On Feb. 14, 1898, butcher Richard Fenner passed away in Cranston at the age of 78. His estate consisted of a good deal of property which was to pass to his next of kin. The problem was that his …
On Feb. 14, 1898, butcher Richard Fenner passed away in Cranston at the age of 78. His estate consisted of a good deal of property which was to pass to his next of kin. The problem was that his children had no idea where their brother Welcome was.
Born in 1842 to Richard and his first wife, Sarah Larkin, the brown-eyed and fair-skinned Welcome had lost his mother in 1865. His father then married Caroline Hilton. The smoke of the Civil War had barely cleared by this time. Welcome had served as a Second Lieutenant with the Second Regiment of the Rhode Island Cavalry Field & Staff Troop, Company C. He was mustered in on Jan 20, 1863 and received an honorable discharge on Dec. 20, 1864. What happened between those dates would haunt him forever.
From May 25 to July 9, 1863, in Louisiana, the Siege of Port Hudson raged upon an 80-foot bluff near the Mississippi River. On July 2, the Confederates set the Union’s supply center at Springfield Landing on fire. This served as another heavy straw on the very weary back of the Union force. Those men who were not deserting were eating rats to stay alive. Others were too weak to run, in the death throes of malaria and dysentery. Some, including Welcome, were captured by the enemy that summer day.
According to records, he was in Libby Prison in Dec. of that year and later transferred to Camp Sorghum in Columbia, South Carolina, from which he escaped on Nov. 29, 1864.
Libby Prison was a confederate prison, standing on the waterfront of the James River in Richmond, Virginia. There, approximately 1,000 men were crowded into eight low-ceilinged rooms on the second and third floors of the three-story brick structure. A repurposed old tobacco warehouse, the building contained windows with nothing over them but bars, allowing snow, rain and cold weather free entry. Greatly overcrowded, crawling with vermin and veiled in the stench of sickness and starvation, many prisoners would never see freedom again.
Sorghum Prison was established in 1864 as a makeshift prison for approximately 1,400 Union soldiers. Its name came about due to the fact that meals consisted of cornmeal with sorghum syrup. Standing upon a 5-acre tract of open field, the prison employed guards but lacked fences or any type of barrier to keep prisoners from running. Because of this, many men escaped from Camp Sorghum, including Welcome.
Soon after his escape, and ten days after being released from his duties to the United States military, the five-foot-four-inch former stone quarrier was admitted to the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Los Angeles, California, suffering from bronchitis and kidney disease. Once treated and released, he set out wandering. He moved through most of the western states, engaging in business, building up a small fortune and then losing it all. Back home in Rhode Island, he left a wife waiting, the former Harriet P. Wheeler who eventually died, on March 14, 1887, and was buried in Pocasset Cemetery.
Welcome remained in California, boarding with a divorced harness maker in San Mateo. He later moved to Menlo Park and worked as a hostler. On Jan. 6, 1903, he was admitted to the National Home for
Disabled Soldiers in Santa Monica, still suffering with the effects of kidney disease. He never left. Two years later, after searching for him for seven years, the Rhode Island attorneys handling Richard Fenner’s estate, finally traced Welcome to the Soldier’s Home through records kept by the military. They informed him that if the land he was set to inherit in Rhode Island was sold, it would bring in about $2,000.
Welcome died at the Soldier’s Home at 9:50 on the night of Oct. 8, 1910. A doctor had been closely attending to him for two days before he succumbed to kidney disease, contributed to by acute alcoholism. He was buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery, section 18, row H, number 4.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.