"I am not homesick, except when I am awake," Hamilton colonel reported,
Idleness, routine duties, mud created tireless monotony for local Civil War soldiers
(This is the fourth 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
"I sometimes, like you, get almost discouraged about this war as everything seems to move so slowly," Colonel Ferdinand Van Derveer complained in a December 1862 letter to his wife in Hamilton, Ohio. "We are never to get into any serious engagements," he said nearly 14 months later from Gallatin, Tenn., after his troops had missed the nearby Battle of Stones River as the calendar turned from 1862 to 1863.
Van Derveer had left Hamilton Sept. 26, 1861, commanding the 912-man 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. For two years, his troops -- mostly Butler County men -- had little impact for the Union cause in the Civil War.
Instead, Van Derveers men spent much of their time stationary -- waiting for orders -- or marching through five southern states. On some occasions they retraced their steps. The few times they reached a battlefield, the fight was winding down or had ended. It is no surprise that many of the colonels letters to his wife, Emily, expressed his boredom and frustration with idleness and military routine.
"Doing nothing -- and dont know when we will move," he wrote in April 1863 from Triune, Tenn. "Nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing to make me forget my long absence from all I love. At such times, my homesickness comes on with great power." He described camp life as "tireless monotony." A few days later he wrote: "The time drags on," while still camped at Triune.
In December from Chattanooga -- after key roles in the recent battles of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge -- he told Emily "I never was more anxious that time should pass rapidly. Whilst here, I do not seem to live. Nothing to interest me. Nobody about me to care for." . . . "Physically, I am all right."
In April 1864 from Ringgold, Ga. -- after a modest advance -- he wrote "I simply exist -- vegetate." He lamented "the same dull increasing round of military duty with no fight or other sensation to interfere with the monotony of our soldier life."
June 17, 1864 -- when five miles north of Marietta -- Van Derveer explained that "we are still at the same camp from which I wrote two days ago, slowly pushing forward a few hundred yards at a time. This is certainly a tedious way of closing the war," he added, "but to go faster would involve a sacrifice of many men."
In April 1865 -- a few days before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant April 9 at Appomattox, Va. -- Van Derveers soldiers arrived at Bulls Gap in Eastern Tennessee, a new assignment. "I have been here only about 30 hours, but am already tired of this lonesome place," he told his wife. "There are only two or three houses in this neighborhood, and we are a long way off from anybody."
"It appears as if the duty of our corps is to move along and watch the reconstruction of the railroad running eastward," he added. It was a familiar mission for Van Derveer.
The 35th Ohio had started its service in 1861 guarding the Kentucky Central Railroad in Kentucky and in the summer of 1862 it protected workers rebuilding rail lines across the northern parts of Mississippi and Alabama.
In an April 14, 1865, letter, Van Derveer said "our ignoble duty is to rebuild a railroad," a time-consuming mission. In 10 days, the regiment had moved only seven miles along the destroyed East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. The route had been ripped apart a year earlier by Union troops to prevent its use as a Confederate supply line. [Pictured above, workers repairing Civil War railroad line; map of southern railroads below.]
In addition to idleness and menial labor, Van Derveer and his troops were often harassed by the weather and the mud it produced in an era of unpaved roads.
While in Kentucky in December 1861, he told Emily "I am writing this under adverse circumstances -- raining, cold and disagreeable. No fire in any tent. I sit here trying to keep comfortable, wrapped in blankets and thinking of you at home."
"Water six inches on the level in my tent," he reported from Tennessee in June 1863.
"The rains continue, keeping us wet most of the time."
A month later, still in Tennessee, he wrote "we have nothing to do but work our way through the mud." Daily rain, he said, is "sometimes very heavy. Yesterday we spent the whole day crossing Elk River which had been swollen by the showers. The roads are so muddy that it is almost impossible to move our wagons and artillery."
It was a different story in March 1864 at Ringgold, Ga. Ferd reported seven inches of snow with soldiers enjoying "snow and snowballing." Another inch was added before two pleasant days ended the frivolity.
During extended occupation duty in Huntsville, Ala., in 1865, most of his letters noted the poor condition of railroads north of that point. He mentioned train wrecks caused by roadbed weakened by frequent rain. Some heavy downpours also washed away several bridges in the area.
Clearly, Ferd Van Derveer believed that after (1) the Confederate army and (2) red tape in the Union army, weather was a major influence on the course of the Civil War.
Members of the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment -- bored by the inaction of guarding a railroad line -- devised a regimental activity that broke the monotony.
It was a rabbit hunt, but not the type of hunting that the men had practiced in the fields and woods of rural Butler County. There were no guns. Instead, their weapons were clubs -- a choice dictated by orders not to waste ammunition.
Members of a company or two -- as many as 150 to 200 men -- would deploy in neat lines, forming a human box around a Kentucky field.
On command, the box would shrink. The club-wielding soldiers would walk forward, scaring the rabbits into the middle of the field. Those in the center -- and any rabbits that tried to escape through the tightening lines -- were clubbed to death. A rabbit roast was a rewarding climax to the event.
Emily (Em) Gaylord Van Derveer