleys into us from our right and left front.
COURSE OF THE FATAL BULLET.
“At the first volley George fell, shot through the body. Sergt. Covington also fell, shot through the upper thigh.
“At the second volley Private Patterson was shot through the hip. We immediately picked up our wounded and fell back to the main line to await daylight, when the rebels were attacked and routed.
“George was shot to the right of the pit of the stomach. The bullet ranged downward, tearing the liver and emerging from the back, just above the hip bone. He bled internally, this being the immediate cause of his death.
“He died bravely, like the true man and gallant soldier he was, his only thoughts and only worry being for you.
“The whole command, from Gen. King to the privates, are sorrowful and downhearted, as George had made hosts of friends and gained the respect of all. A truer, nobler man never lived.
“We have placed his body in a niche in the cemetery at Paco, and as soon as possible will send it home.
“In conclusion, let me express the sorrow and sympathy of the company for you in your affliction. We mourn our loss, but feel that yours is immediately greater.”
WHEN FORTSON DIED.
Washington Boy Who Was With Him Describes the Scene.
Corporal Ralph Ross, of Company B, First Washington volunteers, was with Capt. Fortson when he died. After the fatal volley from the insurgents Capt. Fortson was taken down the river to the nearest hospital. He failed rapidly, enduring great agony. Lieut. Gormley was notified by telegraph to send someone to the captain at once. Ross, a close personal friend of the dying man, was ordered to his side. Ross rode fourteen miles down the river, his life in danger every step of the way, and finally reached the hospital in time to see Washington’s hero alive and able to talk. In a letter to his father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. James Ross, written March 27 and received here yesterday, Corporal Ross says:
“Yesterday morning, at Pasig city, where we were stationed, Capt. Fortson awoke us and ordered us to fall in. We had expected serious trouble for two or three days. We marched to the stone bridge, where A company had already fallen in. Upon arriving there, Col. Wholley ordered B company to cross the bridge in single file. Capt. Fortson was at our head. The insurgents had been building intrenchments across the creek all night, and our sentries heard them and gave an alarm. They very likely intended to make a grand attack on the city next morning.
“We marched four columns of fours into single file and started to cross the bridge. It was pitch dark. Just as the head of our company had struck the road, while the rest were still on the incline leading to it, an awful volley came from all sides, from the right, the left and front. We heard a groan and just one cry, ‘My God, boys, I’m shot.’ We knew our captain had been hit.
“Then they carried three of our boys back, wounded seriously. Twenty of us were placed behind a stone barricade on the bridge, and we had to stay there and take whatever came. Mauser and Remington bullets were flying over and all around us. A little later three more of our company were shot. The place in front of us was a veritable jungle, and we could not locate any of the shots, except those from a few sharpshooters. I lay there until 10:30 in the morning, when I got to the rest of the company and informed them that the captain, Quartermaster Sergt. Covington, Potts, Courtney, Pinney, Patterson and Ward had all been shot, the first five seriously.
“At 11:30 a. m. they were all taken in the hospital boat to the first reserve hospital. At 2 p. m. a telegram came to Lieut. Gormley to send some one down to see Capt. Fortson immediately. I was sent. I was ordered to go on the water boat, and waited on the river until after 5 o’clock, but it had not come, so then I saddled my horse and rode fourteen miles along the river road to Manila, and how I did go. My poor horse was almost dead. I was all alone, and was lucky in not being shot between the ferry and San Pedro. I got to the hospital at about 7 o’clock and was taken in to see Capt. Fortson. There he lay, dying. He knew me and talked to me.
“I attended to the company and his personal affairs in the presence of witnesses, but, oh, how I felt to know that he lay there breathing his last. He was so brave, so good. Why didn’t they kill some of us good-for-nothing ones instead of him? He wanted to see the boys again so bad. I never passed through such an experience before, and I pray God that I may never have to again. He died at exactly 10:50 p. m. The pain he endured was awful. He was never moved from the litter he was first placed on in the morning. The nurses were so kind, but, oh, we were broken-hearted. Just think, not even our own company boys can come to his funeral today, for they are fighting now. I left the hospital at 12:30 the morning after his death, and rode out to our old barracks, near San Pedro, and went to bed, but did not sleep a wink.
“I am there now, writing this, but I am so lame and sore I can hardly stand up. I had two swallows of coffee and one hard tack at 7 o’clock yesterday morning, and did not get another bite until one-half hour ago. Now I must go to the hospital. None of our boys can go to the funeral, and an Idaho major told me last night that if they couldn’t, he would furnish an escort from his regiment, so I must go and see him. I shall stay to the funeral if I am court-martialed for it.
“William Courtney died yesterday afternoon at 4:40.”
[The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle, Washington, Friday, 28 Apr 1899, p.1, col. 7, and p. 2, col. 1, available on www.newspapers.com.]
Captain George H. Fortson, the hero of Pasig, the news of whose death came from Manila a few days ago, was a native of Georgia and has a large number of relatives and friends in this state. Captain Fortson was in command of company B, of the First Washington volunteers. He was a prominent lawyer at Seattle, and as he had been identified for some time with the national guard he was one of the first men to volunteer his services when the war broke out. In the fighting at Pasig, the brunt of which was borne by the Washington regiment, Captain Fortson was given special mention for the grand charge he led. He was referred to by all connected with the army in the Philippines as one of the bravest officers out there, and it is said of him that after the arrival of the regiment at Manila Captain Fortson’s name appeared more frequently in the dispatches than that of any other man, not excepting his superior officers. He was mortally wounded in the fighting of March 24th and 25th and subsequently died in the hospital. The newspapers of Seattle and other cities of Washington contain very extended notices of Captain Fortson and of the sorrow over his death, which seems to be universal. The courts were all adjourned as a tribute to his memory, and the city where he made his home was in mourning for him.
Captain Fortson was born in Elberton, Ga., in 1860. His father, George G. Fortson, was a prominent planter and a member of one of the leading families of eastern Georgia. His mother was a Miss Wall, also a member of one of the old Georgia families. Captain Fortson spent his boyhood on his father’s plantation, and obtained his education in the country schools. When he was twenty-two years old, he went to Washington, Wilkes county, and studied law under that eminent lawyer, Judge William M. Reese. He practiced law for a year or so at Washington and then moved to Palatka, Fla., where he also practiced and, of course, went into orange growing as everybody does who goes to Florida. This venture proved unprofitable, and Captain Fortson left Florida, going out to the state of Washington.
He was without a cent and was glad to take the first chance that opened, which was a job in a saw mill. He worked along at that until he could get a little money ahead and then went on to Seattle, where he first worked as a clerk in an abstract office. Afterwards he was in the United States land office for a time, and then resumed the practice of law. In 1892, he became city attorney, and after a term in that office again resumed general practice and was very successful. He was always an enthusiast on military matters, and there was no officer of the volunteer army more beloved by his men or who paid more attention to their welfare. He married in Seattle two or three years ago.
Mr. Fortson’s father now lives at Eliam [sic], Ga. He has a brother living there and four sisters, Mrs. Murray, of Lincolnton; Mrs. Wilkinson and Mrs. Fortson, of Tignall, and Mrs. Minnie Anderson, of Flat Wood.
[The Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, Georgia, Sunday, 30 Apr 1899, p. 16, col. 6, under “In the Public Eye” (obvious typographical errors having been corrected), available on www.newspapers.com.]