(This is the sixth 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, 2011-2015.)
Contributed by Jim Blount
It was feast or famine for the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the summer and fall of 1862. In the same months, Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer’s troops experienced sudden changes in the tempo of the conflict. They went from relative calm, to perilous rear guard duty, to a race between rival armies, to the regiment’s first action in a pivotal battle.
Although a year earlier Van Derveer had said his "desire is to write every day," he had little time to compose letters to his wife, Emily, in Hamilton. He shared few of the details of his experiences, possibly to spare her some anxiety.
In August 1862, Van Derveer’s command was posted near Chattanooga to block a possible enemy advance northwest from the Tennessee city. "Never did roasting ears disappear more rapidly," said a soldier, recalling the abundance of fresh corn in the area during a period of calm.
Most of the Union army had started to move north before the 35th began marching Sept. 1, 1862. Six days later, the regiment arrived in Nashville and began building fortifications around the city. The defenses were in anticipation of an expected Confederate attack on the important rail and river port.
Southern troops -- led Major-Gen. Braxton Bragg -- had launched an invasion into Kentucky, pulling an end run around Union forces, who didn’t learn of the enemy advance until it was well underway. Bragg’s forces -- using mountains to shield the offensive -- eventually threatened Cincinnati and Louisville, causing panic in both cities..
When the Confederates bypassed Nashville, the 35th was ordered to join the race to the Ohio River. It departed at 4 a.m. Sept. 14, part of the rear guard of the Army of the Ohio. The regiment exhausted its food supply before camping at Elizabethtown, Ky., Sept. 23. The next day, Van Derveer’s hungry soldiers marched 21 miles to West Point on the Ohio River, west of Louisville.
"The farmer who has cut up corn in his field and thrown it over the fence for his half-starved hogs, can picture the scene," a captain reported. It wasn’t corn, it was a potato field that the men devoured as they waited for steamboats to transport them to Louisville.
Raw potatoes consumed on an empty stomach had dire consequences.
After the Nashville-Louisville race, the regiment waited for orders to either defend the city or assault the invaders who had captured Lexington and Frankfort.
The showdown -- unplanned by either army -- came at a crossroads town, Perryville, Ky., Oct. 8, 1862. The armies collided as both sought water for men and horses during a prolonged drought. The 35th had a minor role at Perryville that ended with Bragg withdrawing and gradually retreating into Tennessee.
Van Derveer included brief battle details in a letter to Emily. It didn’t mention the frantic march from Nashville, the devastation of the potato patch or that combined casualties at Perryville exceeded 7,400 men.
"My regiment, with the 18th [Ohio] Infantry, occupied the front from a short time before sundown until the next morning, and were for several hours exposed to as severe fire as ever I experienced," he explained in a letter written three days after the battle. "The enemy played down upon on us with two or three batteries filling the air with exploding shells and plowing up the ground with solid shot," he continued. "Add to this a flanking fire of musketry and you may have some idea of our position."
After Perryville, the 35th -- surviving only on food it could seize -- moved south along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, about the same route it had taken north in September.
The Union army headed for another battle Dec. 26, moving southeast from Nashville. After marching 32 miles, it clashed with Confederate counterparts at Murfreesboro, Tenn., in the Battle of Stone River, Dec. 31, 1862, and Jan. 3, 1863.
The 35th missed the fight again. Van Derveer had been ordered 27 miles northeast of Nashville to Gallatin. Most of the regiment had guard duty or supported Company G, led by a captain who had been a miller in the Hamilton area before the war. The company seized and operated a local mill, producing flour that provided bread for the men fighting at Stone River. Other members of the 35th searched for wheat to be milled.
The milling duty was vital because Confederate raids had cut gaps in the L&N Railroad, the usual source of flour and other food supplies from Ohio and Indiana.
Van Derveer wrote his wife that "we are never to get into any serious engagements," explaining that he was in the milling business, a reference to the regiment’s role in operating the captured flour mill that helped sustain those who fought.
April 8, 1863, at Triune, Tenn., 22 miles south of Nashville, the colonel apologized for not writing for a week. "Since last Tuesday morning at 2 o’clock I have been constantly on the move," he wrote, "on expedition with [the] brigade down pretty well into Dixie." About 70 Confederates and two pieces of artillery were captured.
Later, the 26th, also from Triune, he said "yesterday morning I started out early with the brigade and near 200 wagons for forage. We went into the country lying between this [place] and Franklin and soon secured all we needed."
"We have been marching over the mountains for several days," he wrote Sept. 13 from Stevens Gap, Ga., about 20 miles south of Chattanooga. Six days later -- a week short of two years away from home for Van Derveer and 35th -- the wait to fight in a major battle would end.
The Sept. 19-20 Battle of Chickamauga -- in northern Georgia -- was a southern victory that forced the union army to retreat into Chattanooga, where it was mostly surrounded for several weeks.
A few days later, Ferd Van Derveer shared some observations in a letter to an anxious wife and mother in Hamilton. When the unexpected battle developed, the 13-year-old son of Ferd and Emily Van Derveer was visiting his father. Details will follow in a future column.