1862: Robert G. Vassar to John Guy Vassar

This letter was written by Robert (“Bob”) G. Vassar (1837-1910) to his brother John Guy Vassar (1839-1904); they were the sons of James Vassar, Jr. (1801-1853) and Caroline Elizabeth Pierce (1805-1887) of Poughkeepsie, Dutchess county, New York.

Robert served as a sergeant in Co. E, 2nd New York Infantry. He enlisted on 21 April 1861 at Troy, New York, to serve two years but was discharged for disability on 27 December 1862 at York, Pennsylvania. Robert’s letter — penned from Fair Oaks, Virginia — gives a highly detailed description of the sights and smells that he observed while spending a night on the Fair Oaks [or Seven Pines] Battlefield less than two weeks after the battle.

[Note: Regretfully, “Bob” did not sign his full name and there is no accompanying envelope to aid in the confirmation of the correspondents. However, the author indicated that he was in Co. E, 2nd New York Infantry and Robert G. Vassar was the only “Robert” in Co. E on the roster in June 1862. A check of Vassar’s family record confirms that he had a brother named John (married to a woman named Annie) and another brother named Mathew (“Mat”) Vassar (1844-1905) who served as a private in Co. G, 13th New York National Guard for 90 days in the summer of 1862. All of these names are consistent with the content of the letter. It should also be noted that Robert’s surname was often spelled “Vasser” in regimental records.]

battle-of-fairoaks
Burying the Dead & Burning the Horses on the Fair Oaks Battlefield

TRANSCRIPTION

Battlefield Fair Oaks, Va.
June 12th 1862

My dear brother “Johnnie”

I suppose you have heard ‘ere this that the Troy Regiment is now part & parcel of the Grand Army of the Potomac. (Gen’l Geo. B. McClellan the “hero of the war”). Well here we are & as the Dutchman says, “Vat of it.” I suppose you now expect a regular “spread Eagle” style of missive from “Bob.” Well “Pale Ale,” you are mistaken. I cannot give it to you . Words would fail to picture to your imagination the horrid scenes which now surround our camps. To try & give you some idea of the spot upon which the Troy 2d encamped the first night will be my first object.

We form part of the extreme advance of Gen’l Patterson‘s Brigade, Hooker‘s Division, Heintzelman‘s Corp-de-Army. Our first night we encamped upon the very spot where the battle of Fair Oaks commenced & where [Gen. Silas] Casey‘s Brigade broke & run. ¹ We arrived there at twilight & immediately commenced the work of spreading our blankets for the night. Around us lay the burnt remains of artillery & cavalry horses. It was impossible to put foot down anywhere without placing it upon some of the countless numbers of fresh made graves of those who fell in that terrible battle. Long trenches, some hundred feet long, stretched away to the east & west in which lay hundreds of bodies & around & under us were long rows of graves — principally those of the 5th Alabama Regiment. The stench which filled the air was perfectly sickening.

When daylight came, here & there could be seen legs, arms, feet, & skulls protruding from the ground. About 8 o’clock, our Company & B Company went on picket guard. Oh! horrors! can mortal pen describe the scene on the road to the picket lay the swollen & bloated carcasses of horses, while strewed upon all sides lay knapsacks, cartridge boxes, gum’s, bayonets, saber belts, caps, overcoats, &c. &c. which were thrown away by the rebels in their hasty retreat. Upon reaching the woods, the horrible stench of human bodies, decayed & bloated, filled the air. Here lay a rebel, flat upon his back, his face black as ink, his flesh dropping from his bones & millions of maggots crawling over him. In another place a group of two & three lay, some on their faces, some of their sides, but all in the same state of decomposition. No grave was dug, no coffin enclosed the mortal remains of these poor fellows. There they lay, just as they received their death wounds — unburied — unwept — uncared for — peace to their souls, though they were our enemies.

In these woods & within a few feet of us lay probably from 55 to 100 unburied bodies. So you wish to know how those that fall in battle are buried. I’ll tell you — a few shovels full of mud or clay is thrown over them, just where they fell, just as they lay. And after a heavy rain, the mud washes from them & leaves exposed to view the horrid sight of their faces, their limbs, or portions of their bodies, all swarming with maggots.

After we encamped the first night, when our boys awoke (though we were alarmed once during night & fell in line of battle) in the morning what would you say to see us covered with these maggots from the bodies of those buried there a few inches below the surface. Many of the boys, tired & worn out with the heavy march through mud & rain, wrapping their overcoats around them lay down upon some graves and amid the sickening stench beside these dead bodies soundly slept & dreamed of loved ones far away. Such is a soldier’s life.

We are daily expecting the “ball to open” which if we are victorious as we shall be, will be the crushing of the rebellion. Soon it will come & terrible indeed will be the struggle. You may soon look for the news. You will then know that our regiment is among the combatants.

I got a letter from Hawley last night in which he says Mat has enlisted. I am indeed sorry for it but I am thankful he has enlisted for only 3 months & that in all probability he will see no fighting & but little of the hardships & dangers which we now endure. Enclose you will find a $5 & $1 note, Confederate money. I suppose you will consider it quite a curiosity. I obtained quite a sum of it this morning and shall send it all away home.

Give my love to “Annie” [and] also respects to Ollie, Rut, Nassat, Ed & Ike Vincent Blinkey & all the boys & believe me to remain your affectionate brother, — Bob

P. S. Do not wait for me to write, Johnnie, but write as often as you possibly can. We receive only one mail a week here & I cannot write very often now. If you knew what a consolation it is for us poor fellows to hear from home you would write very often.

Direct your letters (Co. E, 2nd Regiment, New York Volunteers, Gen’l Patterson’s Brigade, Gen’l. Hooker’s Division, near Richmond, Va.). Put on the Volunteers as the New York state Militia are here & letters not directed plain sometimes go there. Tell me of you got my photograph & the piece of shell.

Yours &c. — Bob

fairoaks
View of Fair Oaks Station, Virginia; Drawing by Robert Knox Sneden on 15 June 1862

¹ Gen. Silas Casey’s division was composed almost entirely of raw recruits who had never been in battle previous to this engagement. The division had also been seriously reduced in size with some 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers prostrated by disease and unfit for duty.

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