Above: Telegraph battery wagon during Civil War
Telegraph brought quick news of Civil War events to home front in Hamilton
(This is the seventh 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
Emily Van Derveer knew many of the grisly details of the two-day 1863 Battle of Chickamauga within 24 hours. When her husband, Ferdinand Van Derveer, had fought in the 1846-1847 Mexican War -- before their marriage -- it took weeks or months for war news to reach Ohio. When the Civil War started in 1861, telegraph lines laced eastern states, enabling newspapers to report events within hours of their happening. By contrast, it took personal letters from soldiers several days, and sometimes weeks, to reach family and friends at home.
Emily’s husband had written regularly after leaving Hamilton Sept. 26, 1861, but her eagerness to receive mail was greater than ever after reading the ugly reports of the Sept. 19-20, 1863, Battle of Chickamauga, Ga., south of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Besides the fate of her husband, she also was concerned about the welfare of their 13-year-old son, Harry, who was visiting his father when the Union and Confederate armies stumbled into each other at Chickamauga Creek.
Ferd wasn’t able to write until Sept. 23. "He behaved like an old soldier," he said of Harry, who was safe and on his way back to Hamilton that day. The colonel had sent his son to relative safety when the fighting started. During the battle, he worked in a field hospital, assisting the wounded.
Emily knew of Harry’s experience before her husband’s letter arrived. Sept. 25, the weekly Hamilton Telegraph reported that father and son were not reunited until two days after the battle. The newspaper said the brigade commander found his son "cutting bandages and carrying water for the hospital corps."
The human cost at Chickamauga was staggering -- 16,170 Union casualties (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded and 4,757 missing) and 18,454 for the victorious Confederates (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded and 1,468 missing). Gen. Braxton Bragg's CSA army began the battle with about 66,300 troops against 58,200 in the Union army led by Gen. William Rosecrans.
"The loss has been fearful," Van Derveer told his wife. "My brigade fought like heroes, and have covered themselves with glory. The 35th lost in killed and wounded about half of those engaged. I cannot now enumerate who have been killed and wounded." He said "nearly everyone in the brigade was shot through the clothes."
The 35th Ohio had little semblance to the 912-man regiment that had departed Camp Hamilton Sept. 26, 1861. As it entered the fray at Chickamauga, it had only 391 men. Among the missing 621 some had been killed, others had died of diseases and a few had been promoted or transferred to other regiments.
Of the 391 engaged, the 35th lost 195 -- or 49.9 percent. The toll included 43 killed, 124 wounded and 28 captured or missing. Several in the latter category died later in Confederate prison camps. The captured included two regimental surgeons -- Dr. Charles C. Wright and Dr. Abraham H. Landis -- who stayed on the battlefield to care for the wounded who couldn't be moved.
Van Derveer’s brigade, including the 35th, was one of the last units to leave the battlefield as the Union army retreated about 12 miles into Chattanooga.
Praise for the courage and determination of the men of the 35th and their comrades in the delaying action included plaudits from the enemy. Major-General T. G. Hindman, a Confederate division commander, in his report on the desperate fight at Snodgrass Ridge, said he "had never seen federal troops fight as well."
Brig.-Gen. John M. Brannan -- an 1841 West Point graduate and career officer from Indiana -- hailed Van Derveer (pictured at left) for his leadership at Chickamauga, remarks that weren’t included in any of Ferd’s letters to Emily.
"Where the conduct of all is so commendable, it is hardly possible for me to select any for particular mention, yet I cannot conclude this report without bringing to the special notice of the commanding general the gallant and meritorious conduct of Colonel Van Derveer, 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanding Third Brigade, whose fearlessness and calm judgment in the most trying situations added materially to the efficiency of his command, which he handled both days in the most skillful manner, punishing the enemy severely," said the official report of Gen. Brannan, who commanded the Third Division of the 14th Army Corps.
For two months, the remnants of the Union army were under Confederate siege in Chattanooga.
Van Derveer -- exhausted and suffering from wounds he had sustained in the Mexican War -- was granted a furlough and returned to Hamilton for two weeks. "My visit home was a delightful one, only far too short," he wrote later.
"I never spent a more delightful two weeks."
He returned to Chattanooga Nov. 12, 1863, after a perilous trip from Hamilton, surviving two train derailments south of Nashville. Upon arrival, he discovered all the brigade’s horses and mules were unfit for service -- just a few days before his brigade would take the offensive.