1863-64: William H. Van Iderstine to Phebe (Birdsall) Simon

These letters were written by 19 year-old Pvt. William H. Van Iderstine (1844-1920) of Co. D, 13th New Jersey Infantry. William enlisted on 11 August 1862 and was with his regiment at Antietam five weeks later. He was wounded in the hand in action before Atlanta on 30 July 1864 and was sent to the XX Corps Hospital where his hand was amputated. He recovered at a hospital in Nashville, TN, and the Ward Hospital, Newark, NJ. He was discharged 30 January 1865.

William was the son of Jeremiah P. Van Iderstine (1822-1896) and Catherine K. Birdsall (1822-1855). After the war he married Hattie Bannister (1837-1918) and worked in South Orange, New Jersey, for the firm of T. Van Iderstine & Sons, boots and shoes.

William wrote the letters to his aunt, Phebe (Birdsall) Simon (1830-Aft1890), the wife of John K. Simon who served in the 5th New Jersey Infantry (Part of the Jersey Brigade). John enlisted on August 19, 1861, and mustered in as a sergeant in Co. D on August 22. He was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on May 26, 1862 and later promoted to 1st Lieutenant on May 19, 1863. He was promoted to the rank of Captain in May 1864. He mustered out of the service on September 7, 1864.

The firs three letters were all written in the days and weeks following the Battle of Gettysburg in which the 13th New Jersey played a relatively minor role, losing 1 killed and 20 wounded out of the 360 men brought to the field. The regiment reached this battlefield at 5 p.m. on 1 July 1863, and with the brigade went into position on the north side of Wolf Hill. During the night, they occupied a position in support of Battery M, First N.Y. Artillery. July 2, in the morning, they held a position near Culp’s Hill. In the afternoon, they marched to relief of the Third Corps near Round Top. At night they returned to right of the army. July 3, they occupied a position supporting the Second Massachusetts and Twenty-seventh Indiana in their charge on Confederate flank. In the evening, they moved to extreme right to support of Gregg’s Cavalry. In the weeks that followed, they pursued Lee’s army to Manassas Gap and on to Kelly’s Ford.

The fourth letter was written from Tennessee after the regiment was sent to the western theatre to join Sherman’s army for the Atlanta Campaign in 1864.

13th New Jersey Monument at Gettysburg

Letter 1

Addressed to Mrs. John K. Simon, 107 Warren Street, Newark, New Jersey

Camp of the 13th Regiment N. J. Vols.
In Snicker’s Gap, Va.
July 22, 1863

My Dear Aunt,

It is now some time since I have written to you but it is not because I have not thought of you but because my time has been very limited and the chances for writing letters very few.

Since we left the old camp at Stafford Court House, we have seen some pretty hard times. We have marched upwards of four hundred miles and been engaged in one of the largest battles of the war–viz: Gettysburg. I will not say much about it now as doubtless you have learned the full particulars from the daily papers. At one time on the march from Pennsylvania we made over 50 miles in two days.

I have not see Uncle John since I saw him at Littlestown, Pa. He came to see me when at or near Williamsport but I was on picket. I will tell you of the place where I was on picket at some future day. We have just received notice that a mail will leave and the Quartermaster is now gathering the letters so I must close for the present. I am now acting as company clerk. I am well. Please write.

Yours as ever, –Wm. H. Van Iderstine

The Quartermaster says there will be no mail today so I will write a few more lines.

We came here the night before yesterday and we may stay here today but I am not sure. All that I have now is what I have on, a piece of tent, rubber blanket, haversack, and canteen. I threw my knapsack away at, or rather before, the Battle of Gettysburg, although I did not have much in it. I saved my bible and needle-case which I carry in my haversack. I shall be glad when we get in camp again for I think we have done enough marching for the last two months for one campaign. But never-the-less, if it would end the war, I would be willing to march as much more. The sun is very hot out here now which makes the marching so much harder.

The New Jersey Brigade is somewhere ahead and I may get a chance to see Uncle John in a day or two, yet there is no certainty about it as one day we may be near each other and the next far away.

We are having some good news from Vicksburg, Morris Island, &c., and I hope before this letter reaches its destination the “Stars and Stripes” may wave over the walls of Fort Sumter and over the City of Charleston.

God grant that this cruel war may soon be ended and that sweet peace, happiness, and prosperity may again be spread throughout our land.

Remember me to all the folks and to Grandma. I write the letter out. Don’t know when I shall get a chance to mail it. Yours affectionately, Wm. H. Van Iderstine

Please don’t fail to write soon.


Letter 2

Camp of 13th N. J. Vols.
Kelly’s Ford, Va.
August 6th, 1863

My Dear Aunt,

Your kind and very welcome [letter] was received a short time ago. I was glad to hear from you and to learn that you were all well at home. At present I [am] well but am pretty well worn-out from the fatigue of the present campaign. We are now encamped at Kelly’s Ford—the place where we crossed the Rappahannock River last spring when we went to Chancellorsville. I hope we will stop here for week or two that we might get recruited up a little.

The weather is very hot out here now and has been for about a month past. I am now acting as company clerk which position I like very well and it gives me an opening for something better.

Our captain is acting Major and I suppose he will get it before long. Lieut. James L. Carman, a brother to the Colonel [Ezra A. Carman], is now acting as Captain. I was selected by the Adjutant when at Warrenton to serve as clerk of a Regimental Court Martial which kept me pretty busy for portions of two days.

I have no more to say at present except to be remembered to all the folks and friends and I remain your affectionate nephew, — Wm. H. Van Iderstine


Letter 3

Camp 13th N. J. Vols
Kelly’s Ford, Va.
August 23rd 1863

My Dear Aunt,

I take the pleasure again of writing you a few lines to inform you that I am well and hearty. I hope these few lines may find you all well at home. I was agreeably surprised to find, or rather learn, that Uncle John had the good fortune to get home on recruiting service.

You must excuse me for not writing more often since we have been in camp as I have been very busy in company the company books and making our reports, returns, rolls, &c. &c. The year is up the 20th of this month and the clothing accounts must be balanced which I am busy with now and as soon as I get through with that, pay rolls are to be made out so that I am kept busy. I don’t have to do any duty but attend dress parade & answer roll call if not engaged at that time.

Three regiments of our brigade left us a few days ago. The length of time that they are to be gone or their destination I cannot tell at present. Some think they are bound for New York City, others that they have gone on the transports to Yorktown on the Peninsula. On their leaving, Col. E. A. Carman took command of the remaining three regiments. If I had been half smart, I might have had the position as clerk, I think.

I think something of accepting a commission in a colored regiment. What think you? If Uncle John is there, just ask his opinion on the subject.

It is now Saturday night and tomorrow will be Sunday and we expect to have a sermon preached (for the first time I believe in about 6 months quite) by the chaplain of the 107th New York in our brigade. We have some very excellent prayer meetings here three or four times a week and our labors have not been in vain for some have come from darkness into light and others are serious and ask to be prayed for. For the last few days we have had a missionary from or belonging to the U. S. Christian Commission with us in our prayer meetings. Our meetings are attended by a large number—sometimes as high as 100 or more. The 107th New York, attached to our brigade, also have a goodly number of christians in it who take an active part. Sometimes we go to their meetings and at other times they come to ours. Though surrounded by vice and sin of all kinds, we have many precious seasons of praying and singing praises to God. I hope soon to hear the lips that now use profane language to be turned to sing the praise of God.

It is now after tattoo and I must close by asking you to remember me & our meetings in your prayer to our Heavenly Father,

If Uncle John is home, let him see this and when you write again, let him know where he is that I may meet him. Ask him to excuse me for not writing. Hoping to hear from you soon, I remain yours affectionately, — W. H. Van Iderstine

P. S. Please excuse the haste in which this letter was written and remember me to all the folks — W. H. V. I.

N. B. Aunt Phebe, won’t you please send by mail the soft felt hat I left home as soon as possible. It will cost but about 25 cents and it will be a great comfort out here in the hot sun. — W. H. V. I.


Letter 4

Camp 13th N. J. Vols.
Duck River, Tennessee
January 15, 1864

Dear Aunt,

I thought tonight since I had nothing to do I would write you. It has ben some time since I have heard from you but I know that you would if you had the time.

We are still encamped at Duck RIver. Since I last wrote you, we have had some very cold weather down here and I doubt not you have in Jersey. The citizens say it is the coldest weather they have experienced in twenty-five years. It was so cold on New Years Day as to freeze the ink in my pen while I was making out a report for the Adjutant (f it had not been of importance, I would not have written). I was as near the fire as I could get without burning so you can imagine how cold it was.

A sad affair occurred near Tullahoma (a village about 9 miles south of this place and where we were encamped about two weeks before coming here). Four men and a Lieutenant were caught, their hands tied behind them, and deliberately shot—or rather 3 men shot. The officer ad one man escaped by jumping into the river and swimming across. They were shot at several times and the man wounded. The officer and one man belonged to the 27th Indiana (our Brigade). The War Department has issued an order taxing the citizens living within ten miles of the place to the amount of $10,000 dollars for the support of the families of the men who were shot. After the guerrillas shot them, they threw them in the river. What an act for civilized people. Can God prosper such a people? I should think not.

I have been writing for the Adjutant’s Office for nearly two weeks but it is only temporarily. I may be there only a day or two more or a week. I got to work at 9 a.m. and get through at 4.30 p.m. I have a good tent to be in and a warm fire to write by and everything “handy.”

I received a letter from Uncle John about a month ago and have written him twice since. I received a box from home and in it some cake, &c. from you. It was relished very much. I feel very grateful for them. Also a tipet [a hat] from Grandma for which I returned my thanks.

I understand that the Colonel has given permission for a house to be built for to hold prayer meetings and church in. We have not had any prayer meetings in a long time in consequence of the cold weather but if we get the house built, we will no doubt have meetings two or three times a week. Oh how I would like once more to attend the prayer meeting held at Halsey St. Church. I can now see better than ever how important are class and prayer meetings to a Christian.

I will close for the present and remain as ever yours affectionately, — Wm. H. Van Iderstine

Please write as soon as possible.


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