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Van Derveer shared criticisms of superiors, including Lincoln, in letters to his wife in Hamilton

Was his political stance factor in prolonging promotion during war?

Van Derveer shared criticisms of superiors, including Lincoln, in letters to his wife in Hamilton

(This is the ninth 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

Some officers saw the Civil War as an obligation, others regarded it as an opportunity for self promotion and possibly later political reward. Civil War service was a major factor in advancing five men -- all with Ohio connections -- to the presidency. Ferdinand Van Derveer was not one of them. The Hamilton lawyer and veteran of the 1846-1847 Mexican War entered the Union Army in July 1861 as a colonel, commanding the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. More than two and a half years later -- after moving from regiment to brigade leadership -- he was still a colonel.           

Despite distinguished service and repeated praise from superiors, Van Derveer was ignored while others with lesser accomplishments and experience were promoted. Van Derveer believed it was mostly his politics, not his military performance, that held him back.           

In an April 1864 letter, his wife, Emily, suggested Ferd resign because he had been unjustly passed over for promotion. "I feel no great indignation about the matter of promotions.," he replied. "I came here to pay a debt I owed my country, and I think no one will say I have not done my duty."

Whitelaw Reid, a Miami University graduate and Civil War editor and war correspondent, noted Van Derveer’s situation in his two-volume post-war book, Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers. Reid said Van Derveer "was a volunteer, and as such, was in the habit of criticizing freely the orders he received, sometimes carrying his objections and expostulations to what a regular would call the verge of insubordination."             

He cited an example from Ferd's first command in Kentucky in 1861. "He received from Gen. [William T.] Sherman one of the first and least justifiable of those panic stricken orders on which many officers of the army based (and still base) their belief that General Sherman was insane."             

"It was an order to destroy the railroad at Cynthiana, abandon everything and march back to Cincinnati," Reid wrote. "Van Derveer knew that the alarm was groundless; and, furthermore, he saw the absurdity of destroying the railroad and marching back to Cincinnati, when he might so much easier go by rail, if a retreat became necessary. He accordingly took the responsibility of flatly disobeying the order."           

Despite the chance of his letters being intercepted by friend or foe, Van Derveer didn’t hesitate to express his opinions about Union officers -- or his chances for promotion in letters to Emily.             

After the costly Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, he wrote that "great horror is attributed to Gen. Grant for his neglect and want of generalship. He is responsible for the lives of hundreds of his men, and should be very severely dealt with."

Later that year he complained about "inefficient generals," but didn’t name names. Still later, he expressed a preference to serve under the command of Gen. George H. Thomas -- a Virginia native and career U. S. Army officer -- rather than under Gen. William T. Tecumseh, a temperamental Ohioan.    


Jan. 1, 1864, Major-Gen. William S. Rosecrans recommended Van Derveer be promoted to brigadier-general, after he had been highly praised for leadership in recent battles at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge.           

In March 1864 -- before the Atlanta campaign -- Van Derveer criticized the president in a letter to Emily. "It is plain to see that the government does not intend to enforce the draft and put sufficient men in the field to crush the rebellion. So we may look for it to last at least until after the presidential election. Mr. Lincoln appears to be afraid of impairing his popularity with the people."
In an April 1864 letter, the colonel blamed Rep. Robert C. Schenck -- formerly a major general, who was then chairman of the House military affairs committee -- for not being promoted. Schenck -- a Franklin, Ohio, native and 1827 graduate of Miami University and a Miami professor for two years -- had entered the Union Army in May 1861 as a brigadier general of volunteers. He was promoted to major general in September 1862. Schenck had resigned his commission Dec. 3, 1863, to take his seat in Congress after being elected as a Republican from the Third Ohio District that included Butler, Preble, Warren and Montgomery counties. He immediately became chairman of the powerful military affairs committee.             

Schenck had defeated the incumbent, Clement L. Vallandigham, in the 1862 election after the district had been gerrymandered to assure a Republican victory. Vallandigham, a pre-war Democrat, had been the congressional spokesman for the Peace Democrats. He advocated a negotiated peace with the Confederacy and questioned Lincoln’s domestic and military decisions. Detractors considered Vallandigham a traitor and branded him as a leader of the Copperheads, northerners who opposed the war.           

In assuming that Schenck was blocking his promotion, Van Derveer believed he was paying a price for his well-known pre-war political views. During the 1860 presidential election, Ferd was editor of the Hamilton Telegraph, a Democrat paper. Van Derveer supported the reelection of Vallandigham for U. S. House. He also had endorsed John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, the Southern Democrat presidential candidate, over Abraham Lincoln in 1860. (In the Battle of Chickamauga, Van Derveer’s troops fought against Confederates commanded by Gen. Breckinridge.)          


"I have made up my mind to resign as soon as the contemplated movement toward Atlanta is at an end," Ferd wrote May 1, 1864, "and no promotion that could be offered would keep me in the service. All the officers here express surprise and indignation at the way I have been treated. Gen. [Absalom] Baird says that the course of the president in promoting only those that have or may render him some political service deprives us all of inducements to remain in the army." A month later, he wrote: "Now, after the president has been making numerous promotions of ones who have rendered little or no service, some of whom have not ever seen a fight, I will not accept promotion."

Because of declining health, the colonel was sent home June 27, 1864. Col. Newell Gleason, 87th Indiana, who took command of the brigade, said "Van Derveer, having been for some time in bad health and unfit for duty, received a leave of absence. "           

As the army neared Atlanta, Van Derveer's absence was noted in Gen. Baird's report: "In losing Colonel Van Derveer, my command, and the service generally, was deprived of one of its most gallant and best officers and most accomplished gentlemen. Always prompt, judicious and brave, he had distinguished himself on many fields, and his promotion had been strongly urged upon the government, but unaccountably overlooked."

Van Derveer later returned to the army, serving beyond the war's end in April 1865 in occupation and railroad rebuilding assignments in Alabama and Tennessee.  Van Derveer was promoted to brigadier general Oct. 4, 1864. But he didn’t know it until late February 1865 -- when he read of his Senate confirmation in a newspaper.