Train Walks: Leesburg transplant takes to local Civil War history.

If you’re ever in the backwoods of Chesterfield County and see a grey-haired gentleman investigating every inch of the tree-filled landscape, don’t be alarmed, it’s probably just Major Robert J. Forman on one of his “train walks.”

His walks go back to his Cold War days in Germany, when as an infantry officer his job was to learn the army’s battleground and the surrounding train system, visualizing exactly how to react in the event of a Russian invasion.

But these days, Forman, 59, now retired from the Army and living in the Walthall area, has a different objective on the battlefield: “I do the same now,” said Forman, once an educator at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg, “except I try to imagine myself as a Civil War soldier.”

According to Forman, it stems from a promise he made to himself in 2005 when, after his move to the area from Leesburg, he discovered Civil War battles – the First and Second Battle of Port Walthall Junction – were fought within a mile of his new home off Ruffin Mill Road. The latter involved a small outnumbered South Carolina regiment defending a small piece of Virginia , which ultimately prompted a withdrawal of 35,000 Union forces.

“I didn’t know anything about that battle, so I went down there and walked around on the battlefield, to look at the monuments and maps and all that, and there was nothing,” said the West Point graduate. “I thought, don’t they deserve something better than a swamp land? At least a sign, a marker …Their stories deserve to be told.”

He then made up his mind to do something in commemoration of those men. Encouraged by county mapmaker Scott Williams, whom he had met through his affiliation with the Military History Committee of the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia (CHSV), Forman then began writing and researching what would become the Bermuda Hundred Campaign Tour Guide.

Dating back to when he was consumed by history books as an adolescent and intrigued by his father fighting in WWII, Forman used what he had learned throughout his life as soldier and scholar of war strategy and American military history and helped in the creation of the book.

For him, the correlation between teaching and learning goes “hand in hand”; a process Forman equates to his experiences in teaching Sunday school. “The best way to learn something is to go ahead and research it and write about it,” he said. “If you commit that you’re going to write something, then you really have to research it and study it and read about it – that’s the best way to. So I’m committed to this life-long learning concept.”

It then took him one year of researching and writing to complete the book. Printed in May of 2010, the Bermuda Hundred Campaign Tour Guide includes an extensive description of every Civil War battle fought in the area, the Bermuda Hundred area of southeastern Chesterfield.

The writing and research aspect to his study of local Civil War history provides him with a better understanding, he said, saying that he essentially is taking what he has learned over a lifetime and applies it to something he enjoys. Not at all held up on the politics of the war or the reasons it was started, he wants to know more about where the battles were fought, why they were positioned a certain way, and other strategic elements to the battles fought on Chesterfield soil.

Forman has yet to ask or see any royalties from his help with the book, simply calling it a “Labor of Love.”

Scott Williams, who works for Chesterfield in the Environmental Engineering Department assembling maps for the county, also had a key role in creating the illustrated maps in the book and worked intensely with Forman to make it work.

“What was going to be a small pamphlet ended up being a 58-page book that we put out,” said Williams, also a member the Chesterfield Committee of Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. “We owe a lot to him. We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish any of this if he hadn’t put all the work into it. Many people don’t know anything about what happened here and I think he kind of felt compelled to commemorate the soldiers,” Williams said.

For Forman, this promise extends to lecturing at public events, too. This past weekend Forman spoke behind the Chester Family YMCA where the battle of Chester Station was fought during the War Between the States. The event was sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) Chester Station Camp 1503 to kick off Confederate History and Heritage Month.

There, Forman took community members on his new kind of “train walk”, lecturing on the elements of the Battle of Chester Station: the objectives, placement and advances took by both Union and Confederate forces on the immediate soil.

An associate member of the Chester Station camp of SCV because he is a “Yankee” and has no Southern lineage, Forman enjoys his affiliation with the camp because “they actually put money and sweat into what they believe – and they believe in preserving the history of their ancestors.” He is very proud to say he’s part of what they do.

“He’s dedicated to the history of the South, and he’s a WestPoint graduate; I mean he’s pretty smart man. We are proud to have someone of his caliber in our camp. He’s an asset to the camp,” said Smokey Cook, a member of CSV Chester Station Camp 1503. “Bob’s a good man, a smart man. He’s dedicated to what he believes in and we can count on him.”

The camp restores battlegrounds and signs and concentrates on keeping Southern heritage alive. “It we don’t do it, nobody else will,” said Cook.               

Forman is “toying” with the idea of writing more additional publications, but right now he’s enjoying being “half-retired”. However, he is currently doing battle animations which are shown on the CHSV website. To him it is fascinating because it allows him  to come face to face with a more detailed level of historic interpretation and observation.

“It’s about soldiers – human beings fighting for their families, their homes and their beliefs – and I think that’s important,” he said. “That’s why I get involved with this sort of stuff. … It’s really a lifelong endeavor for me and you never stop learning – that’s the fun part about it.”

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