1862: William E. Vanauken to his Family

This incredible letter was written by William E. Vanauken, the son of John Vanauken (1810-1856) and Emmaleta Vredenburg (1804-1862) of Chemung county, New York. William enlisted at the age of 21 as a private in Co. D, 107th New York Infantry (the “Campbell Guards”) on 7 August 1862. At the time of his enlistment he was described as standing 5′ 7″ tall, with blue eyes and brown hair. He was promoted to a corporal sometime prior to 10 April 1863 and made sergeant on 5 March 1864. Unfortunately, William himself died in a similar fashion to what he described in the present letter at Dallas, Georgia, on 25 May 1864.

William’s Headstone in Marietta National Cemetery misspelled “Nanauken”

In his letter, William describes the maelstrom the 107th New York found itself in on the morning of 17 September 1862 near Miller’s Cornfield and the East Woods on the Antietam Battlefield. After making their advance, the yet untested regiment soon found itself hunkered down behind a fence on the Smoketown Road near Mumma’s Lane. Across the clearing before them, through the dense smoke of battle, they could just barely make out the Dunker Church and the West Woods beyond. On the right before them was Monroe’s Battery and to the left was Owen’s Battery, both under heavy fire from Rebel cannoneers. And when their right flank was threatened, the regiment was order to change front to meet the new attack, only to find themselves soon afterward prostrate again between two rows of Union artillery, every cannon belching out fire and canister as fast as it could be loaded.  For four hours, the regiment lay pinned to the ground between the rows of artillery, one member of the regiment [Newton T. Colby] telling his father he “tried to get as thin as possible and felt somewhat like a pancake.”

Not all of the boys in the 107th performed as well as they thought they would under fire according to Willie Graham of Co. B. “I honestly think we have a great many cowards in our regiment. We have got a great many of the village loafers and whiskey soakers—great braggarts—swearing what they would do when they got there [on the battlefield] and when we did get there, them very boys was taken sick or skulking behind straw stacks.” [see 1862: William Graham to Libbie Graham]

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and was transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Camp Third [Brigade] 1
September 27, 1862

Dear Brother and Sister,

I got your letter and was glad to hear from you. We are at Harper’s Ferry now. We are both well. Frank is reading your letter now. I have not seen Frank Vredenburg 2 since he was wounded. He is wounded in the hand. We are up on the hill a half a mile away from Harper’s Ferry. We can see the little village all the time. We went down to the Potomac this afternoon and went in a swimming and washed our clothes. We had a good time. When I got back, the mail had come in and there was jumping to get our letters.

Here is where John Brown was hung. The rebels was here and burnt the bridges to Harper’s Ferry. The engineer company has been here building bridges.

I am writing by candle light and I can’t half see. You need not be alarmed about the rebels coming up there for we give them one of the finest dressings that they ever had. The most of the talk now is that we have got them whipped now. They are a hard-looking set. Ez, I saw a good many of them giving their last prayer to God. I saw them gasp their last breath.

They had a battle here before we came and there was a [Union] General give up his men 3 and he is arrested now for it. That is when they burnt the bridge.

Ez, I went over the battleground the 3[rd] day and they was not half buried yet and they had all turned black. You could not have told your own brother if you had seen him. They reckoned that we killed two to one At any rate, I saw 40 of them in one place where our men had made a charge and there was only 5 of our men was killed there. That was an awful day. I was nervous to get into the fight but I would give my old hat and boots if I had been out of it. I tell you that it’s bad to see your companions dropping on every side of you.

When I first went in, the first thing that I saw was a shell come over my head and went about 6 rods beyond me and hit the ground and bursted and tore one boy’s leg off close to his body and tore one side off his head. He was the worst looking sight that anybody ever saw. I stepped over a good many dead bodies, some with their brains shot out and some with their legs shot off and such cries you never heard. Some of our boys [were] hollering, “Go in boys and kill the sons of bitches!” Horses was killed—lots of them. We saw one man with his horse. He was riding him and there come a shell and cut him in two and the horse ran away with his hind quarters on his back riding him as though he was alive and that looked hard. Ez, you can’t imagine nothing about it.

You must tell Bill Rockwell that Frank is wounded. I wrote a letter to Richard day before yesterday and two yesterday—one to Chloe and one to George Stanley. And tonight I got three letters—one from Richard and one from Emma Crandall. I will write a little more in the morning and let him know that I got his letter. I will write to Em in the morning so I will put them all together. That will be 5 letters. The mail goes out at 1 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Frank got a letter from Rachel tonight. He is reading a newspaper now. Tell Jim he must take good care of the old fiddle. Rachel, kiss the children for me. This is all from your affectionate brother, — William Vanauken.

I heard that Melissa Crandall was married. I want you to write as soon as you get this. Goodbye. All my love to all of you.

1 I can’t be certain that I have transcribed the name of the camp correctly. It may have been “Third” Brigade, XII Corps, as that is the unit the 107th was part of at the time. After the Battle of Antietam, the 107th New York, 13th New Jersey, and the rest of the Third Brigade went into camp across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry on Maryland Heights, where they occupied a piece of farmland on a plateau on the west side of the ridge. They did not see action again until Chancellorsville.

2 Francis (“Frank”) D. Vredenburgh was 21 years old when he enlisted with William at Elmira in Co. D, 107th New York Infantry. Muster rolls indicate that he “deserted, no date, from hospital.” Frank was a cousin of William’s.

3 William is probably referring to Union General Dixon Stansbury Miles (1804-1862) who surrendered Harper’s Ferry to Stonewall Jackson’s men on 15 September 1862 giving up almost 12,500 prisoners. Miles was mortally wounded after calling for a ceasefire so probably avoided being cashiered. A commission was subsequently tasked to investigate the fiasco and concluded that Miles was probably a traitor and one or more subordinates were found at fault as well.

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