In his storied career as a federal judge and former director of the FBI and CIA, William Webster was guided partly by the great-grandfather he never knew who died on a Civil War battlefield. His ancestor, Union Col. George Penny Webster, was mortally wounded in savage fighting at the Battle of Perryville on Oct. 8, 1862, the biggest Civil War confrontation in Kentucky.
George Webster had volunteered for action despite having to leave behind a wife, five children and a law practice in Ohio.
“We have a lot of family heroes, but he has always been right at the top for me because of the way he handled his responsibility,” William Webster said in a recent phone interview.
Webster is to pay homage to his ancestor at the central Kentucky battlefield on Monday, the 150th anniversary of the decisive Civil War conflict in the Bluegrass State. The 88-year-old Webster will speak at a ceremony rededicating Union and Confederate monuments.
Though Perryville was seen as a Confederate tactical victory, the Union came away strategically with the upper hand. At Perryville, the Union turned back the outnumbered Southerners’ advance into the crucial border state. It was Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky native, who said that “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
The battle left more than 7,600 killed, wounded or missing.
Sprawled across rolling countryside, the historic site is considered among the Civil War battlefields most untouched by development, said Kenneth Noe, an Auburn University history professor who has written a book on the battle.
A plaque marks the area on the still-pastoral battlefield where Webster’s great-grandfather was shot from his horse around sunset that fateful day. At the time, his soldiers were struggling to hold a ridge from advancing Confederates.
“Despite their inexperience, they gave up ground only slowly until Webster was mortally wounded,” Noe said. “At that point his men fell back to a last-ditch defensive line ... There they helped stop the Confederate advance as darkness fell.”
The Union brigade led by Webster absorbed heavy casualties, Noe added.
William Webster said he has been guided in part by his great-grandfather’s example of courage and discipline on the battlefield in charting his own career to top government posts.
“He’s a point of pride, but he’s also a reminder of my responsibilities,” Webster said of his great-grandfather.
And like many descendants of Civil War combatants, William Webster followed in his family’s military tradition, serving as a naval officer in World War II and the Korean War.
He later served as a U.S. attorney and a federal district and appeals court judge before his nearly decade-long stint as FBI director. He then served as CIA director for four years, ending in 1991. He is currently the chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
Webster said he had thought frequently of his great-grandfather as he charted his career.
“The question I always asked myself, am I needed for this? Is this something that I could do, if I did it? Is this something where I could be useful.”
Of the key positions he came to hold, Webster added: “Never looked for any of them, they just seemed to come my way. Being responsive and saying ‘Yes, I’ll do it’ was part of that tradition that we felt in our family was important.”
In coming days, thousands besides Webster will join in commemorating the battle.
Nearly 2,000 registered to portray rebels or Yankees for the Perryville re-enactments. And there are also plans for book signings, ghost tours and battlefield tours in coming days.
One of the battle re-enactments this weekend will portray Webster’s brigade, a first for the annual re-enactment ceremonies, said Kurt Holman, manager of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site.
“We’ve never been able to do that before,” Holman said, noting that structures had been in the way before. “But since then, we’ve acquired the property and restored that back.”
Two houses and a barn on the historic site have since been cleared away.
Webster, who traced his great-grandfather’s movements during the war through battles in Virginia and present-day West Virginia, said he is looking forward to the 150th at Perryville.
He said he has some of his great-grandfather’s personal belongings, including his gold watch, Civil War commission and a photograph of his ancestor in his military uniform.
“He looks like he’d be a pretty formidable officer,” he noted.
Among his most prized possessions are the letters his great-grandfather wrote his wife, which amounted to a memoir.
“He had been saying in the early letters that he didn’t expect the war to last very long,” Webster said. “And in the later letters he said, ‘I know this has gone longer than any of us expected. But this is not the time for me to leave. I cannot as a matter of honor do that for the men that I’ve trained and are here.’”
That devotion to honor and country cost him his life. His great-grandmother never remarried after her husband’s death, and late in life she moved to Missouri to live with one of her sons — Webster’s grandfather.