1862-63: Nathaniel Dodge Van Ornum to Ann J. Van Ornum

These five letters were written by Nathaniel Dodge Van Ornum (1845-1864), the son of James O. Van Ornum (1813-Aft1862) and his first wife, Cynthia Dodge (1811-1857) of St. Lawrence county, New York. Nathaniel accepted bounty as a substitute and reported for duty as a private on 18 August 1863. He was assigned to Co. H, 2nd U.S. Infantry where he served until his death on 10 May 1864. He received a mortal wound in the fighting near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, at the start of Grant’s Wilderness Campaign.

The following excerpt of a letter written by James Birney Van Ornum (Nat’s brother), describes Nat’s death:

“No doubt you have had notice of Nathaniel’s death long before this. I saw him the 8th of May as we passed his regiment but had no time [to] stop with him. I heard nothing more from him till the 23rd when I went to his regiment and was then told that his fatal wound was received in his right side the 10th of May. He died May 10th of his wound in the Corps Hospital. They told me he had his senses to the last and had given your address and Father’s. This was principally all I could learn of his death from his Sergeant Major and the few others I found of his regiment. There are only ten men left in his company.” [See: James Birney Van Ornum Letters]


Martinsburg [Lewis county, New York]
November 2nd 1862

Dear Sister,

I am seated in the kitchen of a farmer in the town of Martinsburg about one mile & a ¼ from Lowville & a mile & ¾ from Martinsburg village, writing a letter to you. I came here yesterday noon but do not know how long I shall stay here. I have not hired out  for any length of time but I think I shall stay 2 or 3 years. I like the place very well. The family are composed as follows—an Old Batch, his brother & wife & one girl of sixteen & a darky girl of twelve & myself. We milk cows at night & 5 in the morning. The farm that we live on contains 100 acres & they say they have been offered $90 dollars an acre. It is about the handsomest land I ever saw. There is a pretty good orchard on it & a handsome sugar-bush & the rest of it can all be mowed with a mowing machine except around the buildings. There is a good house on it & barns to match. You can see to Martinsburg village and to Lowville village & can see the steam boats on the Black River for 2 or 3 miles. So much for the surroundings.

I would give considerable to know where you are this pleasant Sabbath morning. I shall direct this to North Stockholm & when you get it you can tell me where to direct. I did not go to Gouverneur to the Institute for the reason that I did not get a school but I think I shall go to the Academy at Louisville some this winter. When I left that night, I went over to Mr. Brooks’ & got my trunk & came down to the village & found your budget & opened it & found the money & then carried it up to Deb’s & left it (when you write, please say when you got it). The next day I went off to hunt up a school but did not succeed so I came home & went to work for Father & worked the rest of that week & 2 days in the next. I then started for Martinsburg.

The first night I stayed with John Thompson in Pitcarn. The next day I walked about 27 miles to Carthage & the next day I got on board the boat & run up to Smith’s Landing some 4 miles & a ½ from here. When you write, please tell whether you are going to Vermont this winter or not.

I cannot think of anything now to write at present so I must close. Please write soon & direct to Lowville, Lewis county, New York

This from your affectionate brother, — N. D. Van Ornum

to Miss Ann D. Van Ornum


Martinsburg [Lewis county, New York]
April 30th 1863

My Dear Sister,

I received your kind and most welcome letter some time ago but failed in answering it until the present time. Today being fast day, I did not have much to do [and] I though I would write to you. I have had to work very hard for about a month past so that I have not hardly had time to breathe. Through sugaring, I boiled sap all night for several nights and since that is over, I have been plowing all the time so that I have had no time to do anything that I could possibly get along without doing.

You spoke of my intention of going to the army. I did not have any notion of enlisting when I spoke of going down South but I received a letter from [brother] Birney stating that he was in a bad fix. His knee begun to bother him about drilling and he has been sick. He wrote in this way: “I tell you, Nathaniel, I am in a situation.” I have thought that I ought to go and take his place if I do not go down South with William nor go and take Birney’s place, I think I shall go home and go and work with Chester and learn the trade. Enclosed you will find your likeness. I received the one you sent me all safe. I think you have improved in your looks very much since I saw you last. I shall prize this one very much.

Birney wrote that the Grist Mill and Carding machine and Cooper shop in Russell [burned?] a week ago last Friday.

Sunday evening, May 3rd.—Tonight there was a man brought here that was dead drunk and there was a boy about my age that was killed up to Martinsburg by the falling of a bent in raising of a building. ¹ It is within about a mile and a quarter of here. I think that I shall leave here in less than a week so that your next letter you have better direct to Russell.

I cannot think of anything more to write at present so goodbye. From your affectionate brother, — Nat

[to] Miss Ann D. Van Ornum

¹ The young man (22 years old) was Homer Pitcher, son of Leonard Pitcher. Homer was struck in the head by the bent (a building block of a post and beam building) as it was being raised in the construction of a cheese factory.


Washington, [D. C.]
July 12th 1863

Dear Sister,

I am seated in a quiet part of the city in a boarding house in my own room at a stand in one corner thereoff thinking of something to write to you. It may appear strange to you that I have not written to you before and in fact I must plead guilty to not writing before but I am not without excuses and those too numerous to mention. I believe the last one that I wrote you was in Lowville. How many events have transpired since that time. You remember that I told you that I had sued the man I worked for last winter for my pay. Well, I whipped him. Then I got a letter from William stating that if I did not get home by the next Monday, he should start for Washington without me. I got the letter about 10 o’clock in the forenoon of Saturday and about 3 I was on my way home where I arrived Sunday evening about 6 o’clock. I persuaded William not to go till Thursday when we started for Washington where we arrived Saturday about 9 o’clock. Of the rest of our movements, William has told you.

After we got back from Martinsburg, we went to visit the Capitol [building]. Oh, how I wished you could have been with us when we were rambling through those splendid halls. It is impossible for me to describe it as it is but I will gratify you some other time with a description of the sights to be seen in Washington when I have more leisure.

We are doing pretty well now but I think that we shall do a great deal better in a few weeks. Yesterday I took orders for about 45 dollars worth of Army badges and we get 33 percent of the profits. But I have a stated salary of 20 dollars a month if I earn $50 or if I don’t earn $1. But I think I shall get larger pay when we get into the Army of the Potomac.

I have not time to write more so goodbye from your affectionate brother, — Nat

[to] Miss Ann D. Van Ornum

P. S. Please direct to Washington D. C.
487 Maryland Avenue

This is all the go [sketch]


On picket near the Rapidan [river]
September 28, 1863

My Dear Sister,

It is with feelings of shame that I write these lines for being so negligent in writing to you. I know that you have felt uneasy about me but I am not without an excuse for not writing sooner. We have been moving hither and thither for the last 2 or 3 weeks. First we moved from Beverly Ford to Culpeper Court House, and then the Regular Army came up and we were marched to join our regiments. They put me into the 2nd U. S. Infantry, Co. H, and there you can direct your letters. So you see that my time has been occupied most of the time. But in future, I will try and write oftener.

I am well at present and green corn has to suffer. There is an abundance of it here and we are not very particular who it belongs to. Turkeys and chickens and young pigs has to suffer [too].

There is talk of our regiment going to Alexandria. I hope it may be so. There is no prospect of a battle here yet.

I got a letter from Father yesterday. He was well. They have just finished picking hops. Had a good crop. Andrew is there still. Cyrus Curtis is at work there too. Their hired girl’s name is Imogene Ball from Monterey, Franklin. H. is almost dead. The doctor says he cannot live more than a few days. Gilbert is dead. He died in the army. Bill G. has just finished haying. I cannot think of anything more to write at present so goodbye. Write soon & oblige your brother, — Dodge

P. S. Please direct to Washington D. C., 2nd U. S. Infantry, Co. H.

[to] Miss Ann J. Van Ornum


Catlett’s Station, Va.
April 11, 1864

My Dear Sister,

I received your kind letter a few days ago and now take the present opportunity of answering it. I am enjoying good health at present and hope this will find you enjoying the same blessing.

We are expecting to move soon but where or when we can not tell and this is the case with every soldier for when he lies down at night, he may be called upon before morning to get ready to go on a long march. All of the sutlers are to leave the army by the 16th of this month. The roads are very muddy now in consequence of the heavy rains that have fallen lately but the weather is fair now and in a few days I think it will be Onward to Richmond and I don’t believe it will be in vain either for we have a large army and a good general and this army will be moving at the same time with the Army of Western Virginia and Fortress Monroe so we shall have the advantage. I am in hopes that war will be over soon and I will be at liberty again.

I got a letter from Ellen Knox which I will send you. I received a letter from Father the other day but he had nothing new to write. I have not heard from [brothers] William or Birney since I wrote to you last. You say that if we could be placed back where we were 10 years ago, what a nice time we would have. But I say if we could be placed together now, I guess that there would be no tear shed about it. The rest on Ellen’s letter.

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