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The Early Years

The Early Years

None of the New Jersey units saw much action in the first year of the war. In August, 1861, they became part of the Army of the Potomac, the new designation for units stationed around Washington under the command of General George B. McClellan. The New Jersey troops began fighting in earnest in the winter and spring of 1862, when McClellan pursued the strategy of trying to capture Richmond by an invasion of the Peninsula of Virginia. By early summer, it became clear that the plan was not a success. Robert E. Lee’s Confederates pushed McClellan’s forces back with heavy casualties, including the loss of New Jersey’s most renowned war hero, Major General Philip Kearny. The campaign ended with the Union’s near rout at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862.

J.G. Keyser and C. Kolb. Campaign Sketches of the 24th Reg. N.J. Vols. J.C. Henzler Stuggart, 1862.

General P. Kearney's Charge, Battle of Chantilly, VA. Lithograph. Drawn by John R. Chapin. Publisher: New York: Virtue and Yorston, 1865.

Born into wealth in New York, Philip Kearny grew up on his family’s estate outside of Newark. Kearny fought in the Mexican-American War, where he lost an arm, and later as a soldier of fortune in various European conflicts. When the Civil War broke out, Kearny returned home and was one of the first brigadier generals to be appointed by Lincoln as commander of the First New Jersey Brigade. Known for his aggressive fighting style, Kearny earned the moniker “the one-armed devil” from the Confederates. Kearny was one of those officers who believed that McClellan was too cautious and frequently ignored his orders. He rose to command an entire division of the Third Corps and was promoted to Major General on July 4, 1862. After heroic turns at the Battle of Williamsburg and the battles of the Seven Days, Kearny was shot from his horse at Chantilly on September 1, 1862.

Letter, Philip Kearny to Col. John F. Lee, October 21, 1861.

This letter of recommendation from Kearny to Colonel John F. Lee, Judge Advocate General, was docketed as an enclosure from J. C. Jackson to “Hon. A. Lincoln.” This order signed by Kearny directs the wife of Teamster Philips of the Third New Jersey Infantry to return home. Soldiers’ wives often came to the front to care for their husbands, and sometimes remained as nurses.

Edmund C. Stedman. Manuscript Poem, "Kearney at Seven Pines."

Philip Kearny’s bravery and daring at the inconclusive Battle of Seven Pines in the Peninsula campaign was immortalized in Edmund Clarence Stedman’s poem Kearney [sic] at Seven Pines, a signed manuscript of which is displayed here.

Letter, Henry F. Van Derveer to Mary Van Derveer, Camp near Williamsburg, May 8, 1862.

The first major battle of the Peninsula Campaign was at Williamsburg on May 5, 1862. The Union army, including the New Jersey Second Brigade under Joseph Hooker, suffered over two thousand casualties. In this detailed letter to his wife Mary Squier, surgeon Henry F. Van Derveer of the Fifth New Jersey Volunteers describes the Confederate artillery barrage. "Last Saturday afternoon I rode with an officer of engineers to the advance works before Yorktown. Roads had been built – earthworks thrown up – guns mounted and in short the whole face of the country changed by the labor day and night of Porter and Heintzelman’s army corps of 30,000 men. Dismounting we crept to the advance shielding ourselves by the works – in the trenches we sat and peeked through embrasures and loopholes at the enemy’s front end works. A pretty active bombardment was going on – between our battery No. 1 down by York River – throwing 100 pound shells and one over 200, and the enemy who unable to reach battery no. 1 opened from their different works firing all sorts of missiles everywhere they supposed us to be. The shrieking of a shell is a strange unpleasant sound, (as loud if the shell is a large one and something like, but shriller) than the noise of an express train at high speed. To see them burst high up against the blue sky is beautiful."

Letter with envelope to John Van Fleet, January 14, 1862.

For the ordinary soldier, army life entailed much tedium and discomfort interspersed with moments of sheer terror. In this January 1862 letter, Aaron Van Fleet of Clover Hill, New Jersey, a private in the Twenty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers, complains to his brother of cold, irregularity of pay, and illness in the camp. In spite of limited educational opportunities, most New Jersey soldiers were literate. Van Fleet perished at Spotsylvania in 1864.We got paid today so I will send yo this money….We did not get paid all…Snow here now and quite cold…There is a good many living here now with the fiever 5 died in one week from our Camp I would like to be home Now for a while….I hope I will be home next winter….

H.L. Hillyer. Camp of the 6th NJ Volunteers, Lower Potomac, Maryland. Lithograph. New York: Lang & Lang.