1864: Charles Van Wagoner to Alice Robbins

How Charles Van Wagoner might have looked

How Pvt. Van Wagoner might have looked

These two letters were written by Charles Van Wagoner (1845-1913) of Company C, 141st New York Infantry. Charles enlisted at Elmira in August 1862 as a private. Company records say he stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, had blue eyes and light hair, and that he was a farmer by occupation. He was promoted to corporal on 1 October 1864 and mustered out with the regiment on 8 June 1865 near Washington D. C.

Charles resided in Elmira, New York.  In 1870, he is enumerated with his wife Mary and William H. Post (b. 1810) — possibly Mary’s father. His occupation is given as “Baggage master.” Charles kept three diaries while serving with the 141st New York which were used, in large part, to recreate the regimental history.

Charles wrote the letters to his friend, Alice Robbins of Southport, Chemung County, New York

Charles datelined his first letter from “Knicker Jack Cave” in Georgia. This was actually Nick-A-Jack [Nickajack] Cave, a derivation of the original name, “Nigger Jack Cave.” Legend has it that the Chickamauga Indians gave the cave its original name from the fact that a runaway Negro slave named Jack from North Carolina made it his hiding place. The cave was on the side of San Mountain thirty miles below Chattanooga on the Cumberland River. It is one of the largest caves in the Cumberland range and was used by the Confederacy during the Civil War as a source of saltpeter, used for making gunpowder. The entrance of the cave is now flooded by a reservoir constructed by the TVA in the 1960s.


Camp of the 141st [New York Infantry]
Knicker Jack Cave, Georgia
April 16th, 1864

Friend Alice,

As I had time this afternoon, I thought I would answer your letter. It found me a feeling fine. We are having some very pleasant weather now although it has been rather rainy of late. I have had fun enough to last a year since I have been back.

I must tell you of a bit of an adventure that some of us boys had the other day. We coaxed Ben to go down to the Cave with us. Well, when we got there, we light some candles and went up into the cave about half a mile and then we wanted to cross the stream of water that runs through the cave and so we had to take a small boat to cross. Three of us crossed in perfect safety but when the load that Ben was in came to cross, they was so heavy that when they came to the middle of the stream where the water was about 15 feet deep, the boat began to sink. Ben hated to take to the water awfully at first but when he saw that there was no help for him, he gave one awful leap and down to the bottom he went. I thought I should die a laughing to see him come up snorting and puffing. I guess he won’t want to explore no more caves right off.

Entrance to Nickajack Cave

Entrance to Nickajack Cave

After we had our laugh out, we went farther in the cave. Sometimes we would have to crawl along through narrow places and then we would come out into a large rooms. The walls would sparkle like so many gems. In some places the walls looked like preserved wallpaper. We was in the cave most of the afternoon and came out well satisfied for our trouble.

We are on picket or fatigue duty most every day. The other day we was on picket and we milked every cow that came along.

This corps and the 12th Corps has been consolidated and we are now the 1st Corps, Army of the Cumberland. General Joe Hooker is our Corps Commander. Our old commander, General Howard, is to command the 4th Corps. General Hooker is to be Military Governor of Tennessee.

We have had a monthly inspection today by brigade inspector. Capt. [Elisha G.] Baldwin of our company is in camp. Guard and patrol today. Ben is on picket on a large mountain. They have to stay out 4 days at a tie. A large panther was seen to cross the road below our camp and go into the woods to the rear of our camp the other night and we can hear him yelling most every night. It sounds like a child crying.

I must bring this to close now so no more this time.

— C. Van Wagoner
Co. C, 141st N. Y. V., Nashville, Tenn., Army of the Cumberland


Atlanta, [Georgia]
October 29th 1864


Yours of October 10th was received by me yesterday and found me enjoying good health and in fine spirits and as I just come off from guard this morning and it is rainy, I can’t go down town and the boys in the tent is so noisy that I can’t sleep any so I will just occupy the time between this and noon by writing.

Atlanta in 1864

Atlanta in 1864

We have been doing guard duty here in the city since the 29th of last month. There is 4 regiments of us doing this detached duty — the 107th [New York], the 66th Ohio, the 19th Michigan, and ours. We are guarding commissary stuff. It is very nice kind of duty — all indoor work. Our regiment is now in command of Capt. [Elisha G.] Baldwin. He is pretty strict with us but I guess that it is all right. We have not had but 4 mails in about 3 weeks now for the whole of Hood’s Army got round in the rear and cut off our railroad communications but Sherman after the 2 pretty severe battles with him at Big Shantee Station [now Kennesaw] succeeded in driving him away again. But they had no more than got the track repaired again when they cut it again between Gunnell Hill and Tilton, destroying about 30 miles of track. So there was no through trains for about 3 weeks and there was not much provisions here to begin with so it cut us pretty short. They reduced our rations half.

There was two trains loaded with provisions came in the first of the week but there are so many mouths to feed besides the soldiers — that is the refugees — that things are getting mighty scarce again. But let the wide world wag as it will, we’ll be gay and happy still.

Tell Mate that I did receive that Waverly Magazine but did not know who it was from. I don’t know whether Jonas Smith is in this regiment or not. He has not come here yet anyhow. Ben Hardin ² has been pretty sick with a cold ever since he has been here but is most well now. Don’t say anything about it to his folks.

I was to a concert here in Atlanta at the Theatre Rooms the other night. It was very good. It was given by the Band of the 33rd Massachusetts. ² I think it would do me good to see Theodore Spencer ³ marching along under a knapsack about as large as a decent sized cook stove. He was one of those fine young chaps as was never a going to enlist. Which do you think it was that drew him out — a sense of duty to his country, or a large bounty?

It still keeps raining and I want to go down town the worst kind of way. Well, I must now bring this to a close for I am can think of nothing more to write.

— Charles Van Wagoner
Co. C, 141st New York Vols., Chattanooga, Tenn., 1st Brig., 1st Div., 20 Army Corps

¹ Benjamin Hardin enlisted at age 22 at Easton, New York, in Company C on 19 July 1864. He was transferred to the 60th Infantry on 1 June 1865.

² Charles may have been referring to a concert given by the Band of the 33rd Massachusetts on 10 October 1864. Apparently the Band of the 33rd Massachusetts continued to give concerts in Atlanta in November and December 1864. See The Last Party in Atlanta.

³ Theodore C. Spencer of Elmira joined Company F, 50th New York Engineers in September 1864 and served 11 months before being mustered out in June 1865.

A previous letter by Van Wagoner to Alice Robbins:


About Griff

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries. View all posts by Griff

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