Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Second Bull Run - A 150th Anniversary Retrospective

I had the opportunity today to spend some time at the Manassas Battlefield Park in Manassas, Virginia with my Dad to commemorate and reflect on the contributions of my GG-grandfather, John W. Derr.   I wanted to take a few quiet moments to step back in time to that period in the Civil War when armies clashed and men died.  A time to reflect on my good fortune to be living in the here and now.  A time to spend with my Dad on a common bond and interest we have shared over the last 45 years.  We both felt it was appropriate to honor our ancestor by visiting the site of his courageous service to our country.

On August 29th, 1862 the Army of Virginia under General John Pope met up with the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee at and around Manassas, not far from the site of the original first battle of Bull Run.  It was at this battle that John W. Derr first experienced the shear terror of battle, the horror and fear of death.  His contributions up to that point had been primarily in supporting roles and as reserve troops, but here in Manasas, on this day 150 years ago, all of that change for him.

JWD, as a private in the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, was part of Pope's infamous thrust in to center of General Thomas Jackson (Stonewall Jackson) line at the unfinished railroad cut near Groveton.  Convinced that Jackson was isolated from the rest of the Confederate army and not likely to receive reinforcement from General Longstreet, Pope attacked Jackson's center at the unfinished railroad cut while later in the afternoon, General Longstreet arrived to provide reserve support.  This proved devastating to the union drive and resulted in a overwhelming defeat.

The 48th PVI, flanked by the 6th New Hampshire and the 2nd Maryland advanced the line.  It was at this time around 3:00 on the 29th of August that the 48th PVI advanced more rapidly than the other two regiments, leaving it in a vulnerable position.  Hard to imagine now, but in those days the battles tended to be a bit more chaotic owing to the smoke, noise and lack of effective communications between regiments and respective army headquarters leadership.  In the case of the 48th PVI, they were able to retreat back, but not after sustaining heavy casualties.  It was during this part of the battle that John W. Derr was wounded in the leg above his ankle.  Fortunately for him, the wound did not hit the bone and he was able to be recovered by his men during their initial retreat.  As a confederate line advanced further, Derr had to be abandoned by the rest of his company due to his lack of mobility.  At that time, John W. Derr was taken prisoner by Jackson's men.  Later he would be moved to the Stone House where his wounds were tended and dressed.

Wounded and a prisoner, Derr was lucky to survive this horrendous battle.  It wasn't until nine days later that he was able to write home to his parent to describe his ordeal.  John Derr spent three days as a prisoner of war before being paroled by the confederates in a prisoner exchange.  Paroling, a common practice during that period of the war, was eliminated under General Grant later in the war.

All of this is described in Derr's letter of September 7, 1862 which will be posted in nine days...please stay tuned!....

Donald Derr, Great Grandson of John W. Derr at the Unfinished Railroad cut

Link to Wikipedia for a description of this campaign:  Wikipedia on the Second Battle of Bull Run

Jim D.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Letter #20 -- Fredericksburg, Virginia - August 9, 1862

Well...I am 4 days late getting this letter out.  I should have done this last Thursday, but work got the better of me and I left it in draft until today.  My apologies.

In the letter dated August 9, 1861, JWD writes a very short note to his father telling him that he is well and that they have moved from Newport News, Virginia to a camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Of course we now know that this was the march up to the north just prior to the engagement with Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at the various battles in August and September of that year.  In three weeks JWD will engage Jackson's men at the Second Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia and will experience events that will change his life forever.

In his short letter, JWD tells his father that he had his "likeness" (Photograph) taken and that he was sending it home with is friend in the Pa Cavalry, Francis Dengler.  The photograph that you see on the website is probably not that "likeness" and is more than likely a photograph taken after the war.  Either way, it is the only photograph I have of JWD.

Letter #20.....

                                                                                                Camp near Fredericksburg,
                                                                                                West Virginia, August 9, 1862

My Dear Father,

                        I take my pen in hand to inform this few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present time and hope that this few lines will find you in the same state of good health.  Further I let you know that I got my likeness taken and I will send it home in this letter.  I was going to go get it taken this long time but I had no chance to get it.  But now I got it and I hope you will get it in safety.  So I don’t know much more to write this time so I will come to a close and say good by.  Answer this letter as soon as you get this from me.  So no more at present time.

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Direct your letter to John W. Derr, Co. “D”, 48 PA. in care of Capt. William W. Potts, Burnsides Ninth Army Corp, Fredericksburg Virginia.
I sent my likeness in care of Francis Dengler and then you can get it there.  Very likely you will have to pay a little something.

Jim D.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Letter #19 -- Newport News, Virginia - August 1, 1862!  Always about the money!  That is what I used to think of the general content of the the letters of JWD.  Originally, I had envisioned grand and glorious letters written home to friends and family describing the heroic actions of my ancestor during this most momentous time in our nation's history.   The more I read...the more I digest...the more I understand the man who was my great -great grandfather.  I guess what I find most interesting and satisfying is that he was no different than other soldiers who have fought for our country.  Even to this day, soldiers write (or more likely today they use email, Skype, or cellphones) home to talk about mostly day-to-day life and to catch-up on events at home.  Soldiers today generally don't write detailed descriptions of battles, actions taken...nor do they sit at home and wax fondly of the days of war.  I can understand this now.  For a soldier in the field, constant letters containing the true dangerous day-to-day actions, would only serve to worry family at home.  After all, JWD was writing to his parents who were already very worried about his safety, and writing to them to confirm what they read about in the papers and what was gossiped about at home would only add to their fears.  So it goes...his letters serve as a communication vehicle, a comfort, and a touch of the home front for a soldier who was both bored and terrified in the field.

Letter #19 from August 1, 1862 is interesting from a historical perspective...not of the war...but of the state and belief in the monetary system of the United States at that time.  Today, we take for granted the value and fidelity of United States paper currency.  In 1862, the general population did not have as much confidence in paper money.  Prior to the Civil War, paper currency was handled on a local level with states, counties, and even cities/town issuing their own paper currency.  This currency was backed by gold or silver and could be redeemed in that location at any time.  This presented problems as the money moved further away from the locality from which it was issued.  Eventually the United States government started issuing its own currency via "demand notes", in 1861.  By 1862, these were replaced by the more commonly known, "greenbacks" reserve notes.  This was done in order to finance the war effort by issuing dollars in paper vs. the increasingly scarce precious metal coinage. By 1862, copper pennies were so scarce that private companies and banks began issuing their own pennies...hence the civil war token was born.

In this letter you can see how JWD tries to explain to his parents about his wishes on what kind of money they should take for his pay disbursement.  In this case, he is telling them what kind of deal was acceptable.  Hunsinger described in the letters, was a merchant in Minersville, Pa, and he played a roll in providing a payroll cashing service for family members drawing pay for soldiers in the field.  This was a valuable service, since the last thing a soldier wanted was to have all of his monthly pay allotments on his person and to risk losing it during a battle, or having it stolen by friend or foe!  Most had their pay drawn at home, and services provided by Hunsinger handled the details.  JWD directed his parents and essentially educated them on how, how much and what to accept, so that they would not be taken advantage of by the merchant.  In essence what he tells them is that if he pays in "United States Money" (Greenbacks) that they owe him nothing because of his lack of faith in the new currency.  However, if he pays in Schuylkill County paper currency, then they should take a lower value and get gold or silver instead.  So...he had little faith in either paper currencies, but was willing to take less money for precious metals....e.g. 70 cents on 20 dollars....or 3.5% fee for metal.

The last part of the letter is for his entire family to comfort them and tell them not to worry about him.  I suspect he had received letters from brothers and sisters who were concerned about him and he felt he needed to tell them that he will be alright.

Lastly, he inquires about his sister Elizabeth and her marriage.  I am not sure what happened there, but I find it interesting that he inquires and has not been told by the family....something suspicious!

Letter #19.....

                                                                                                Newport News, Virginia
                                                                                                August the 1st, 1862

My Dear Father and Mother,

                        I take my pen in hand 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.  Further I let you know that I received your letter on the last of July and I was very glad to hear from you and hear that you are all well at present time.  But I don’t know what to say about my money what you draw from Hunsinger but I will tell you what to do about it if he pays the United States money, them kind of bills what I sent home the first time.  Then you will take it and don’t give him the 70 cents from twenty dollars.  But if he pays Schuylkill County money or any other kind of old paper money then you may take gold and silver.  That is if he takes only 70 cents from the 20 dollars you must know best what to do.  You know that I am satisfied if you do only what is right and take good care of it for I need it very bad when I come home.  But you stated in your letter that I have only 51 dollars of soldier’s money at home and I did send 28.50 cents home from here and you did draw 40 dollars at home and that would make 68.50 dollars and fifty cents and you can draw 20 dollars again now and twenty I had at home.  Then that all together would make one hundred and eight dollars and fifty cents.  You mustn’t give no money to any body that don’t give it back again.  You will use some of my money to buy paper and envelopes and to pay the letters for I must write often to you and let me know all about it what I wrote to you.  Answer this letter well and soon.

                        Dear Father and Mother Sisters and Brothers, you must not trouble yourselves about me.  You must always think that I would come home and very likely I will come home.  Further I let you know that I answered every letter to Elizabeth that I got from her and one more.  But I will write to her as long as I can draw the pen over the paper.  But I heard that she got married and no one will write to me whether it is so or not.  But now I must come to a close and say goodby for this time. Answer this letter as soon as you get this from me.  Direct your letter as before for I can’t write the direction here.

                                                                                                So much from Your Dear Son,

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Jim D.