Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Letter #39 -- Camp Near Petersburg, VA -- August 17, 1864

Living in the modern world with the benefits of instant communications provides benefits and some drawbacks.  The ability to instantly obtain the answer to a nagging question you might have, or to contact a person, is certainly beneficial.  However...have we become addicted to our devices and have we lost our ability to become disconnected from the world...even for a few hours?   In John W. Derr's time, the pendulum was swung in the opposite direction with the ability to obtain information in a time frame necessary to ease concerns or to interrupt a boring day was...at times...frustrating.  Letter #39 is just one example of this type of frustration seen by many soldiers during the Civil War.  The slowness of the mail system during the 19th century, coupled with the interrupts to delivery caused by the affects of war, made the loneliness and homesickness of the war even greater.

Grave of Henry F. Dengler
Henry F. Dengler ca. 1895
It has been two months since John instructed his father to lend money to a John Kramer.  Additionally, he had requested that a hat be purchased and sent to him from Mr. Dengler (father of Henry F. Dengler from prior letters).  Since his original letters were written on the subject, John has had no word from home.  Repeated letters to home asking about these two requests, have at this point, not been answered.    You can see the frustration in this letter.  Now...I know that he knew that the problem was not with his parents...as they were faithful correspondents to John...rather with the postal system during the war.  We have previous examples of this frustration seen in his other letters.  The ultimate result was a bundle of letters coming from home that had been held up in transit.

It would appear that John is most concerned about the loan he promised John Kramer.  He seems to be having second thoughts about lending him money...which happens when one ponders a decision made over a long period of time...a type of post purchase regret.

                                                                                                Camp near Petersburg, Va.
                                                                                                August 17th, 1864

My dear Father and Mother,
            I take this present opportunity to write this few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present time and I hope this few lines will find you in the same state of good health.  I would like to know why I don’t get no answer from you.  This is the third letter that I wrote to you and didn’t get no answer yet.  I didn’t get no answer yet from that letter that I wrote to you about the money that John Kramer was going to lend from me.  I wish you would write to me and let me know about it if you got that letter what I wrote to you about it.  And I wrote one to John Kramer about it the same time and I didn’t get no answer yet from him and I also wrote one to Dengler and I told him to send me a hat and  he did so and I never got no letter from him yet since he sent the hat.  I wish you would go there and see what the hat and postage cost and take some of my money and pay him for the hat and let me know in your next letter what the hat cost.  Now don’t forget to write to me if you get this letter and let me know whether you got the letter that I wrote to you about the money that J. Kramer wants to lend from me.  I am afraid things won’t work right about that.  I have no particular news to write today.  I am still driving team and I am well all the time since I am driving.  Give my best respects to sisters and brothers and to all inquiring friends.  So I will close this few lines in hoping to hear soon from you again.  This few lines from your son.

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Answer soon and direct your letter John W. Derr, CoD 48th Regt Pa., 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Army Corps, Washington D.C.

Jim D.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Letter #38 -- Camp Near Petersburg, VA -- July 17, 1864

5 Cent Fractional Currency Note from John W. Derr Collection
I'm a day late on this one, but as they say...better late than never.

The digging goes on...and so does the camp life for John W. Derr.  The mine is still in progress with the eventual explosion on July 30th.   Though this letter does not reflect it, John spends his days working in the mine as well as driving team for the dirt removal.

Letter #38 discusses a commitment John made to John Kramer to lend Kramer $200.  He is confirming his verbal commitment to Kramer and tells his father to do the deal, but to get "his note and a good bale" from him.  He has loaned Kramer money before and he directs his father that when he gives him the $200, that if some of the money Kramer paid back in the past was not greenbacks (or gold/silver) that his father should use that money for the loan.

During the war, and prior to the war, there were many varieties of currency printed.  Some was literally not worth the paper it was printed on.  As a result, most only wanted to deal in hard currencies such as gold or silver...and at a minimum..."greenbacks".  Greenbacks were printed by the Federal government and had slightly more trust than local currencies...but not much.  Memories of the old Continental currencies, printed during the Revolutionary War, were still fresh in the minds of Americans.  The Continental currency essentially became worthless after the war and many soldiers of the Revolution held worthless pay.   During the Civil War, many of the soldiers had grandfathers that had fought, so they knew the stories of "bad money".  An earlier letter (Letter #19) illustrates his concern about taking local money.   In that case...Schuylkill money...

Confederate $5 Bill from John W. Derr Collection

Confederate $5 Bill from John W. Derr Collection

Civil War Token from John W. Derr Collection

                                                                                                Camp near Petersburg, Va.   
                                                                                                July 17th, 1864

My Dear Father,
            I take the present opportunity of informing this few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present time and I hope that this few lines will find you in the same state of good health.  I let you know that John Kramer ask me to lend him two hundred dollars of my money and I did promise it to him.  So if he comes for it and gives you his note and a good bale (bail) * on it you can give it to him but no sooner than you get the note.  He told me that I need to use only on bail but I will leave that to you.  Or if you don’t know anybody let him put old Reed or Dengler or who you think is best to have on (it).  And if he paid you any money that ain’t greenbacks give him that and see that you won’t get cheated.  It is more trouble than it is worth but still I have to do it.  I have no more to write for this time so I will bring my letter to a close.  This few lines from your son.

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Answer soon and direct your letter as before.

*It appears that the term bail as used in this letter was, during this period of time, synonymous with our current use of the term co-signer.           

Jim D.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Letter #37 -- Camp Near Petersburg, VA -- July 13, 1864

In July of 1864, John W. Derr would give insight into one of the most (in)famous battles of the Civil War.  Outside of Petersburg, Va, and during a stalemate in what would become the newest of battlefield tactics...trench warfare...officers of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment devised a scheme to break the lines of the enemy.  The plan consisted of tunneling under the lines of the enemy and filling the resulting chamber with black powder...exploding the black powder...and thus undermining the lines of the enemy.  While the plan was good and the engineering was revolutionary...the follow-up attack was a disaster resulting in a failure of the union army to rout the enemy.

During the digging of what became known as "the Petersburg Mine", men of the 48th PVI spent over a month using knowledge obtained from coal mining in the anthracite regions of Pennsylvania to develop an effective mine tunnel under the Confederate lines.  It would later be filled with black powder and on July 30, 1864, exploded resulting in the famous Civil War "Battle of the Crater".  John was part of this mining effort and the letter below is a precursor to the execution of the attack.

I find this letter extremely fascinating and it provides an insight to the man and the effort.  It also gives me connection to the battle, whenever I visit the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.  Additionally, his bit of humor in the closing gives me a feel for the man...

"G.D. the mules they shake too much I can’t write anymore."

John would die a young man in 1876 at age 37.  Depositions provided in the widow pension application reference both his wounds received in battle, as well as his service in digging the mine.

*This is an uncensored reference in advance of the mining and preparation for the upcoming explosion which did occur on July 30, 1864 and resulted in the famous Petersburg “crater” and the breeching of the Confederate lines.  The 48th Pa. conceived the plan for the mining and destruction of these fortifications; however, an otherwise brilliant plan deteriorated into a debacle when, after the successful detonation of explosives and breeching of fortifications, failed to follow up forcefully with the scheduled infantry attack (Depositions from Official Records (O.R.) indicated that J.W. Derr was actually more involved in the undermining than he indicated in this letter- See deposition of Sgt Otto Bodo, dated June 23, 1880).

                                                                                                Camp near Petersburg, Va.           
                                                                                                July 13th, 1864

My Dear Father and Mother,
            I take the present opportunity to inform this few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present time and I hope that this few lines will find you in the same state of good health.  I received your letter today and I was very glad to hear that you are well all the time and I am happy that I can say the same.  I am also glad to hear that you got my money and I hope you will take good care of it, as you did before.  And if we don’t soon get paid I will be very apt to send for some of it but I hope we will soon get paid off.  We don’t need much money, but I want some once in a while.  I suppose you took good care that you got my pay all in good money for I wouldn’t like to have any bad money for I have to work hard for it.  We hear that the rebels are making a raid into Pennsylvania again but I hope it will be to their sorrow.  I hope they will lose more men then they did last summer at Gettysburg and they didn’t gain much that time by all appearances.  It is for no use to write anything to you about the war for you know more at home then we do out here for we do hear very little but what we see.  But I will let you know that we will have a great explosion here before very long.  We are going to blow up the rebels forts.  They are undermining them now.  They have two or three all ready now and our regiment is working at one and they are near done with it and I hope it will work all right, if they get it going. *
            I have no more to write today so I will bring these few lines to a close for this time with the intention of hearing from you soon again.  So I will remain your affectionate son.
                                                                                                John W. Derr
Answer soon and direct your letter as before.  Give my love to my brothers and sisters and to all inquiring friends.  Tell Josiah Fetterolf if he wouldn’t write a letter to me I would pin his nose up on his forehead.  G.D. the mules they shake too much I can’t write anymore.

Pension Deposition of Sgt. Otto Bodo referencing JWD's participation in the mine

Jim D.