Union troops (right) in Gen. Absalom Baird's division are depicted capturing Confederate artillery
"Men all behaved splendidly" on Missionary Ridge
War correspondent had different view of battle risks than Van Derveer reported to his wife in letter written after combat
(This is the eighth 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
"My health is very good, was not hurt. I thought of you, dear Em, very often during the fight," Ferdinand Van Derveer said in his first letter to wife after his troops participated in a victorious unplanned assault on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga. "Today one week ago we left our camp for the fight and have been out all the time until last night. We were engaged on the 25th on Missionary Ridge and drove the rebels [at] all points, Our brigade fought splendidly," he declared in the Nov. 30, 1863 letter."
Taking the heights was part of a Nov. 23-25 Union offensive that ended a two-month Confederate siege of Chattanooga.
"Who ordered those men up the hill? Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is said to have asked when it was apparent Union troops were storming Missionary Ridge. The 18,000 soldiers had been ordered to capture enemy rifle pits at the base of ridge to draw Confederate forces from the flanks, where the major attacks had been planned.
The Union breakout was completed two days later when Confederates were driven off Lookout Mountain.
Ferd Van Derveer offered more details on the Missionary Ridge success in a second Nov. 30 letter to his wife in Hamilton. "We have had heavy winds and cold, heavy rains, and an uncomfortable time generally. But a glorious victory [has] been achieved, the rebel forces routed, all at a comparatively slight cost," he wrote.
"We were not actively engaged until . . . when my brigade, with others, charged Mission Ridge and drove the enemy before us. Our loss was much smaller than we had any right to expect from the importance and dangers of this undertaking. Six men of the 35th were among the killed.
"Sergeant Stokes and Simon Kumler were among these, both worthy young men and excellent soldiers. I met Kumler in the midst of the fight and shook hands with him. This was after he was shot and before his death. Stokes was shot through the head and died at once.
"My men all behaved splendidly and have added to the laurels they won at Chickamauga. The fight did not end until it was too dark to aim. We remained all night on the ground we have won," he added. "In less than an hour after the fight was over, I was sitting under a tree by a big fire reading a letter which had just arrived from my dear little woman. And, although surrounded by the dead and dying, my thoughts were all away up in Ohio with you and our children. I was grateful for the letter, and was doubly acceptable at that time when everything about exhibited the terrible carnage of the battlefield."
Losses in Van Derveer’s brigade were 20 killed, 141 wounded and two captured or missing.
"On the 26th," he recalled, "we started in pursuit of [Gen.] Bragg and followed him about 16 miles to Ringgold, which is not far from the Chickamauga battlefield. But our division had no other engagements, though we picked up a great many prisoners, and captured a considerable commissioned officers. . . . I think it is the most disastrous reverse they have met with during the war, and will hasten its conclusion very materially."
In his official report, Van Derveer's said "in this action my brigade fully sustained the reputation it had won at Chickamauga. None flinched from their duty."
As in previous instances, Ferd’s letters to Emily didn't mention accolades from a superior officer for his conduct during the Missionary Ridge assault.
Brigadier-General Absalom Baird, the division commander, in his official report, said: "To my brigade commanders, Brigadier-General Turchin, of the First, and Colonel Van Derveer, of the Second Brigade, I invite your attention. To their skill, bravery and high soldierly qualities, we are greatly indebted for the results we were enabled to accomplish. I hope that their services will be rewarded."
Van Derveer spent the winter of 1863-64 waiting for a spring offensive. Gen. William T. Sherman's Atlanta campaign began May 1, 1864. The interlude gave him more time to write to his wife.
"Captain Lewis goes home tonight and I drop you a line that you may know," he wrote. "I am well and have not quite forgotten you. The captain has resigned on account of his wound received at Chickamauga. "Do not wish it was me -- for you do not know where he was wounded.
"I think it is much the better way to get along without any sort [of injury], if possible. It is so uncertain when one may be hit. I used to think that a slight injury that would send me home to my wife and babies for a few months would not be unacceptable, but I have changed my mind."
Van Derveer periodically assured his wife he was careful and didn't take risks. But Whitelaw Reid, a Cincinnati war correspondent, didn't agree. "He was always close along the fighting line, always on horseback and generally exposed more than any of his men," Reid wrote after the war.
Van Derveer earned more praise from Brig.-Gen. Baird for his service between Feb. 22 and May 1 as the army prepared to advance toward Atlanta. "I must commend to the major-general both General Kilpatrick and Colonel Van Derveer in my two reconnaissances. Both of these officers displayed on these occasions the high soldierly qualities for which they are known, energy and boldness, guided by the coolest judgment." Baird said.
Again, he didn't mention it in a May 4 letter to his wife. Instead, he wrote "we are all busy sending back our extra baggage and preparing for a forward movement."
In a June 7 letter from Acworth, he told Emily of a close call. Ferd said he was resting in bed in his tent, which was dark, except for a lighted candle on a table at foot of the bed. A Confederate sniper aimed at the light, apparently believing a person would sitting near it. "The ball passed just over my feet within a few inches of the candle. Had I been sitting up at the table," he wrote, I would most likely been hit."
Otherwise, he told Emily little of the hardships and horrors of combat as Gen. Sherman moved steadily through Georgia in May and June 1864. His comments included: We have been pounding the rebels for two days, if they have not run away," May 8, south of Tunnel Hill, Ga.
"We are still working along slowly toward Dixie, skirmishing a little every day, but having no serious fighting," June 3, between Dallas and Allatoona, Ga. "We do not know what has become of the enemy or what Sherman intends to do. Tomorrow morning we expect to move, but where I do not know," June 8 from Acworth. "We had something of a fight yesterday, and, in fact, there has been fighting and skirmishing for a week past," June 19, near Marietta.
June 9 from Acworth he reported he had that day a visitor from home, but it wasn't a pleasant meeting. Ferd said a Mr. Stewart, "who lives up toward Darrtown," was there to find and take home the body of a son killed a few days ago. "Mr. Stewart has lost all of his sons (three) in this war."