2011 Articles‎ > ‎

For six months, Civil War seemed to be avoiding Colonel Van Derveer

‘It is probably a great relief to you that the suspected
battle at Corinth has turned out to be no battle at all’

For six months, Civil War seemed to be avoiding Colonel Van Derveer

(This is the fifth 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

For their first six months of service in the four-year Civil War, there wasn’t much excitement for about 900 men in the 35th Ohio Volunteer infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer. In the summer of 1861, he had taken leave from his law practice in Hamilton to organize and train the unit at Camp Hamilton.

After leaving Hamilton Sept. 26, 1861, the 35th OVI spent most of its time guarding Kentucky railroad lines between Cynthiana and Paris before moving south to Somerset. The Confederates "don’t disturb us and we are leaving him alone." Van Derveer wrote to his wife, Emily, from Somerset Dec. 17. Except for a brief insignificant encounter, that was the situation for the next four weeks.

Thanks to telegraph reports, news quickly reached Butler County that Jan. 19, 1862, near Somerset, Ky., Confederates troops had attacked the army that included the 35th. The Battle of Mill Springs -- also known as the Battle of Logan’s Cross Roads and the Battle of Fishing Creek -- was considered a Union victory. The combat -- near what later became Cumberland Lake -- cost the invaders 439 casualties while the Union loss was 232 men.

The 35th -- composed mostly of Butler County men -- escaped unscathed. Van Derveer’s regiment was in reserve when the fight started. Eventually, the 35th was ordered forward, but rain and muddy roads slowed its advance. It missed the Battle of Mill Springs.

"I think our prospect for getting into a fight is quite slim -- but this will please you," the colonel wrote his wife in Hamilton a month later, Feb. 19, from a camp near New Haven, Ky.

A March 24 letter from near Spring Hill, Tenn., said "no enemy has yet been found and we begin to think none will be. The recent victories have so discouraged the rebels that they are ready to give up the contest."

Van Derveer was referring to Union wins at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.

The 35th marched to Louisville, boarded steamboats for transfer to Nashville and then waited there for orders to participate in a Union advance toward southwest Tennessee that climaxed April 6-7, 1862, in the Battle of Shiloh at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn.  Shiloh pitted about 65,000 Union troops against 45,000 Confederates. The casualties were startling: 13,047 U. S., 10,699 CSA.

Again, because they were positioned at the end of the Union advance, Van Derveer's troops arrived too late for the battle, thanks to more rain and mud. "We have yet to find our first fight," he wrote Emily five days after the battle. "We will likely stay here some weeks as the roads are impassable. There are a great many poor wounded fellows here, from four to five thousand. They are being placed on boats and summoned to St. Louis, Louisville and Cincinnati. When I first came here there was dead men scattered through the woods for miles around, but now they are mostly buried."

In April and May 1862 -- after the slight Union victory at Shiloh -- it appeared the next confrontation would be a Union attack on entrenched Confederates in Corinth, Miss., a key railroad center for the southern forces.

As it moved south, the Union army expanded to about 110,000 men; southern defenders to about 66,000 troops. Union forces advanced cautiously -- covering 20 miles in a month, averaging less than a mile a day.

"We have had almost daily skirmishes with the rebel pickets. . . . Some people think we will have a big fight, others none at all. As for me, I don’t think anything about it," Van Derveer informed his wife. He didn’t tell her that the 35th would be at the point of the scheduled assault on Corinth.

But no battle developed. The Confederates had sneaked out of Corinth, most of the army heading east through northern Mississippi and Alabama toward Chattanooga, "It is probably a great relief to you that the suspected battle at Corinth has turned out to be no battle at all." Van Derveer wrote.

On a warm Aug. 1, 1862, Van Derveer’s troops were at Athens, Ala., marching toward Huntsville, when he wrote: "We go very slowly, there being no necessity for haste, and it being an object to keep out of the sun as much as possible. We get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and by 9 o’clock we have made 10 or 12 miles. Then go into camp and make ourselves comfortable for the rest of the day."

The next day, Aug. 2 , still at Athens, Ala., he wrote that he has been commanding the brigade "for some time" because of the illness of Brig. Gen Robert L. McCook (pictured at left below). "The war is lasting longer than any of us expected," he added.

McCook had started the war as colonel of 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry -- mostly Germans from Cincinnati, some from Hamilton -- and had commanded a brigade since the start of war. Besides the 35th and 9th, the brigade also included the 87th Indiana and 2nd Minnesota regiments. 

Aug. 5, McCook was with a small advance force, riding in an ambulance because of his health, when Confederates attacked near Decherd, Tenn. McCook, although disabled, was shot and died the next day, Aug. 6.

Major-Gen. George H. Thomas -- in reporting on McCook’s death and the transfer of command to Van Derveer -- said: "His [McCook’s] regiments were very much enraged, and before they could be stopped, burned and destroyed some four or five farmhouses; but Colonel Van Derveer, by great exertions, succeeded in subjugating them to discipline before night, and they are now quiet."

Whitelaw Reid, a Cincinnati war correspondent, had this report on the transition: "Soon after assuming command of the brigade, Colonel Van Derveer gave close attention to its drill as such, and long before these evolutions were common in the army to which he was attached, his regiments were skilled in all the movements of line which would be of practical use in battle."

Van Derveer didn’t mention his part in restoring order -- and the praise he earned -- in letters to his wife.

Although McCook’s poor health and subsequent death put Van Derveer in temporary command of the brigade, it was six months before the army’s paper trail made it official. Feb. 28, 1863, Van Derveer was formally promoted to command the Third Brigade, which included his Butler Boys.

Although he replaced a brigadier general, Van Derveer retained the rank of colonel. The slight, he believed, had nothing to do with his military performance -- a topic for a future column.

Battle of Shiloh (Tenn.) -- April 6-7, 1862

Ranked as ninth deadliest battle of the Civil War, based on total casualties.
Casualties: 23,741 (13,047 Union and 10,694 Confederate). Winner: Union.
Confederate Commander: Albert Sidney Johnston & P. G. T. Beauregard
Union Commander: Ulysses S. Grant
Confederate forces engaged: 40,335. Union forces engaged: 62,682 = 103,017 total