These fourteen letters were written by James “Birney” Van Ornum (1842-1918), the son of James O. Van Ornum (1813-Aft1862) and his first wife, Cynthia Dodge (1811-1857) of Russell, St. Lawrence county, New York. Birney enlisted on 11 August 1862 in Co. K, 106th New York Volunteers. He was transferred to Co. I, U. S. Veteran Reserve Corps after being wounded in action on 2 April 1865 in the final assault at Petersburg. He mustered out of the service on 7 July 1865.
Birney’s young brother, Nathaniel (“Nat”) Dodge Van Ornum (1845-1864), enlisted as a private on 18 August 1863 in Co. H, 2nd U.S. Infantry as a substitute. He was killed in action on 10 May 1864 near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Another brother, William Van Ornum, enlisted in May 1861 to serve two years in Co. I, 14th New York Infantry. After he was discharged, he took a job as a saddle and harness make in Washington D. C.
Also mentioned from time to time in these letters is a cousin named James E. Van Ornum who also served in Co. K, 106th N. Y. Vols. James E. was wounded in the arm at Cold Harbor on 1 June 1864 and subsequently transferred to the 11th Regiment Veteran Reserve Corps.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Camp near Martinsburg, Va.
January 31st 1863
I received your kind letter some time ago but have been rather negligent about answering it. Night before last I was reminded of my duty to write to you by receiving a note by Abner Armstrong. I handed your note to cousin James. Think we will write to you.
George K. Hale of whom you inquired is dead. He died about two weeks ago of the measles and some other disease combined. I had the measles and was in the same hospital at the same time but did not have them as hard as George did and so came away and left him there. Soon after I came away, he was taken to a private house but some other disease set in & carried him away. His body is not to be taken home. We have had four deaths in our company since we left Camp Wheeler.
Horace Picket has gone home to St. Lawrence County for the purpose of getting recruits for our company. Horatio Waltby is sick in the hospital but is doing well and getting better. He has (like cousin James and myself) had the measles and is just getting better of them. I have just been down to the doctors and been vaccinated for the kind pox. The small pox is in the regiment.
We have about six inches of snow at present but it will probably all go off in a few days and leave us in the mud but we shall not have to drill if it is not good dry weather. I have done but little duty since I came here.
I was on guard last night and yesterday for the first time for nearly two months. It makes me feel rather dull today on account of being up last night so you must excuse me for not writing a longer letter today. Have not heard from brother William for sometime. Write often and I will try and do the same. Direct to Martinsburg, Berkeley county, Virginia.
— J. B. Van Ornum, Co. K, 106th N. Y. V. Regt.
to Miss Ann J. Van Ornum
Sunday, February 1st
Sister—This is a long and lonesome day. We had inspection this morning as usual on Sundays which only lasted about half an hour and then we have nothing else to do today unless it should be whether at night so as to have dress parade. I generally calculate to have letters enough to write Sunday to keep me busy but today I have not written any till this.
Rain is now taking our snow off and will probably leave the mud very deep here so we shall not drill.Our regiment has not received one dollar’s pay since we have been in the service and probably will not till March. Father sends some when I want it so it makes but little difference with me but there are many of the boys that need their pay very much.
— James N. Van Ornum
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
North Mountain, Virginia
March 31, 1863
Well! I wouldn’t [be surprised] if you should feel somewhat out of patience with me for not writing long before this but the truth of the matter is you did not tell me in your last where to direct to you and I have been expecting another letter from you till last evening your friend Abner happened into my tent and told me where to direct so I am improving the first opportunity of writing to you.
It is a very stormy day and I expected to go on picket tonight but lucky for me I have been detailed to work only an hour or two and have credit for it the same as going on guard. I have been cook for one fourth of the company (23) men for about six weeks but have just gone back into the ranks again.
My health is not very good but I manage to do duty nearly all the time. But if we were anywhere else than on the railroad, I think I should stand rather a poor chance unless I get some other position than that which I now occupy. It is so long since I have written to you that I can scarcely think where I was or what to write to you.
Our folks sent me a box of provisions about seven weeks ago which is still in being and doing me much good. They sent me quite a quantity of dried apples, butter, and maple sugar which I have used quite freely ever since I received them and they will last me yet a good while.
You see by the heading of this that we have left Martinsburg. We left there about four weeks ago and moved to our present situation at North Mountain—only about seven miles west of Martinsburg. We are full as well as we should have been at Martinsburg. William was well the last I heard from him which was only a few days ago.
The boys with whom you were acquainted are all well, I believe, except Cousin James. He has not been able to do any duty since we have been here and for some time before. Luke Van Ornum’s girl is dead. I do not get much news from home. You know our folks are not very good hands to write news.
I don’t know as I can write anything more that will interest you so I must bid you goodbye. I want to have you write as often as you can make it convenient & I will do the same.
Your brother, — J. B. Van Ornum
[to] Miss Ann J. Van Ornum
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
Camp of 106th Regt. N. Y. V.
Near Bealton, Virginia
August 20th 1863
I received yours of the 16th yesterday. Was very glad to know that you are well and to hear from you once more. I thought of you very much (17) on your birthday but could not write to you because I was on picket and had no conveniences for writing with me. I get very few letters now-a-days and very little news from home or anywhere else.
I laid in Camp Distribution more than a month waiting to come to my regiment. Came here the 8th of this month. I have been on picket three times on the banks of the Rappahannock. Had orders (by night) to shoot anyone on the other side as we were the outside line of pickets. I have just been placed back into my old place in the company as cook. This will probably be some advantage to me on the march as well as in camp.
The First New York Artillery are lying only a few rods from our camp. Henry Hatch, __. Wright, & Oscar Hatch and Vaniah Fanning are all well and enjoying themselves well. Andrew Fanning, James Howard [?] & Margaret Hatch work for Father. Julius Palmer, Wesley Curtis, John Nilan, Smith Chase, Ira Maine, Henry Knox, Norbert Ferguson, Stillman Loop, Charley Hill, and a great many others that I cannot think of at present have been drafted for the army. Most of them can get out of it by paying ($300) three hundred dollars but you better believe I am glad to see some of these fellows come to time. I begin to think this is no less than three years for me but one year has gone by very swiftly and yet quite pleasantly. Still I do not like the idea of spending the best of my days in the army and still, if I have my health, I shall see this wicked war closed.
I have been very slack of late writing letters even to home. There is but little of interest to write and I am busy all the time so of course I get but very few letters and know but very little about things at home.
When I was in the Distribution Camp, I had my letters all directed to him and Dodge brought them to me. I used to see him every few days all the time but William I did not see but once while I was there. I think Dodge will enlist as a substitute.
I saved myself a great deal of hard marching by going to that camp.
You enquired for the text at Mother’s funeral. I do not exactly remember it at present but when I do think of it, I will find where it is and tell you. But I must bring my letter to a close. So partly for want of something to write and partly on account of getting supper for the boys who are on drill, I remain as ever your brother, — James B. Van Ornum
[to] Miss Ann Van Ornum
Capt. J[ohn] D. McBroom is our captain. Direct to Washington D. C., Co. K, 106 Regt. N. Y. V., 3rd Division, 3rd Army Corps
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
Camp of 106th Regt N. Y. V.
Brandy Station, Va.
November 2, 1863
Dear Sister Ann,
It has been a long time since I have heard from you. You know when you last wrote me you told me you was going to leave your place & did not tell me where to direct to you. But you know—& have always known—where to direct to me. But still I do not hear from you. You know if I am not with the regiment, my mail sent there will come to me let me be where I will. The company always knows where I am and I always make arrangements with someone to send my mail to me. I hardly know where to direct this but I will try and get it to you.
Since I wrote to you our army has had much hard marching to do and some little fighting though our regiment has been very fortunate about being in battle. We have lost 3 killed and quite a number wounded but I do not know the exact number. Two of our own company have been taken prisoners on the battlefield & are now in Richmond. I feel in hopes our campaign is finished for this fall.
I got a letter from Nathanial only a few days ago. I have not seen him since he came into the army but it cannot be more than 15 miles to his company. Still in these times, I cannot get a pass to go to see him or he to me. I heartily wish he were in this regiment with me.
William is in Washington. Has taken up a trade as saddler and harness maker. I should think it was paying him very well. His address is No. 487 Maryland Avenue.
Horatio Maltby and myself tent together. You would think it impossible for us to keep comfortable if you should see us. Our tent is just large enough for our bed and we have a sod chimney at our feet. If we could only known we were going to stay here all winter, we could make quite as comfortable quarters as our Sibley tents were last winter but we do not know as we shall stay overnight.
Francis Buck has lately died of typhoid fever in Washington. Cousin James is here and well. Horatio and myself are cooking for the Colonel’s orderly. He gives us $1.50 per month for cooking for him (he is a private in our company). The boys are all well that you are acquainted with.
Remember me very respectfully to our friends and relatives. I would be very glad to hear from them. Do not fail to write to me often & you may be sure I will do the same. I will send this to Nathanial and have him direct it to you. I remain as ever your brother, — Jas. B. Van Ornum
To Miss Ann J. V.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FIVE
Camp of 108th Regt. New York Vols.
April 30th 1864
I received your kind letter some time since and am thankful for the privilege of answering it even at this late hour. You must excuse me if you do not get letters from me as regular as you might wish for you know we must take our chances for writing when we can get them. The summer campaign is soon to be commenced and the army is fast preparing for it in every possible way. We have Brigade drill by Gen. [W. H.] Morris or Battalion drill by our Colonel nearly every day.
There was a report in our camp yesterday that Gen. Burnside was in Brandy Station with thirty-five thousand men but I can hardly credit the rumor though we have it from quite reliable sources. If this rumor is true, we are no doubt calculated to have a hand in the big fight between here and Richmond but we have confidence in our officers and believe we have help enough to accomplish what our generals undertake.
The last time we were on picket, four deserters from the Rebel army came into our lines for protection. Deserters are coming in more or less nearly every day.
Luke Van Ornum has lost his house and barn by fire only a short time since. His loss is estimated at $1,000. I am sorry for his loss for he has worked hard for it. I am sorry for all the folks north who have property in houses for their houses are so liable to burn up and I am afraid some will get burned in them yet or else that the wind will blow the house down on their hears and hurt some of them. I cannot help thinking of them—they are in so much danger. We can build one of our houses in a single day and if it burns up, there is nothing lost but we go to work and build another.
I have no news from Old Russell to communicate. I have but very few correspondents there since Father’s folks moved to Malone. The last time Father wrote, he said Andrew was going to Russell to show Mr. Lewis about the hop yard.
I think I shall write to Uncle Harry today. I have had some photographs taken but I am ashamed to send them to you or anyone else but they are the best I can get here. I will enclose in this. One is for you and one for Aunt Monica. Give my love to all the folks and write often.
Affectionately your brother, — James B. Van Ornum
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SIX
Camp of 106th Regt. N. Y. V.
In the field near Gaines Mills, Va.
June 6th 1864
Well Ann, I think you must be looking for a word from me by this time so I will improve the present opportunity to write you. Do not think hard of me for not writing before for the truth of it is we have had very few opportunities of sending out mail since we started on this campaign.
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.
I was probably within less than two miles of him, heard the firing, and knew his corps was engaged. Our regiment lay as support for the skirmish line [and] had two men wounded the same day in Co. K. David Gothum had the misfortune to be one of them and has since died of his wound. It is not worth my while to try to tell you much of the scenes that daily occur with us.
June first at four P.M., we were ordered to charge the enemy out of their works [see Battle of Cold Harbor]. Our regiment being in the fourth and last line of battle, the three front lines were ordered to lie down and allow our line to go over them whence brought us in the front line and first to the enemy. The enemy brought their colors down to within ten feet of me, then the color sergeant turned and fled (but I doubt whether he got off alive) but his comrades stood [and] fought us. I had the honor of placing my bayonet against one of the creatures and ordered him to surrender which he did and passed on through our lines. I doubt whether any of the squad that came with their colors ever went off alive. But while we rejoice over victories, we must mourn the loss of many of our brave men.
Our company went into the fight 56 strong and lost 5 killed and 9 wounded. The killed men were Azro I. Banister, Harvey Brown, Isaac White, [Ozias] Wilbur Spencer & Edward Ives, nearly all of Edwards. Cousin James E. Van Ornum was slightly wounded in the arm. Francis Westcott also wounded. The Loop boys and Horatio are all well. I shall expect you will send me your photograph. The Ambrotype you sent me last spring is badly soiled.
Write often and oblige your brother, — Jas. B. Van Ornum, Co. K, 106th N. Y. V.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SEVEN
Frederick Hospital, Maryland
August 5th 1864
A Christian Commission agent gave me material by which I am able to write to you this morning. I have been here since the first day of August. I was sent here because I was too sick to travel with the rest of the Corps. I don’t know as I had any disease in particular but I was completely tired & worn out by hard marching & loss of sleep & rest. I wish I could tell you something of the marching the Old Sixth Corps has done this summer—especially since we left Petersburg—but I should fail in the attempt if I should undertake. Suffice it to say, there has hardly been a day since we broke camp in the spring that we have not been on the move & some of the time it was so awful that none but the strongest & best able men could possibly keep with them. This will wear out anyone no matter how able he may be.
I understand they are on the move again now but I am not with them nor do I wish to be. This is a good place & I am going to stay as long as I can. I am much better of my sickness & have been detailed as nurse. But I may be sent to my regiment the first opportunity.
Ann, I have not heard from you for so long a time, I hardly know where to direct or what to write about, but I do not know as it is your fault. The mails have been so very irregular to us & some of it [has] been captured entirely that it is almost a chance if I get all your letters. I have written to Horatio to send me my mail that should come to the regiment for me.
This is a very good & comfortable place for sick or well people to live. It is less than three miles to Monocacy where we had the disastrous fight of July 9th. It turns out that that the rebel corps exceeded us very much but we were driven from our position & forced to fall back in great haste and disorder & did not make a permanent stand till we reached Ellicott Mills which we only held long enough for our stray guns to come up when we fell back to Baltimore.
I have six men to take care of—two wounded & four sick. There is room for 20 in my ward. There is room for, I think, seven or eight hundred in the whole hospital (but it is not full now). There are but few from my regiment here. It seems as if I had not had any letters except from Father for a long time. I wish you would have the friends there write. I should like to spend a leisure hour in writing to them sometime but I have such poor utensils to write with now. I shall not write to anyone but those I know will take their time & study if our, if possible. But I hope you will excuse my hurry at least for I am liable to be called on any moment.
Affectionately & truly your brother, — Jas. B. Van Ornum
Mis Ann J. Van Ornum
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER EIGHT
U. S. A. General Hospital
October 1st 1864
I have been thinking of you today and wondered long before this why I have received no letters from you of late. I hardly know when I received your last or when I last wrote you but I am quite certain I wrote you last. But you know I make any difference for that but write when I have anything to write and many times when I in fact have nothing to write. And this will probably turn out to be one of those very kind of letters for I am on duty as night nurse and am interrupted every few moments by someone of the fifty-one patients in the barrack.
My daily duty is to give the medicine for barrack, draw rations for thirty-six of the men, and wash their dishes. My nightly duty is to sit up one half the night every other night. This is more than is usually expected of one man but they have sent away five of our nurses quite lately and have not diminished our labor.
I have sometimes given as many as three hundred and thirty doses of medicine in one day but I have been partially relieved from this duty. That makes me think of Aunt Polly White. She does nothing but fuss with little drinks and does “that she can only finish for one man out of twenty that need her care.” But she is a fine old lady and she thinks more of me than any old Grandmother ever could. You see it is a good thing to be a pet of Grandmother’s family for I get now and then a piece of pie or cake, and not infrequently a bunch of nice grapes such as you know nothing about. But enough of the old lady at present & perhaps I will tell you more another time.
The barrack has lately been filled up with mostly very badly wounded cases.
I am now permanently detailed here and stand a good sight to stay as long as I like jere. I have a good bed in a a good warm barrack and shall not be exposed to the hardships of a soldier’s life.
My health has not been good since I came here but by spells has been very poor, but I have done my duty every day yet. Fruit is very plenty here this season and we get plenty of apples & peaches.
I hope this may find you and the friend well for I must bid you good night. But I would like to have you spend now and then a leisure hour for my benefit in writing letters & that might smart some too. Your brother, — J. B. V.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER NINE
U. S. A. General Hospital
November 17, 1864
Well Ann, I suppose you must have a letter but if I write it all tonight, I would not vouch for a very lengthy one. but I guess it will have to do for this time and I will write the sooner next time. It is now after nine o’clock and if I do not get in bed before the steward comes round at 10, he will report me for missing rounds.
I have just finished a letter to Father and do not feel much like writing longer as you will plainly see, but this will do by way of excuses and apologies and you will probably find a letter on the other side of this sheet.
I got here last night at 8 o’clock P. M. Had a prosperous journey and no serious trouble. Got to New York City Tuesday morning. Only stayed about three hours. Did not see Cousin James or scarcely anyone else that I knew. Stayed nearly all day in Baltimore yesterday. Went to the top of the Baltimore Washington Monument. This structure is on an elevated spot near the center of Baltimore and is more than one hundred feet in height and commands a splendid view of the city.
Considerable excitement was cause near the train of cars to go south from Baltimore yesterday by a soldier shooting a pedlar boy dead on the spot. The boy took a bill off the soldier and went to get it changed and the soldier thought he was going to run away with his money. Several soldiers were arrested at the time but whether thy got the right one or not, I do not know.
None of your letters were here for me. But I must not make anymore such hurried looking marks as these tonight. But I declare I have had just such looking ones from you. Give my respect to all the folks and write often.
Your brother, — James B. Van Ornum, Co. K, 106th N. Y. V.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TEN
U. S. A. General Hospital
January 28, 1865
Dear Sister Ann,
I received your very kind letter dated at Stockholm some time ago but I have been sick and am still quite unwell and so have neglected to answer it. I am feeling some better this afternoon. Have just written to Father. You will of course excuse a short letter under such circumstances.
I do not sit up but a few minutes at a time so I must close and get into that bed again. You know it was always hard work for me to lay in bed. I am as uneasy as a fish out of water. I can but feel thankful that I am as well situated for the comforts of a soldier as I am but to tell the truth, this old barrack is about as cold as the one the Lord formed in six days.
But Ann, I must close for this time. Please write very often. Excuse the hasty manner in which I write.
I remain your brother, — J. B. Van Ornum
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ELEVEN
Camp Distribution near Alexandria, Va.
I believe when I last wrote to you I was just getting a little better [from] a short sickness which kept me quite sick only for a few days and two days after I commenced doing duty again. I got an order to get my baggage and be ready to go and join my regiment. I had been just six months in the hospital and I think it was high time for me to be returned to dity. I had hoped to remain there till warm weather but the order came for all able bodied men to be returned to duty and the hospital work to be done by invalids.
I have been here two days waiting for transportation. The river is frozen up but I hope to get through to my regiment in the course of a few days for I am tired of this lounging around in a dirty camp and doing nothing. I have been trying to improve the time by writing letters but there is no hope of getting answers until I get to my regiment. Direct your next letters to the regiment.
I have just been writing a copy of a song written on the Battle of Cedar Creek the 19th September in which Horatio ¹ and so many others of our boys were slain. I will enclose a copy in this letter for you. I suppose I have escaped several such scenes as this battle by being so long.
There is great excitement in this camp about the peace prospects. There are as many different stories about it as there are in the hospital about the paymaster. I have received no pay since I have been there. I have had some money from home but it does not last long at a time. My present sum is limited to twenty cents through the kindness of an old lady. I have one solitary postage stamp to put on your letter. I have looked for enough when I had money to provide plenty of writing material but this is not the best position for writing that ever was and so you will excuse my careless scribbling style.
Write soon. Respectfully yours, — J. B. Van Ornum
¹ Horatio Maltby was killed in action on 19 September 1864 at Winchester, Virginia. He was from Edwards, New York.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWELVE
On picket three miles south of Petersburg, Va.
March 18, 1865
I received yours of the 11th written from home last night. I was more than glad to hear from you and from home once more.
This is one of the most lovely days of the season. It fairly seems like the most beautiful days of June in Northern New York. Our picket fire is nearly gone out and the boys are mostly all sleeping in the shade of these lofty pines for the sun is actually too war, for comfort. I am sure if you only knew how much superior the weather of Virginia is to that of the North, you would fall in love with it and immediately commence coaxing your George W. to seek a fairer climate than that of the mountains of the Old Granite State. I suppose the men folks up there that would not enlist are still wading in the snow and shivering from the cold & perhaps obliged to work to earn their daily bread while we soldiers have simply to stay on this line and keep one of nine men posted to watch our enemies.
O! Who would not be a soldier? Plenty of hard tack & pork to last all day & the promise of plenty more. I am only fearing what may become of me when Uncle Sam does not want me to do this kind of work anymore.
I have found a couple of boys that I like full as well as I did my old Malty. They are a couple of new recruits enlisted for one year. They are from New York City and apparently of the first class society. It is a great advantage to a soldier to have friends with him that he may depend upon at all times. I suppose this will find you at home and if you stay at home, I shall expect to hear from you often.
I will enclose in this a receipt for a box which I have sent to Father by the Express company. It contains two overcoats, one woolen blanket, and some other trinkets of no consequence except as relicts of Old Virginia—a big sweep river root of which the briar root pipes are made, a bunch of U. S. cartridges for Enfield rifles, & a bag with some little turned sticks with wrinkles round them like a bedstead post. They are chess men. If you can find someone to learn to play. you would find it a very pleasing game. I got them while I was in hopes to spend the rest of my time in the hospital but I have learned more about the game of my tent mates since I came here than I knew before. I hope you will succeed in learning it.
I want to know if the box I sent home from Frederick [Maryland] ever reached there. I left it at a private house to be expressed & I wish you to mention it in your next & also if they have received the $20 I sent on the fifteenth.
But I have spoiled the ink so I can write no more this time.
So goodbye. Your brother, — J. B. Van Ornum, Co. K, 106 N. Y. V.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THIRTEEN
City Point, Virginia
April 9, 1865
I suppose you are looking for a letter from me by this time. I am still lying on my back in a hospital. No doubt you have heard of my being wounded long before this time. It was one week this morning since I have been wounded. I am as comfortable as could be expected. My wound does not pain me much while I am laying still but can not get out of my bed. There is nothing dangerous about it but I am in hopes I can hop on crutches in a week or two. I am so tired of laying in bed all the time.
I have been expecting to be sent North to a General Hospital every day but I think very likely we shall go tomorrow.
There is a Rebel Lieutenant from the State of South Carolina whose bed is next to mine. He is very familiar and talkative and keeps me plenty of company.
But I am tired of writing so goodbye! O! We have just got the news that the Rebel Gen. Ewell & all his corps are captured.
Very respectfully your brother, — J. B. Van Ornum
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOURTEEN
Judiciary Square Hospital
Washington D. C.
March 20th, 1865
You have written to me quite often and in your last you expressed a wish that I should write to you though it seems like writing to you always when I write home. It seems much better to think of you at home than anywhere else, although I shall have to enquire the way to get there myself if I ever come. The North Carolinian that lay beside me died since I commenced this letter and has just been carried out. One week ago everyone considered him ahead of me and thought he would be out of bed long before I would, but he had erysipelas and it got into the wound. When I saw the erysipelas, I had my bed moved from his immediately.
I hope my wound is going to get better right along now. They are using poultices of flax seed meal on it now & I think it agrees with it much better. I have not tried to sit up any but once since I came here & then it was with the doctor’s permission, & was worse the next day & the doctor has not allowed me out of bed since. It is seven weeks (& long ones too) since I was wounded & I am fully as helpless & in just as much pain as I was at first but of course it is seven weeks less for me than when I commenced for I cannot help thinking that in two weeks more I shall be out of this confinement in bed.
Have not heard from William since he knew of my being wounded & do not believe our letters go direct for it takes so long to get them. Ann, I will send that scowl of a picture you have been teasing for so long. I do not know as you make out to read all my marks.
I am ever your brother, — Birney