Letters to Home – Robert Verplanck in the Civil War

Here in the Local History room we have some original letters from a soldier who saw action during the Civil War. Not only did he witness men fighting and dying but he also witnessed the breaking down of racial barriers for the benefit of the war effort. Robert Newlin Verplanck was born at Mount Gulian on November 18th 1842. Of course all of you local history nerds will know that Mount Gulian is a fabulous historic site located in Fishkill and well worth a visit (when the Covid 19 crisis is over that is). Verplanck was fortunate enough to be the son of William Verplanck and Anne Newlin Verplanck and was therefore a descendent of Gulian Verplanck, one of the Rombout Patent owners (in other words, they had some money).

Young Robert was first educated at the Poughkeepsie Collegiate school before heading off to Harvard in 1858. During his time in college the Civil War broke out and he stayed long enough to graduate in 1863. Soon after leaving Harvard, he volunteered to join the 22nd Regiment of the New York State Militia but quickly made his way into a new and eye opening role. Just before Verplanck had volunteered to fight, the government began allowing black volunteers to join the Union army in what became known as the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T). Verplanck was made Second Lieutenant of the 6th Regiment U.S.C.T. and was sent to Camp William Penn, just outside of Philadelphia in September of 1863. His job was to work with the black volunteers, some of them recently escaped slaves, and turn them into soldiers. Based on an early letter home to his mother, he believed they would make excellent soldiers, “The regiment is full and composed of as fine a set of men as I ever saw in my life and if we officers do our duty they can be made great soldiers.”

At first, these regiments were used more so for labor rather than for fighting and Verplanck wrote home to his sister Jenny in October of the quality of work his men did, “The men of our regiment are composed of more intelligent class of men and learn quicker. They don’t seem to mind working on the forts at all but rather to enjoy it for as they work they are in a continual gale of merriment and do twice as much as white troops. The Lieutenant of engineers says they do their work better than any troops he has ever seen.” He wrote home saying how happy he was that the government was beginning to “make the matter right” with regards to allowing the men to fight saying “they are burning to get at the rebs.” However, in November of 1863, it became clear that the black soldiers were not valued the same as the white, “Our pay master is to come today but the men will not take any money as the monthly pay is only seven dollars instead of thirteen as they expected.” He went on to say, “one of our men said that if he was not to be put on an equality with white troops he was willing to serve the government for nothing.”

Over time, Verplanck began to see the devotion and energy that was perhaps more evident in black soldiers and civilians then it was in the whites. He watched as they worked, drilled, and learned how to read and write thanks to the Christian Commission who sent chaplains to educate both the soldiers and ‘contraband’ or escaped slaves who were running towards Federal Army lines. It is fascinating to read through these letters that span the last couple of years of the war and see how Verplanck begins to cherish his men and the cause that they were all fighting for. In February of 1864, he was concerned that General Seymour wanted to add him to his staff, but he wrote home to his mother, “I told him that I would like him to have me still connected with Colored troops. I hope he will be satisfied with my request for I should not know how to get along in a white regiment now and besides I am bound to see the thing through.”

When they did finally make it into action, Verplanck wrote home in May of 1864 and did his best to make it sound very positive to his mother, “We made a reconnaissance within about three miles of Petersburg three days ago and had several very nice little scuffles with the rebs. Capt. Livermore and myself with the company of colored cavalry in front all the time and had lots of fun.” Verplanck made it through the war in one piece and was even promoted to Captain in April of 1865. After the war, he briefly tried a career in the oil business before returning to manage the family farm in Fishkill. He married Katherine Brinckerhoff and spent the last few years of his life living in New Jersey until his death in 1908.

Check out Mount Gulian’s website for a picture of Robert Verplanck. https://www.mountgulian.org/newlin.html

Photo – Twenty-sixth United States Colored Volunteer Infantry, massed. Camp William Penn, Pennsylvania.  From the National Archives and Records Administration