PERRYVILLE, Ky. — 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.
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.”