1862: James H. Van Vort to Uncle

This letter was written by James H. Van Vort (1840-1890) who enlisted at the age of 22 in September 1861 to serve three years in Co. A. 56th New York Infantry. He was promoted to a corporal sometime before his re-enlistment as a veteran in February 1864 and he was promoted to a sergeant in September 1864. In March 1865, he was discharged from the regiment so that he could accept a lieutenant’s commission in the 128th USCT.

James was the son of William M. Van Vort (1807-1874) of Fishkill, Dutchess county, New York. Prior to his enlistment, James was employed as a cigar maker in Fishkill.

James wrote this letter from Harrison’s Landing some two weeks after the “Seven Days Battles” in which the 56th New York participated as part of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 4th Corps. The were present at Williamsburg, Savage Station, and Bottom’s Bridge but did not suffer any losses until the fight at Fair Oakes where 66 members were killed or wounded. In June, as part of Gen. Peck’s Division of the 4th Corps, they managed to avoid most of the fighting in the Seven Days Battles.


Camp of the 56th New York States Volunteers
July 14th 1862

Dear Uncle,

Today finds us encamped about ¼ of a mile from the place where we were when I wrote before but it is not as I stated near City Point but eight or ten miles below & near Harrison’s Landing. City Point is on the opposite side of the [James] river. Our pickets is ¾ of a mile from here but where the rebels are, I do not know. They don’t show themselves much.

Last week one of their sergeants came over this way & tried to play smart on our picket. He came up to their post & told them that he had orders to draw them in. His idea was to get them over inside of the rebel lines but our fellows were too wide awake for him & in the place of going with him, they made him come with them up to our General’s ([John J.] Peck’s) Headquarters where he was made a prisoner.

Last Wednesday they came over with a flag-of-truce about two miles to the right of us & report says that it was to notify us to leave in six days. The time is nearly up but instead of obeying Old Jeff’s orders, we have been making preparations to stay until the hot weather is over. By that time, I believe, we will have sufficient force here to go on up to Richmond.

I have seen by the papers that the President has called for more troops. That’s what he ought to have done a year ago. If he had, I believe that this war would have been ended before this time. I have not heard from Charley since they took him from here. If any of you have, let me know. I was over to the 18th [New York Infantry] yesterday. The boys had heard from one of their wounded. He was at Annapolis. The regiment is about two miles from us. The Matteawan boys that are there were all well. Johnny Jaycot ¹ sends his respects to you. I have seen quite a number of the Matteawan boys since we came here. I suppose you remember Charley Hedges. ² He had his head taken off with a canon ball about two weeks ago.

I am getting tired of writing. It is so awful hot here today. Those postage stamps that you sent are all used up & I wish you would send me twenty-five more & two dollars in money. The ten that I was to save is all gone — two of it I lost. The other 8 I spent. I have been sick quite a good deal since we got paid & could not eat the rations we get so I had to buy the most that I have eat. Since we fell back from Fair Oaks, I have lost about twenty pounds but I think I am picking up now again. My appetite is coming to me. I can’t think of any more at present. Give my love to all friends & accept a share yourself. From your nephew, — J. H. Vanvort

Col. Charles Henry Van Wyck

P. S. Write soon & after directing your letter to me, Co. A, put on another envelope & direct to Col. C[harles] H[enry] Van Wyck, M. C. 56th Regt. N. Y. S. V., Washington D. C.

You need not put on any postage stamp. A great many of the letters that are sent to us go to the other regiments & the Col. told us to have our letters directed in this way so that they would come safer & reach us quicker. He says if the Post Master asks if there is another letter inside, tell him it is none of his business. I heard from Binghamton. The folks there are all well. [George M] Sullivan & [George] Moore send their respects to you. So does [Alexander] Shepard. They are all well.

¹ Probably John W. Jaycon who enlisted at age 29 in May 1861 at Albany in Co. C, 18th New York Infantry.

² Charles Hedges (1836-1862) of Fishkill, New York, was a private in Co. F, 18th New York Infantry. He was killed in the fighting at Gaines’ Mill on 27 June 1862. We learn from this letter that Charley was beheaded by a cannon ball.


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