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Hamilton officer’s letters reflect his homesickness and loneliness during war

Above, military post office in a Union army camp during Civil War.
Below, Benjamin Franklin's image on 1861 one-cent U. S. stamp.

'My desire for letters from you is never satisfied, and I no sooner read one, than I wish for another,’
Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer wrote his wife

Hamilton officer’s letters reflect his homesickness and loneliness during war
(This is the third in a series of columns based on excerpts from more than 300 Civil War letters written by Ferdinand Van Derveer to his wife, Emily, in Hamilton. The letters are preserved in the Smith Library of Regional History in Oxford. His personal experiences and observations are being shared during the observance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, 2010-2015.)

Contributed by Jim Blount

In the next few years, the Civil War Sesquicentennial will undoubtedly highlight notable battles and prominent personalities involved in the tragic 1861-1865 internal conflict. But commemorative events won’t convey the personal war experiences of the millions of people, North and South, on the battlefields and at home.

Some thoughts and emotions of a Hamilton officer survive almost 150 years later because of his wife’s devotion to saving more than 300 of his letters written from places in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.

Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer left Hamilton Sept. 26, 1861, in command of the 912-man 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, mostly men from Butler County.

Van Derveer, a Middletown native, was no stranger to the rigors of the military and exposure during combat. In 1846, during the war with Mexico, he had enlisted in a local company as a private and that year participated in the storming of Monterey, Mexico. He was captain of the Butler County company when mustered out in 1847. He wasn’t married then.

In 1861, Ferd vowed to write his wife, Emily, as often as possible. His frequent letters reflected soldier life and the horrors of battle. They also were a series of love letters, repeatedly admitting his loneliness and homesickness.

His military duties and war-related circumstances made it impossible to write a letter every day. An officer distracted by danger and doubt was evident in an early letter from Somerset, Ky. It was headed "Dec. (I don’t know the day of the week or month) 1862." It was December 1861 -- not 1862. "I am not crazy either," Ferd explained, "but here we have no almanacs, no daily papers, no Sundays, no women to keep us posted." The day and the date seldom mattered.

That letter was followed Dec. 19, 1861, by an apology. "I was really vexed at myself last night in reading your letter to learn that I had let the anniversary of our marriage go by without being aware of it. But so it was -- not that I regard the event with less joy than of old." Their 13th wedding anniversary had been Dec. 14.

Later letters left little doubt that, despite command responsibilities, his thoughts were often of home and anticipation of mail from his wife. "I am really homesick, dear woman -- just to see you and our little ones," March 17, 1862, from Nashville.

"Twelve days since I have heard from you," he complained March 23, from Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh), Tenn. "I received a flood of letters from you," March 27, from Columbia, Tenn., after receiving six letters in one day.

April 27 from Shiloh, he said "I have just now had my heart made glad by the receipt of a letter from you of the 16th." He noted that "we get newspapers from Cincinnati in three days, but letters are 10 days before reaching us."

"Now be a good woman, darling, and write oftener," he requested from Tuscumbia, Ala., July 10, 1862. "You need not fear troubling me with your business affairs. I am glad to see that you manage so well. Do not pay any other of my debts without writing to me. I see these fellows who remain at home have not improved in honesty."

In noting their 14th wedding anniversary, a Dec. 21, 1862, message said "I often reflect upon the many happy years I have spent with you."

In a March 8, 1863, letter from Triune, Tenn., Ferd apologized for not writing for a week. "Since last Tuesday morning at 2 o’clock I have been constantly on the move and without tents or baggage, in fact, without a change of clothes."

March 21, also from Triune, he offered another reason why his wife wasn’t receiving letters. "Please do not abuse your unfortunate, but faithful husband. I am faithful in writing, unfortunate in having an Uncle Sam who is very irregular in his manner of transmitting the letters of his soldiers."

In remembering their 15th anniversary in a Dec. 14, 1863, letter from Chattanooga. he told Emily "I have sat in my room all day alone thinking of the days and years that have gone by since out hearts became one -- of you, dearest, and best of wishes -- and the children."

Ferd had a special request in a Dec. 23 letter from Chattanooga: "I wish, dear woman, you would send me two pairs of stout woolen socks," he wrote. "All my socks have given out, either at the toe or heel, and having no one here who can mend them, they are almost useless."

Emily complied, but it wasn’t what her husband expected, according to his Jan. 12, 1864, letter from Chattanooga. He said he had received socks from his wife -- and some things he didn't expect.

"Among the socks I found two great needles and a bundle of yarn," he wrote. "What is to be done with them? Did you think, dear woman, that I could darn the holes that I may wear in the socks? I don’t know how. You will have to send a female here, if you want that sort of work done."

His plea for more mail from home never ceased. "My desire for letters from you is never satisfied, and I no sooner read one, than I wish for another," he wrote from Huntsville, Ala., in March 1865, less than a month before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to U. S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va. In addition to his letters, Ferd sent a few "telegraphic dispatches" to his wife when the wires weren't busy with military matters.

Also, Ferd had a few leaves and returned to Hamilton. Emily visited him a few times, including a perilous reunion in the summer of 1863. During a lull in the war -- husband and wife went horseback riding in Tennessee. They were surprised by a Confederate patrol, and separated as they raced back to the safety of Union lines.

Colonel Van Derveer

Ferdinand (Ferd) Van Derveer
Born Feb. 27, 1823, in Middletown. His mother, Mary Ann Dickey Van Derveer, died in 1824. His father, Dr. Peter Van Derveer, was a physician in Middletown. Ferd attended school in Middletown and was an alumnus of Farmers College in College Hill (Cincinnati). In 1845, he moved to Memphis and was admitted to the bar in Tennessee. In 1846, he came to Hamilton to read law in office of John D. Weller, a future California governor and U. S. senator. After the Civil War, he returned to Hamilton and served the city and county in various roles until his death Nov. 5, 1892. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Hamilton, wearing his Civil War brigadier general uniform.

Emily (Em) Gaylord Van Derveer
Born May 15, 1828, in Cincinnati. In 1835 or 1836, her parents moved to Hamilton when she was about seven years old. She was educated in Hamilton schools. Emily M. Gaylord and Ferdinand Van Derveer were married Dec. 14, 1848, in Hamilton. They were the parents of eight children, three dying in childhood. Their residence for many years was The Oaks at 325 South D Street in Hamilton. Emily Van Derveer died in Hamilton Dec. 26, 1920; and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Hamilton. She outlived her husband more than 28 years.