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The Letters of James W. Vanderhoef

Apr 18, 2012 12:09 PM | 0 comments

Avid followers of the Brooklyn Collection's activities over the last several years --we know you are out there--may be familiar with a web site by the name of Brooklyn in the Civil War, funded by an LSTA grant and created by Brooklyn Public Library staff. This week I'd like to dust off one of the collections at the core of that site, the Letters of James W. Vanderhoef.

new finding aid for the letters, containing a few nuggets of information recently mined from online sources, can now be accessed via our web site, and the biographical note is reproduced for you here:


"Sources of information on the life of the author of these letters are few. His appearances in census records are only occasional; military records provide a richer lode, but they stop around 1866; and City Directories yield but little information.  For some events, the letters themselves provide our only source to date.


James Wilson Vanderhoef was born around 1837 in New York, to Peter S. and Mary Vanderhoef. Peter S. Vanderhoef was born in New Jersey around 1795 and served in the 1st Reg’t. (Dodd’s) NJ Militia in the War of 1812 in the rank of Private. Peter is listed in the 1850 census and in the Williamsburgh directories as a “carrier” or “Letter carrier.” In 1853-4 the family lived at 511 Grand St, moving to 62 Eighth St (Eastern District) by 1856. In one of the final letters dated 1865 he is reported as having died. Mary Vanderhoef too was of New Jersey origin.  The family included a daughter, Caroline born around 1840, and the married sister, Mary Ann (Molly) Guillan, to whom the letters are addressed.

Letter written on battlefield, 1st Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861

Like his father, James entered upon a military career.  Described as 5 ft 7 inches tall, with fair hair, a light complexion and blue eyes, at the age of 16 he enlisted as a musician, joining the N.Y 1st Artillery Reg’t,  Co. B,  during the War with Mexico.  


On 6 Sept. 1861 he re-enlisted for a period of three years “or war” with the 45th Reg’t (German Rifles) N.Y.S.V. at the rank of 1st Sergeant. The regiment saw action in several battles, including Cross Keys, 2nd Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, after which 224 men were reported dead or missing—among them James W. Vanderhoef. Vanderhoef's notes written on the battlefield at 1st Bull Run can be seen above--click on the letter for a transcription.



Pickett's Charge, Battle of Gettysburg


On April 24th 1862 Vanderhoef was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and then again to 1st Lieutenant on Sept 1 of that year.  On May 11, 1863 he was promoted to Captain, Co. E. It was at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1st, 1863 that he was captured and taken prisoner, being held at Libby Prison and other camps. According to the Regimental Descriptive Book, he was returned to his regiment in an exchange on May 13th, 1865.

 Libby Prison


A note dated 1892 confirms that from June 8, 1863 to June 30, 1865 Vanderhoef held the rank of Captain, after which  the position ceased to exist “by reason of the consolidation of  the 45 and 58 NY Vols.” A report of May 16th 1865, a few days after the exchange, reports him “sick.” 


Yet another Register of Enlistments places Vanderhoef back in uniform as of Nov 13, 1866, when he signed up under a Capt. Quimby for a further three years in the regular army.  By this time he is 30, a seasoned soldier—and according to his letters, a married man, having at last married his “pett” Jenny (a marriage apparently disapproved of by some of his friends.)  Yet despite this hopeful start, the future that Vanderhoef imagined in one of his letters as a Commissioned Officer in the Regular Army, seems not to have come to pass. The record seems to speak of a desertion, on Feb 3, 1867. And indeed, by the time of the 1870 census he has, perhaps even literally, gone underground; for there is a James Vanderhoef age 32, born in New York, residing in Little Cottonwood, in the Salt Lake territory of Utah, occupation described as “works in mines.”


To date we have no further information."