|Unit History Project|
The Civil War Letters Of
Introduction by Al Grenning
In July of 1861 the United States seemed destined to self destruct in a gathering Civil War. One of the largest military engagements in our country’s history had just taken place. Union troops were overwhelmed by Southern forces and chased all the way back to Washington, D.C. The nation’s fate hung the balance. It was called Bull Run by the North and Manassas by the South. Here in the Western Adirondacks, citizens reacted with patriotic outrage and revengeful fervor. Congress immediately authorized states to organize volunteer regiments for defense of the Union. Within days of Congress’ action Governor Morgan of New York State granted Oneida County the authority to raise its third all volunteer infantry regiment. By the end of the month it had been officially decided that this newest New York regiment, the 97th New York Volunteer Infantry was to be raised, drilled and commissioned here in Boonville. Boys, young men and middle aged married fathers all eagerly responded to this call to arms. Charles Wheelock, a local militia officer and merchant would be its Colonel and commander.
On November 1st, 1861, Charles Harvey (Hervey) Hayden of Big Brook, NY (Westernville) enlisted for three years of service as a private and was assigned to Company “I”, one of ten companies in the regiment. He was in his mid 20s, unmarried and among the first volunteers to enlist. As a young boy he and his sister Laura lost their mother to disease. Although it isn’t clear, it appears they were given up by their father and raised by relatives or close family members.
Charles and all other enlistees drilled through late fall of 1861 and early winter of 1862 on the flat in front of Park Hill. Eventually more than 900 men volunteered, completed their training and left by train for war from Boonville in March of 1862.
Although the regiment experienced conflict including the Battle of Second Manasas in its first months of service, it wasn’t until mid-September that it received its real baptism of fire. The 97th was among 115,000 American soldiers involved in the Battle of Antietam, called Sharpsburg by the South. Early on the morning of September 17, 1862, Boonville’s regiment along with others in Brigadier General Abram Duryea’s Brigade led an initial attack from the north through farmer D.E. Miller’s cornfield. This was the offensive thrust of James Rickett’s Division, First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Conservative estimates place the human cost of the battle at more than 23,000 casualties, the most suffered on a single day of conflict in this country’s history – before or since. On the evening of the 17th only forty men were left unscathed and present for duty in the 97th.
Strategically, Antietam marked the first occasion that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was blunted in battle by Union forces. President, Lincoln wisely used the stand off as a political basis to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. However, none of this was of immediate concern to Private, Charles Harvey Hayden of the 97th NY because he found himself lying in the corn, shot through the body. Every Civil War soldier knew that men who were body shot had virtually no chance of survival. A minee ball had entered the pit of Charles’ stomach and exited under his arm. As serious and critical as this wound was it did not prove mortal! Instead, Union field surgeons with advances in hospital care nursed him back to health over a period of many months. In fact, his health was sufficient to allow him to re-enlistment in January of 1864.
The letters and diary that have been handed down are from Charles H. Hayden’s extended period of convalescence. Almost all are written to his sister Laura. In them he expresses his personal reflections on the war, religion, politics, death and her welfare. Since he was unmarried and they had lost their mother in earlier years, Laura became the central person representing home and family for Charles. Overwhelming events of the time obviously led the two siblings to a mutual commitment of faith and welfare. From the letters it can be seen how their close bond gave each other strength. All letters closed asking for a timely response. The first two letters in the series are dated July 6th and 8th 1862 and were written before the major battles of Second Manasas and Antietam. In this first surviving letter Charles describes the regiment as having experienced artillery action and some fighting. He was understandably impressed. The second, longer letter reflects more on the hot months of summer and offers a unique window into general camp life.
The Boonville History Club’s campaign to endow, repair and rededicate the 97th NYVI monument at Gettysburg, seems to have struck a local chord. Strong community interest has brought to light certain artifacts, historical letters and diaries. One very interesting contribution has been brought forward by Les Trainor, of Boonville, himself a Civil War enthusiast for most of his life. Through time Trainor’s family has become custodians of the extensive letters and diary of Big Brook (Westernville) native and 97th volunteer, Charles Harvey Hayden. The Hayden story, written in his own hand, is a moving, patriotic, spiritual and heroic first hand account of a local Civil War soldier who gave his all in the cause to save the Union. The collection represents an unparalleled window into a soldier’s fate as he struggles with his health, spirit, faith, fate, family and patriotism. This letter collection vividly and clearly portrays the sacrifice of a Boonville area soldier’s place in our national history. It is probably the most important surviving first hand account of a soldier’s life in the 97th NYVI.
The importance of the Hayden letters and diary is obvious. But, because of fading, misspellings, strained grammar and random order, continuity was not initially completely obvious. During a July visit, Al Grenning’s grandson Alex began transcribing and organizing the collection into a coherent sequence. As it developed into a more involved summer history project, he transcribed all of the original Hayden letters sequentially and stored them as a MS Word® file. Great effort was taken to keep the context as original as possible. Spelling and grammar were edited only when absolutely necessary. A duplicate of the complete transcriptions has been given to the Erwin Library Institute and is available on reserve. Alex is starting his freshman year at Wilson Central School this fall.
A separate study and restoration of Hayden’s personal diary also has been completed. It remains in possession of the Trainor family. Although the word “treasure” is over used, there is no doubt that the surfacing of Hayden’s letters and diary give a new unseen window into Boonville’s contribution to the Civil War. In future issues the Herald will publish the complete set of Hayden’s letters chronologically, one each week.
Al Grenning is a member of the Friends of The National Park at Gettysburg and is an Associate Licensed Battle Field Guide at Gettysburg. He has been working with the Boonville Historical Club in their campaign to rededicate, repair and endow the 97th NYVI monument on that field.
The initiative to record the history of the 97th NYVI is ongoing. Any artifact, photograph of a soldier, letter or other historical item shedding light on individual soldiers or local regimental history is of great interest to the Boonville Historical Club. Also, solicitation by the Club continues for the Gettysburg monument project. Through community effort, repair, rededication and an endowment is being established through the cooperation of the National Military Park at Gettysburg. In support of this community initiative donations are gratefully accepted and should be sent to Elaine Tompkins, in care of the Boonville Town Clerk’s Office, Route 12, Boonville, New York, 13309.
Note: The monument project was completed in 2005 and through its efforts the Gettysburg field monument on North Seminary Ridge was restored and upgraded!
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History