Hamilton veteran campaigned for creation of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Park
Van Derveer’s final years devoted to honoring soldiers on both sides and preserving Civil War battlefields
(This is the last in a 10-part 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
Only a small part of Ferdinand Van Derveer’s life was devoted to soldiering. He volunteered as a private for the Mexican War (1846-1847) and served four years as an officer in the Civil War (1861-1865). Between those conflicts and for 35 years after the latter, his time and talent were devoted to serving Butler County and the City of Hamilton.
After the Civil War, his public service included collector of internal revenue in the congressional district, an appointment by President Andrew Johnson; a brief stint as Hamilton postmaster, appointed by President Grover Cleveland; and election as a judge of Butler County common pleas court, a post he held from 1885 until 1890.
During the post-war years, other Van Derveer activities were the annual reunion of veterans of the 35th OVI and involvement in events related to commemorating those who served and died in the Civil War. His passion in his final years was taking the initiative in a campaign that led to creation of national military parks to commemorate those who fought and died in U. S. wars. It began with Chickamauga battlefield, where his leadership was most conspicuous.
Whitelaw Reid, who witnessed much of the war as a Cincinnati newspaper reporter, had high praise for Van Derveer’s Civil War service and leadership "In the field, his first care was to see for himself that his picket lines were properly established, at any cost of fatigue and reconnaissance. His care of all the interests of his men was unceasing, and no effort on his part was ever spared to promote their comfort," Reid recalled. "From the men up through all grades of officers with whom he served, confidence in his judgment was general. Though suffering from attacks of a chronic disease contracted in Mexico, he was often in the saddle when he should have been in bed," Reid wrote in his two-volume Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers.
In the summer of 1888 -- 23 years after the Civil War had ended -- Ferdinand Van Derveer was again on the Chickamauga battlefield. This time there was no enemy fire threatening his life, as had been the case there during two traumatic days 25 years earlier. The 65-year-old judge -- who had commanded a brigade, or more than 3,000 men, in the same fields and woods -- wasn’t alone in 1888. His friend and riding companion was Henry Van Ness Boynton, who had served under Van Derveer during the war.
The two men recalled the confusion and terror of Sept. 19-20, 1863, as they covered familiar ground. The battle was the deadliest two days of the Civil War for Butler County soldiers. Chickamauga is considered the second deadliest battle of the four-year war. There were more than 34,600 causalities in both armies. In two days, 3,591 Ohioans were either killed or wounded and 1,351 were captured.
Until September 1863, few people outside the immediate area had heard of Chickamauga Creek at the northwest edge of Georgia. Nearby, in Tennessee, were two locations also unfamiliar until November 1863 -- Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, both overlooking Chattanooga. Boynton had earned the Medal of Honor in leading an improbable charge up Missionary Ridge. Van Derveer had commanded troops involved in the victorious assault.
That day in June 1888, Van Derveer and Boynton rented a horse and buggy and toured dirt roads to revisit familiar locations on the battlefield. It was an inspection trip with a purpose. Their goal was to create "a Western Gettysburg" at Chickamauga. They wanted it to be different -- not just a cemetery.
Unlike Gettysburg, Van Derveer and Boynton believed Chickamauga should mark the lines of both armies -- and honor the service of all combatants. Their intent was to preserve, as much as possible, the roads, fields, forests and other features of the battlefield where soldiers from at least 18 Union states and all Confederate states had clashed.
The veteran officers wanted the battlefield accurately marked to show positions and movements during the two-day 1863 conflict. They demanded more than monuments in a cemetery or markers beside roads to commemorate the service and sacrifice of their comrades. Veterans had been holding reunions for several years, separately at first, not combining the commemorations with their former enemies.
Gettysburg, Pa., had been developed as a tribute to the Union troops who fought there. For 23 years, only Union monuments were erected. Confederates memorials were excluded. In 1869, Union officers had invited four former Confederate officers, including Gen. Robert E, Lee, to a Gettysburg reunion. All refused to attend.
During the late 1880s, soldier reunions began changing. An example was the 25th anniversary of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1888. It included veterans from both sides. Northern and southern veterans had shared similar experiences and, with the passage of years, developed more respect for their former enemies.
The Van Derveer-Boynton park proposal gained momentum and was advanced by veterans of the Army of the Cumberland (Union army) and supported by local citizens. In September 1889, Confederate and Union veterans joined to form the Chickamauga Memorial Association. The Chickamauga reunion that year attracted 12,000 people, including soldiers who fought on both sides.
Chickamauga was a breakthrough. Thanks to Van Derveer and Boynton, it was a joint North-South effort, involving veterans, state governments, local cooperation and support from members of Congress. In 1890, Rep. Charles H. Grosvenor of Ohio -- a Civil War veteran who had fought at Chickamauga -- introduced a bill to create the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Park. It was signed Aug. 18 that year by President Benjamin Harrison – an 1852 Miami University graduate and a Civil War veteran It authorized preservation and marking of 7,600 acres. The park was dedicated Sept. 18-20, 1896, on the 33rd anniversary of battle. Boynton participated in the ceremonies and was instrumental in the park’s early development.
Judge Van Derveer wasn’t on the grounds where a superior officer had praised his "fearlessness and calm judgment in the most trying situations." He had died Nov. 5, 1892, and had been buried in Greenwood Cemetery, wearing his Civil War brigadier general uniform.
The Van Derveer-Boynton initiative led to creation of five national battlefield parks in the 1890s by federal government: (1) Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Ga. & Tenn.; (2) Antietam, Md., 1890, but not a full-fledged national military park until 1978; (3) Shiloh, Tenn., 1894; (4) Gettysburg, Pa., 1895; and (5) Vicksburg, Miss., 1899. Preservation of other Civil War sites would follow.