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Hamilton officer shared Civil War experiences and observations in more than 300 letters to his wife

'But on account of bad roads and high water,
the mail does not always get here.
Last night it [the mail] was lost entirely and
the carrier drowned.' Van Derveer wrote

Hamilton officer shared Civil War experiences and observations in more than 300 letters to his wife

(This is the first 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

Ferdinand Van Derveer is well known to students of Butler County Civil War history. He had been involved in historic events before the 1861-1865 internal conflict that started nearly 150 years ago. The 38-year-old lawyer [pictured above] had risen from private to captain in the Mexican War, 1846-1847, and participated in storming Monterey Sept. 19-21, 1846 [illustration below]. He returned to Hamilton in 1847 and during the next two years practiced law, served a two-year term as Butler County sheriff and edited the weekly Hamilton Telegraph. Then the prospect of wealth lured him to the California gold fields. In 1852, the Middletown native and Hamilton resident as an adult was back home and nearly broke after 18 months of frustration.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, he was Butler County prosecutor and a member of the Hamilton Board of Education -- and also a logical choice to lead a regiment, mostly volunteers from Butler County. Colonel Van Derveer commanded more than 900 men who trained at Camp Hamilton, located first at the Butler County Fairgrounds and later in an empty expanse along what became North Third Street, north of Vine Street.

After a summer of organizing, training and struggling to obtain weapons and supplies, his Butler Boys, their popular name, became the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 912-man 35th OVI left Hamilton on a train Sept. 26, 1861, committed to three years in the Union army.

Van Derveer -- eventually a brigadier general -- remained with the 35th most of those years as he rose in rank and responsibility The itinerary of the regiment and its original colonel can be traced in the war’s official records and other sources.

Thanks to Emily (Em) Gaylord Van Derveer, her husband’s personal war experiences and observations are preserved. A man often lonely, homesick and longing for reunions with his wife and children is revealed in more than 300 letters written by Ferd Van Derveer during the Civil War.

They are in the Smith Library of Regional History, which is within the Oxford branch of the Lane Libraries. This writer has been privileged to read the collections, courtesy of Valerie Elliott of the Smith Library. Excerpts from the Van Derveer letters will be shared in this periodic column during the observance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, 2011-2015.

Unfortunately, Emily’s letters to Ferd didn’t survive. "I would like to preserve my letters from home, but think it best not to do so," he wrote. Personal letters from home, if captured, had the potential to provide valuable information to the enemy.

Mail was the only means of communication -- and connection to home -- for the Civil War soldier. Writing and reading mail was a high priority when soldiers weren’t fighting, marching and performing required duties. Some men said only necessity for sleep preempted the mail.

As the Union forces were steadily increased, demands on the postal service also expanded. One source reports some regiments (originally 900 to 1,000 men each) averaged sending 600 letters a day when not in combat. About eight million pieces of military personal mail were handled monthly. Most military letters -- to and from soldiers -- moved through postal centers in Washington, D. C., and Louisville, Ky. The process was complicated by the unpredictable movement of military units.
Soldiers often bypassed the government system, sending letters with civilian visitors from home or with soldiers discharged because of disabilities caused by wounds or illness.

All of Ferd Van Derveer’s letters were simply addressed to "Mrs. Emily Van Derveer, Hamilton, Ohio." No street address was necessary. It was the responsibility of recipients to visit the local post office and collect mail in the 1860s. Home delivery in Hamilton didn’t start until 30 years later.

"My desire is to write every day. The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak," Ferd wrote in March 1862. He reminded his wife that "most all the army movements are kept a secret, and it takes about three days to get the Cincinnati papers." That letter also requested Em (the name he used instead of Emily) send food from home. It’s not known how many of his letters didn’t reach home. There were many potential obstacles between the military lines and Hamilton, Ohio.

"But on account of bad roads and high water, the mail does not always get here," Ferd wrote from Somerset, Ky., in February 1862. "Last night it [the mail] was lost entirely and the carrier drowned," he added.

(Note: Ferdinand (Ferd) spelled his name Van Derveer. Spellings elsewhere have included Vanderveer, VanDerVeer and Van Der Veer.)

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.

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Jim BlountJim Blount's local history books are available in Hamilton at the Butler County Historical Society, 327 N. Second St.; Tom's, 135 Main St.; Ross Ave. Barber Shop, 907 Ross Ave.; in Fairfield at Pleasantree Gift Shoppe, 702 Nilles Rd.; and in Shandon at Books in Shandon, 4795 Cincinnati-Brookville Rd. For mail orders, call Books in Shandon, 513-738-2962. The columns are posted monthly on the Lane Libraries Web site and are also available via email subscription. A searchable archive of these columns, including Mr. Blount's columns from the Journal-News dating back to 1988, is available at www.lanepl.org/blount.htm.

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