These letters were written by Joseph P. Van Nest (1841-1905), the son of John Van Nest (1814-1903) and Sarah Weiler (1819-1895) of Rowsburg, Ashland county, Ohio.
Joseph P. Van Nest worked with his father as a harness maker. He married Mary Elizabeth Gardner (1842-1928) in October 1861, and their son John was born in April 1862. “Raised in a family of dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, Joseph Van Nest went to war to preserve the old Constitution. After enlisting with Co. F, 120th Ohio Infantry in the summer of 1862, he shortly felt betrayed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and evidently his dissatisfaction became known throughout the community. One minister even claimed that Joseph, if given the opportunity, would be willing to shoot the president if he did not retract the edict. As would be expected, Joseph’s father John took offense at this slanderous statement, for he had seen the letter in question and knew that his son had expressed no such sentiment. John personally confronted ‘the Abolition Preacher,’ who ‘in order to dodge the matter claimed that he had misunderstood his wife.’ The offended father, however, did not buy this lame excuse but continued to regard the Republican cleric as a ‘Liar & Mischiefmaker’ unworthy to fill the office of a man of the cloth.” [A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the War, by Sean A. Scott] Though Joseph would not shoot the President, he did consider desertion. His wife Mary even pleaded with him to do so: “If I was you I would not stay down there and fight for the negroes anymore, for I would not have my blood spilt for them…” [February 1, 1863] Mary apparently shared this opinion with her in-laws. But discord in the Van Nest family erupted later in the fall of 1863 when Mary announced to her husband and his family that she supported the Republican candidate (John Brough) for Ohio Governor over the Peace Democrat Clement Vallandigham. In November 1864, Joseph transferred to the 114th Ohio Infantry where he was commissioned a lieutenant. Following his discharge in June 1865, VanNest returned to work as a harness maker, and later became an insurance agent.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Addressed to Mrs. Mary E. Van Nest, Rowsburg, Ashland county, Ohio
Postmarked Memphis, Tennessee
“A solder’s letter from the state of Louisiana”
Smith’s Plantation, La.
April 17, 1863
My Dear Wife,
Your interesting message of March 30th came duly to hand on yesterday informing me of your excellent health, and would say in answer that I am well and in the enjoyment of good health at the present time.
I also received a letter on yesterday from Ann dated March 29th in which she gave me regular thunder on all sides, about a letter that I wrote to you and sent with Lieut. Stanley and which I intended to be a confidential letter. I put it in a separate envelope and wrote on it particularly to not let anybody see it but yourself but it seems Ann saw the very things that I did not want anybody to see. By the way, she writes she saw that sentence in regard to the finding of that letter at Arkansas Post. I would not of had her see that for one hundred dollars for I will bet anything it is all over the county already. If it haint, she has changed awfully. I do not know when anything made me feel so bad as that letter did, and I think I will preserve the letter or I may burn it. I do not know what I may do with it yet. I want you to preserve that letter that I sent home so that I can see it at some future day. I do not remember any more what I wrote, but if I wrote anything that was untrue, I am sorry for it. I am afraid I will have to quit writing confidential letters to you for Ann thinks it is disgraceful and says if All would write such nonsense she would not correspond with him.
As far as that is concerned, it is a free government yet—folks can write as they please. She seems to pitch into my family connections some. I think as far as that is concerned, they can bear and do bear as good a character as some that writes about them. She seems also to reproach my character somewhat. As regards that, I have nothing to say. I will leave that for folks in Rowsburg to say that have known me for twenty-one years. She also seems to dwell on a sentence which read thus: If I would come home and take you out of Rowsburg, it would be about read out of tattlers, and she further says that the devils imps will always obey him. Now what for language is this for our sister to use against another? This is all the features I will notice of her letter at his time, for her remarks are disgusting, and unbecoming a Lady, and should be discountenanced by honest people. I deem it unworthy an answer, not wishing to spend time answering such an abominable epistle.
Afternoon. 2 o’clock P.M. Since writing the above, our Company was ordered out to guard and escort some teams out in the country about six miles after some cotton. We got 17 bales. It was on the same plantation where we got the cotton that those rebels was the other day.
I sent fifty dollars home yesterday to father by express to put out in interest for me. I would have sent it to you but I do not think it is safe for a woman by herself to have that much money about her. I wrote to father that if you wanted any money to give you all you wanted.
I am sorry to say that Franklin Emery ¹ has lost his hearing in a singular manner. He has not been very well for several days and last evening he went to blow his nose and he tumbled over and since that he cannot hear at all. He may get over it in the course of time.
Lieut. [John] Sloan just informed me that in my absence today he promoted me Orderly Sergeant from high private in the rear ranks. I call that a pretty good promotion for the first—jumping over all the rest of the non-commissioned officers. Benjamin Myers ² is promoted to 4th Sergeant and Franklin Emery ¹ to 3rd. Frank was a Corporal & Big John Switzer ³ was Corporal, and he is promoted to 5th Sergeant. The Lieutenant—or rather Captain now—wants me to sew on my stripes right off but I do not want to. If I did, I could not get any stuff here. I wish you would get me a couple of bolts of nice light blue “Phereson” and send it to me in a paper.
I wrote all the news in father’s letter. You can read that. Give my love to your folks and all enquiring friends. I must close for this tie. Hoping to hear from you soon, I subscribe myself as ever your loving husband, — J. P. Van Nest
¹ Franklin Emery was 25 years old when he enlisted in Co F, 120th OVI in August 1862. He was appointed Sergeant from Corporal on 17 April 1863; was reduced to the ranks on 1 July 1863; captured 3 May 1864 near Snaggy Point on Red River, La.; and mustered out with the regiment in July 1865.
² Benjamin Myers was 20 years old when he enlisted in Co. F, 120th OVI in August 1862. He was promoted from private to 4th Sergeant in April 1863; captured May 25, 1863 in action near Raymond, Mississippi; rejoined the company in November 1863; transferred to Co. E, 114th OVI in November 1864.
³ “Big John” Switzer was 40 years old when he enlisted in Co. F, 120th OVI in August 1862. He was promoted from Corporal to 5th Sergeant in April 1863. He died on 22 September 1863 at La Fayette, Ohio.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Mouth of White River, Arkansas
200 miles above Vicksburg, Mississippi
September 8, 1864
I hastily seat myself to answer your kind letter of August 28th which came duly to hand a few moments ago. You will doubtless be surprised to see the heading of my letter, but if you recollect, I told you in my last letter that we were under marching orders. our division and one brigade of the 3rd Division of which the 42nd Ohio composes a part, embarked in transports on the evening of the 3rd inst., and arrived here today. We had not been here long when the mail boat came down the river and we stopped it and got off our mail (this accounts for us getting it so soon. I also received a letter from sister Mary dated August 28th). We are only about 200 miles below Memphis. When we left Morganzia, nearly everybody thought we were a going to Memphis and from there to Nashville, Tennessee. But I believe now we will go up into Arkansas after awhile to reinforce Gen. Steele.
We are encamped near the river in a large cotton field and rumor says we will remain here several weeks. But a soldier is like a United States rifleman preacher, they keep him moving around and we hardly know one day where we will be the next. It would tickle you, I will bet, if you could see my bunk. I set up my tent this forenoon and could not get any boards so I went to the woods and cut four small forks and two cross pieces — also some poles about the size of bean poles and layed them on. This is the kind of a bed I have to lay on. How would you like to lay on it? I guess you would find it different from a feather bed.
I wrote in my last letter to express my things to New Orleans. Since we have come up the river, I have changed my notion. If you have not sent them yet, I wish you would not send them until you hear from me again. I can then tell you better where to send them. But if you have sent them to New Orleans before you receive this, let me know immediately.
Lt. Hughes of our company took very sick after we got back from Clinton and went to New Orleans to the hospital. I have been in command of the company for about two weeks and will be until he comes back. We are encamped on an island.
Well, I did not intend this for a letter when I commenced. I merely wanted to tell you about sending my clothes. I will write you a letter in a few days when I will give you my opinion on McClellan. You do not seem to like him. We just received the news that McClellan received the nomination at the Chicago [Democratic] Convention. I feel thankful for that, for in my opinion, if he is elected, it will be the salvation of our bleeding country. Any amount of Republican soldiers will vote for McClellan.
You must excuse the poor writing in this letter for I wrote it in a great hurry and had a poor chance of writing. I am well, hoping this may find you and dear little Johnny the same. I will close, hoping to hear from you soon. I remain as ever your affectionate & loving husband, — J. P. Van Nest
Be sure and address as follows giving the company and regiment.
J. P. Van Nest
via Memphis, Tennessee
2d Brigade, 2nd Division
19th Army Corps
P. S. We just heard that Atlanta, Ga. is ours. Bully for that.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
U. S. General Hospital
Mound City, Illinois
November 13, 1864
You may be surprised to receive a letter from me at this place, but a little explanation will set all to rights. The regiment was ordered back to Duvall’s Bluffs again and all the sick was ordered up the river. I wanted to go along with the regiment but the doctor would not leave me. He was afraid I might take a back set and get worse. We left the mouth of White river on the evening of the 9th inst. on a nice Hospital boat and arrived here a few moments ago. There was five of us came from the regiment.
This is a beautiful place, pleasantly situated on the right bank of the Ohio river, seven miles above Cairo, Illinois. I wrote to you to Express my things to Memphis. If you did not do it, I want you to Express them to me immediately to this place by Adams Express and send me the receipt right away in a letter. Now be sure and send them, and if I should happen to leave here, I will make arrangements for them to follow me. I do not want to go so husky here. If you sent them to Memphis, let me know immediately and I will send for them. Now be sure and send them immediately as follows: J. P. Van Nest, Mound City, Ill., and do not forget to send the receipt.
I wish you would send me ten or fifteen dollars in your letter for I am nearly out of money and do not know when I will be paid off. I have not been paid since I sent you that money. If you cannot spare the money, you need not send it. I want to try and get a furlough and if I succeed, I will want some money to come home on. I do not think there will be much trouble to get a furlough. I am feeling first rate now.
Well, I will close for this time. I will write soon again and write you a longer letter. Write as soon as you get this and let me know about my things. Be sure and send them by Express and pay the charges. Ever your husband, — J. P. Van Nest
Ward U, U. S. Gen. Hospital, Mound City, Illinois
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
Mound City, Ills.
December 10, 1864
Your kind letter of the 4th inst. containing my gold pen came duly to hand this forenoon and as is always the case, I was glad to hear from you for in every letter I am looking for the intelligence of your sickness. I am not quite as well today as common. The diarrhea has come back on me pretty bad again.
The doctor marked me for a furlough this morning without me asking him for it, but I cannot tell how soon I will receive it. The papers may have to go to Columbus, Ohio, to be approved, and if they do it will be apt to be some time yet before I get off. I hardly knew what to do about taking a furlough. I wanted to come home awful bad, and still it is greatly to my interest to be to the regiment.
I received a letter from the regiment a short time ago informing me that the gallant old 120th Regiment is to be permanently consolidated with the 114th Ohio and hereafter there will be no more 120th Regiment, but it will go by the name of the 114th Ohio Regiment. Each regiment will be consolidated into five companies. Our regiment that is present will all be thrown into three companies and our prisoners will be formed into two companies and they will be officered by officers that are prisoners. They cannot muster out officers that are prisoners; consequently, four captains and three 1st Lieutenants that are with the regiment will be mustered out and go home, and there is to be two 1st Lieutenants and 4 2d Lieutenants made. I am to get a 1st Lieutenant’s commission and take command of one of the companies in the new organization as soon as I get back to the regiment. They seem very anxious to have me back to the regiment as soon as I am able, but I have come to the conclusion if they give me a short furlough, I will pay a flying visit home before assuming the responsibility of taking command of a large company.
I hate the idea of the name of the 120th being wiped from existence and forgotten, but I for one will still cherish the memory of the Old 120th Regiment’s flag which has led us to victory on many hard fought battlefields. If there had have been any ambition in our officers, our name—which has never been unsullied—might have stood until the expiration of the time of the regiment. I have written a letter to Major [John F.] McKinley and am expecting an answer every day when I will know exactly what to do.
You must not look for me home until I come. That is rather a sad affair about Gilbreath losing his wife but life is very uncertain and death comes oft times when we least expect it. I received a letter from Captain J. J. Weiler the other day. He is at Nashville and well. I like my gold pen first rate. It does better than before I broke it.
I have not received that box yet and do not know whether I will or not. I have written on after it two weeks ago. Some Rebel citizens here under the guise of Confederate soldiers tried to burn the Navy Yards and Hospital here on last Monday night but they failed and the consequence was some six of them were arrested and lodged in jail.
I have not much news to write at this time. Please write soon and give me all the news. No more at present. I still remain as ever your affectionate husband, — J. P. Van Nest
Direct as before.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FIVE
U. U. Gen. Hospital
Mound City, Ills.
Feb. 12, 1865
After resting a few moments from the fatigue of my journey (which was a very tedious one), I seat myself to write you a few lines according to promise. We arrived in Columbus at 11 o’clock at night the same day we started, where we had to lay until the following morning. We then started again and arrived in Cincinnati on Friday about 10 o’clock where we had to lay until evening. We then took the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad and arrived at Odin the following afternoon and arrived at Mound City today (Sunday) at 2 o’clock this afternoon, being nearly four days on the road. We did not hit the connection at one place.
I run around in Cincinnati nearly all day on Friday and bought me a nice sword for fifteen dollars and twenty-five cents and the belt for three dollars. The whole rig costing me $18.25 cents. I done extremely well on my sword for I did not expect to get one like it for less than thirty dollars.
Houser stood the trip very well with the exception of between Columbus and Cincinnati he took very bad, but when we got to Cincinnati, I hired an omnibus and took him to the Soldier’s Home where he slept some after which he felt considerable better. I paid my own way to Cincinnati when I got transportation from there here, which came some cheaper.
I feel anxious to know how Johnny acted after I was gone. The poor little fellow—I pity him for I know he must of taken it hard. I feel right at home here for the boys that were here when I left are nearly all here yet. I have not reported to the Surgeon yet for I have not been here long. I will write to Father tonight when I will give more particulars. Get that and read it. I may remain here several days. I will write to you again before I leave here.
When you write, direct to Co. D, 114th Regiment O. V. I., New Orleans, La. You must excuse the brevity of this letter. Write as often as you can for I am always anxious to hear from you. Hoping this may find you all well, I will close by subscribing myself your affectionate husband, — J. P. Van Nest
My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.