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Bill Thayer

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The text that follows is reproduced from (the report of the) Thirty-First Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 12th, 1900.

 p15  James Fornance
No. 2398. Class of 1871.
Died, July 3, 1898, at Santiago, Cuba, of wounds received at San Juan, July 1, 1898, aged 48.

James Fornance was born in Norristown, Pa., July 30, 1850, and had nearly completed his forty-eighth year at the time of his heroic and untimely death at the battle of San Juan Hill, near Santiago, Cuba, on July 1, 1898. His father, Joseph Fornance, was a native of Pennsylvania, and, during the greater part of his life, an honored and esteemed resident of Norristown. A lawyer by profession, he held for many years a deservedly high standing at the Montgomery County bar, and represented the Norristown district in Congress for several terms; he was so fortunate, during his incumbency of that office, as to select General  p16 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Winfield S. Hancock for appointment to the Military Academy. His mother, Anne McKnight, was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and was a member of one of the old families of that portion of the State.

James Fornance received his early educational training in the schools of his native town, and in 1867, at the age of seventeen years, was appointed, from his father's old district,​a as a cadet at the Military Academy. As a cadet, he was studious, attentive to duty and quick to appreciate the educational advantages of the place, but so extremely modest, and so utterly wanting in self-assertion, as to have left upon his classmates the merest shadow of acquaintance. He was graduated twenty-ninth, in a class of forty‑one members, in June, 1871, and was assigned to the Thirteenth Infantry, then, as now, one of the best infantry organizations in the service; in this regiment his entire military career was passed. He served on frontier duty in Wyoming and Nebraska, from 1871 to 1874, participating in the Sioux expedition of 1874. From October, 1874, until April, 1884, he served with his regiment in Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama; his southern service being interrupted by a brief period of duty in Pennsylvania, in 1877, where he was employed in the suppression of the formidable railroad riots which occurred during the summer and fall of that year.

He returned to frontier duty in 1884, his regiment having been assigned to posts in New Mexico; here he served as Adjutant of his regiment and as Adjutant General of the District of New Mexico; in both positions displaying that tact, capacity, honesty of purpose and entire devotion to duty which characterized his entire period of service as an officer of the United States Army. After a brief tour of duty on the general recruiting service, he received his promotion to the grade of Captain, and was ordered, with his company, to duty as a portion of the garrison of the United States Infantry and Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In this congenial field of endeavor, he was able to reap some of the  p17 fruits of the patient and thorough professional study upon which he had been engaged for many years; and he soon became recognized throughout the army as an officer as profoundly accomplished in the theory of his profession, as he was rarely skilled in its practical application to military ends. His company was a model organization, and, in point of discipline and military efficiency, was surpassed by none in the army. In 1895 he was transferred to Governor's Island, New York, where he spent the last three years of his life in fashioning, with infinite pains, the magnificent command which so highly distinguished itself, and honored him by its magnificent behavior in the operations before Santiago in 1898. The splendid work of these years of unremitting labor bears not less equinoctial testimony to his capacity to organize than to his skill as a leader in battle.

He was a firm disciplinarian, never over­looking delinquencies, and holding his men, with just and even impartiality, to the correct and complete performance of every duty. His ideals of performance were high, but in his own military behavior he furnished an example of what he required from those under his command. Like all true disciplinarians, he insisted upon much from his men, but was unremitting in his endeavors to secure for them the full measure of the rights and privileges created in their behalf by statute and regulation. Exacting to a degree, severe in some respects, but fair, utterly impartial and scrupulously just, his men were always thoroughly trained and correctly disciplined. It need hardly be said that, when the emergency of war and the supreme test of battle came, they bore gallant testimony to his patient and well directed endeavors.

Just before the outbreak of the war with Spain, Captain Fornance, whose health had become somewhat impaired, as a consequence of his unremitting labors, found it necessary to take sick leave. As soon as he learned that his regiment had received orders to hold itself in readiness for active service, he instantly rejoined and accompanied it to Chickamauga, and subsequently to Tampa, Florida, where it was assigned as a part of  p18 the expeditionary force to Cuba. He continued with the command during the long and tedious period of embarkation, and landed with the army near Daiquiri on the southern coast late in June of 1898. On July 1, while leading his battalion in the attack on San Juan Hill, he was severely wounded. Although ordered by his regimental commander to retire from the field, he insisted upon going forward with the firing line, and a few moments later received his death wound. After being taken back to the field hospital, he insisted upon the surgeons attending to less serious cases than his before he would permit them to minister to his own desperate needs. Two days later, on July 3d, with the guns of the victorious fleet sounding in his ears, his brave and unselfish spirit passed "to where, beyond these voices, there is peace."

Captain Fornance was married, in 1876, to Miss Fannie Barbee of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sad death of his wife, in 1894, terminated a marriage of unusual happiness. His remains tenderly brought back to the country which in life he had served so well, now rest beside those of his wife in the cemetery of his native place.​b One child, a daughter, survives him.


Thayer's Notes:

a His father, Joseph Fornance, the two-term Congressman (1839‑1843) had died in 1852.

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b What appear to be his grave and that of his wife are found in Baton Rouge National Cemetery: the town is not his native place but hers. The writer may have been mistaken, their remains may have been moved, or — less likely, it seems to me — the stones just might be cenotaphs.

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Page updated: 8 Jun 14