James Lyman Van Buren was a cousin of President Martin Van Buren. He graduated from the New York Free Academy in 1856 and studied law. When the Civil War broke out, he entered the Union Army as a lieutenant of New York volunteers, and acted as signal officer for Gen. John G. Foster at Roanoke Island and New Berne.
After the taking of New Berne, Van Buren served as judge-advocate on the staff of Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, and was subsequently military secretary to Governor Edward Stanly. He rejoined General Burnside after the battle of Antietam, and was with him while he commanded the Army of the Potomac. Afterwards he served in the East Tennessee campaign, receiving the brevet of lieutenant-colonel for his bravery, and subsequently that of colonel for his services at Knoxville. In 1864 he returned with Burnside to the Army of the Potomac and participated in Grant's campaign against Richmond. In the assault on the works at Petersburg he gained the brevet rank of brigadier-general. His health was broken in the service and he died just a year after the war ended.
Gen. Van Buren was unmarried and his belongings passed to his grieving parents, James and Mary Lyman Van Buren. His mother then placed a small brass plaque on the back of his folding camp chair, reading “Carried all through the War of the Rebellion by Brevet Brig. Gen. James Lyman Van Buren, my son.” Eventually some of these possessions passed to great-grand-nieces and nephews, one of whom, in 1967, presented some of the general’s mementos to the president of the New York Civil War Round Table. Among these items were a fascinating journal he kept during the battle of the Wilderness, brief but full of important information, and the camp chair (along with a photograph of Van Buren in uniform sitting in it). We recently obtained these from the recipient’s family, and they are now offered for sale to the public for the first time.
The journal has the ownership inscription of “J. L. Van Buren, Hdqs. 9th A.C., Army of the Potomac.” Most of the text describes the battle of the Wilderness as it happened and was perceived by a senior staff officer (who was often in the company of a corps commander). This account has never been printed and brings a new and valuable perspective to our knowledge of one of the war’s great contests. Then, at the back of the journal, we find notes Van Buren took while inspecting the fortifications at Petersburg.
Synopsis of the Battle of the Wilderness.
The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock River on May 4 to begin the 1864 campaign, but was forced to stop in the Wilderness to wait for the supply train to catch up. That afternoon Hancock's 2nd Corps bivouacked at Chancellorsville, Warren's 5th Corps was at Old Wilderness Tavern, and some cavalry divisions were forward at Parker's Store. At 1 p.m. Grant ordered Burnside's 9th Corps to cross at the earliest possible moment, and Sedgwick's 6th Corps would do so by 6:00 p.m. Lee, who had anticipated Grant's movement and had resolved for his Army of Northern Virginia to hit the Federals while they were in the difficult Wilderness terrain, had Ewell's corps on the Orange Turnpike and A. P. Hill on the Plank Road. Longstreet's Corps and Stuart's cavalry were both moving in fast to join the rest of the army.
"Although Union advance units detected some enemy activity along the road from Orange Courthouse, and Confederates were aware of the Army of the Potomac crossing the Rappahannock, neither side seemed to appreciate their enemy’s proximity nor the concentrations of forces in their immediate front. Grant, although anxious to confront Lee at the earliest good opportunity, preferred not to fight in the Wilderness. On the morning of May 5, he directed his columns to push southeast through the tangled jungle and into open ground. However, Gen. Warren reported a considerable enemy force on the turnpike about two miles from Wilderness Tavern, which threatened the security of his advance. Warren was ordered to attack what Grant and Meade believed to be no more than a division. The Confederates proved to be Ewell's entire corps. About noon, Warren's lead regiments discovered Ewell's position on the west edge of a clearing. The Battle of the Wilderness was on. Meanwhile, Burnside’s 9th Corps crossed the river. The fighting was heavy, and ebbed and flowed, often dissolving into isolated combat between small units confused by the bewildering forest. By nightfall a deadly stalemate settled over the Turnpike. Three miles south along the Plank Road, another battle raged unrelated to the action on Ewell's front. Two of A.P. Hill's divisions pressed east toward the primary north-south avenue through the Wilderness, trying to seize this intersection and thereby isolate Hancock's Corps from the rest of the Union army. Grant recognized the peril and hurried one of Sedgwick's divisions to the vital crossroads.
These Northerners arrived in the nick of time and later, in cooperation with Hancock began to drive Hill's brigades west through the forest. They could not, however, flank the Confederates and gain that advantage. Fortunately for the Confederates, darkness closed the fighting for the day. At 5:00 a.m. on May 6, although Burnside had not yet arrived to assist, Hancock launched an offensive against Hill and overwhelmed him. A single line of Southern artillery, posted on the western edge of the Tapp Farm, provided the sole opposition to Hancock's surging masses. The guns could not survive long unsupported by infantry. Burnside was ordered to connect with Hancock’s right but was slow in arriving. Just then Longstreet’s Corps came up, charged the Union ranks and halted Hancock's advance. Longstreet’s men took this chance to snatch the initiative, and four of his brigades crept astride the Union left flank. The Southerners poured through the woods, rolling up Hancock's unwary troops. Longstreet rode eastward on the Plank Road in pursuit, hoping to throw a knockout punch. However, he was wounded and the opportunity passed. Hours later, Lee himself launched an attack, but it was unsuccessful. In the meantime, Burnside went on the offensive, but his assault was too little too late. Fighting along the Turnpike on May 6 had also been vicious but indecisive. Late in the day, Confederate general John B. Gordon assaulted Grant's unprotected right flank, routing it. The effort began too late to exploit Gordon's success, however, and Grant reformed his brigades in the darkness.
Both armies expected more combat on May 7, but neither side initiated hostilities. Fires blazed through the forest, sending hot, acrid smoke rolling into the air and searing the wounded trapped between the lines - a fitting conclusion to a grisly engagement. Who’s Who in the Journal References to “the general” are to Ambrose Burnside. Parke was Gen. John Q. Parke, Burnside’s longtime chief of staff. Generals Orlando Willcox and Robert Potter were two of Burnside’s division commanders. Gen. Zenas Bliss and Colonel Benjamin C. Christ commanded brigades for Burnside. Col. George Gowan led a regiment in Bliss’s brigade. Duncan A. Pell was Burnside’s aide-de-camp. Loring was Burnside aide Charles Loring, later a noted attorney. Dent was Frederick T. Dent, Grant’s chief Aide-de-Camp and military secretary (and also brother-in-law). Cyrus Comstock, Adam Badeau, Orville Babcock and Horace Porter were other aides of Grant’s. Stevenson was Col. Robert H. Stevenson of the 24th Massachusetts. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, hero of Gettysburg, commanded the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Gen. John Sedgwick commanded the 6th Corps; one of his top generals was Horatio G. Wright, who succeeded him upon his death. Major Charles A. Whittier was a Sedgwick aide. Col. Elisha Marshall commanded the 14th N.Y. heavy artillery.
Van Buren’s Complete Journal Account of the Battle
“Wednesday, May 4. Left our camp at Warrenton Junction today. Reveille at 5:00 and broke camp soon after though we did not move till about 10. Very hot and dusty. Stopped at Bealton Station - the general discovering a telegraph office - Loring and I searched around the dismal waste - found some starved and dusty grass - a small patch - and sat down to lunch - bread, cold ham and sherry. Thence on to Rappahannock Station - stopped - sat around for a time and Pell established camp. I stayed at the office with the general telegraphing up and down the road about rations, trains, etc. In the midst whereof came the startling dispatch from Grant to pull up stakes and push with all speed for Germanna Ford on the Rapidan. Reconnoitered the roads and found them blocked with Army of the Potomac trains, so stayed in camp till early morn. Had my hair cut by an 8th infantry man. Told him about one-half inch shorter - he understood about half inch short and rendered my locks to that measurement. Dispatch from Meade that crossing of the Rapidan had been effected without opposition. Very glad we shall be in the row after all.
"Thursday, May 5. Broke camp about daylight but did not move for an hour, Willcox reporting roads blocked. Crossed the Rappahannock on railroad bridge - marched steadily on - halted to rest at Paoli Mills, also about 3 mi. from Rapidan, and lunched. Colonel Dent of Grant's staff came up in rather an excited frame of mind, reporting Lee massing to oppose us and considerable fighting having taken place. As we pushed to the river could see far in the distance the long line of dust across the river leading from the rebel positions to the Ford. Reached Germanna Ford about 2:00 p.m., sent Stevenson across and he was put in position near the river by one of Grant's aides. Crossed the whole force later and the general and staff went on to a house couple of miles up - where we stayed all the afternoon. Fighting going on in Sedgwick's front - he had right of army. I was sent to him with tender of assistance. Found him and Wright sitting on a log by the roadside - the country a tangled, dense low growth - terrible for fighting through - saw Whittier, McClellan and the rest. After dark rode with General to Old Wilderness Tavern to see Grant. I saw him not. Returned to camp, supped and soon after going to bed was roused to take orders to Willcox and see what he could do about discovering force in his front. He utterly suggestionless. About 2:00 a.m. the whole force started for the left of the Army of the Potomac, an attack being ordered for 4:30. We did not get up in time owing principally to Willcox being behind. Found Warren at the Lacy House. An opening had been left for us between Hancock the extreme left and Warren the center. Pushed Parke and Potter in. Willcox came up and was put behind them. Stevenson was ordered over to reinforce Hancock. The General seeing at once the vital point started our column for Parker's store, an admirable move that if followed out would have pierced their center and probably resulted in crushing their right wing.
At this point Van Buren has drawn in the positions of Warren, Sedgwick and Hancock’s Corps vis a vis that of their opponent, A.P. Hill, and Parker’s store. We pushed out on the Parker's store road. As we left the woods and came out on a hill a battery opened on us - the general having carried his staff and escort with him - and they dropped shells among us in quite a lively manner. Nobody hurt. Gen. Parke had a chill. Potter's division went in on the run and the battery soon shut up. We went into edge of woods and sent troops in. After some little time, Comstock came up and muddled matters- getting Grant to transfer us to Hancock's flank. So transferred our troops - reconnoitered the ground. I was sent to Meade to learn the news from Hancock. Found him - was curtly referred to General Grant who was present. Found Ulysses sitting at the foot of a tree puffing a weed. He reported Hancock getting on well, asked what we were doing and I told him and passed back. Bliss' brigade was ordered in but was very slow. Finally got in the two divisions less one brigade. Heavily engaged. Christ's brigade had to be thrown in and the position on the Parker's store road abandoned. I brought Christ over - the enemy jumped onto us as we were leaving but were repulsed. General went to front and I with him. Porter came over and said everything depended on our going in. Dense thicketed country. I found Potter and Willcox and brought them back to the general. Things did not go right at all, it struck me from Willcox's lack of vim - he having the front line. Loss quite heavy and fighting indecisive. At sundown general and some of us rode up to see Grant. General talked with him and we with Porter, Babcock, Badeau etc. Then up to Warren's where was Parke still suffering from his chill - administered some caudine to him. A colonel turned up with a couple of regiments for Potter and I took them up to him - delivering orders about entrenching to him and Willcox. Then had a beastly half hour searching for camp, only found it by accident down in the lowlands. Enemy made a heavy attack on Warren and drove in Sedgwick's left. Things looked a little stampedish - General cool. Pell contradicents so supped and went to bed. I was routed out there and sent with orders to Marshall. Dark as a pocket and my idea of Marshall's locality very indistinct. Found him after much tribulation. Home again to bed. Saturday May 7. Rather a quiet day - we laid around on the hillside most of the day doing nothing in particular, one of us getting sent off occasionally. A mild popping going on all through the line with occasional crescendo. Orders came in the afternoon to move off by the left with route laid down for us as Childsburg. Started the columns late in the afternoon - the general went on ahead. General Parke and most of the staff started under guidance of Hulton. Reached the Old Wilderness Road and Hulton's knowledge gave out. I rode up to Meade's headquarters to get bearings, rode off and found the general at Potter's headquarters wherein I sent orderly back to bring up the rest and I took a hasty cup of coffee and a biscuit with Gowan to my great refreshment. General and I rode back to the road. Parke and party not yet up so I started back to find them. Broke through a bridge but Dick [his horse] gallantly rescued himself without harm. Cruised around in the darkness but could discover none of my friends and so headed back again to the house on the hill where we were to rendezvous and found them there. Built fire in the yard of the house - Loring produced a pate de Perigord, I some chocolate and hard tack, and General Parke, Loring, Larned, Harris and I feasted quite primely. Thereafter we slept for a while till about midnight when we pushed along - found the roads crowded with troops and trains, moving very slowly. Stopped in a plowed field and slept till near daylight. Rode hurriedly through lines of troops in the dim dawn, they all recognizing the general and making remarks (Old Buccaneer, etc.). Found Sedgwick by the roadside, stopped with him until his corps was out of the way. He made naive and A.P.ish remark that he had been waiting for six hours for the wagons in front to get out of the way. After he left we made beds of old grain bags on the slope of a rebel breast work and sought sleep. To me it came not. Pushed on through infinite dust to Chancellorsville. Halted there amidst the ruins, horribly hot and forlorn. Met Will Eastman who took me to his shanty and brought forth ham and hard tack. Thereafter I produced a pate which was soon disposed of. Then an ambulance came up with grog and a general assault was made with unabated energy. Pell started off and pitched camp to which we went after a time. Took a bath - clean clothes and was happy temporarily. We laid around till 9:00 p.m. waiting for news from the front. Heard that fighting at Spotsylvania Courthouse would prevent our movement and went into camp again on same place.”
What We Learn From the Journal * Grant’s Startling Move: Grant’s plans to initiate the campaign were such a well-guarded secret that the news to cross the Rappahannock, when it came, was “startling” to his own corps commanders; * The Collision Was a Surprise: The fact that Lee’s army was massing right in front of him was so unexpected that Grant’s aide-in-chief reported it in an unusually excited frame of mind; * Burnside Was Anxious to Be Involved: Burnside sent Van Buren to offer Sedgwick assistance even before his corps was completely on the scene; * Senior Command Aborted Burnside’s Viable Strategic Plan to Win the Battle: Burnside had a viable (even “admirable”) plan for crushing the rebel right wing by moving on Parker's store, but this promising strategy was foiled by Comstock, who got Grant to transfer the 9th Corps to Hancock's flank; * Grant Was Calm in the Midst of the Swirl of Battle: With the Battle of the Wilderness waging all around him, Grant sat (apparently quite calmly) at the foot of a tree puffing a cigar; * The Battle Initially Was Perceived as a Union Victory: On May 5 Grant was satisfied with how the battle was progressing; * Grant Could Not Observe the Battle First Hand: He relied on subordinates to keep him apprised of the situation at the front, rather than observing it himself; * The Action on May 6 Worried Grant: Grant saw the situation as it developed on May 6 as potentially disastrous, sending Porter to say that everything depended on the 9th Corps “going in”; * A Lost Confederate Opportunity?: For a while things were going so badly that the Union command feared that a stampede might develop. Thus, the Wilderness could easily have become a Union loss; * Burnside Was a Popular General, Despite His Reputation Today: Burnside remained popular with his men despite his overall lack of success. Within the 9th Corps, Willcox (and not Burnside) was blamed for the delays and lack or ideas that kept them from being more timely and effective; * Young Officers in the Army of the Potomac Lacked Confidence in Some of Its Leaders: Staff officers felt that complaining and making excuses rather than effective planning and obtaining results were routine among the Army of the Potomac corps leadership.
Van Buren at Petersburg. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was finally brought to bay in the trenches of Petersburg. After the initial assaults in June 1864 failed, the Army of the Potomac began to entrench. Burnside’s 9th Corps was actively involved in this effort and indeed the entire Petersburg campaign. Forts Davis and Prescott were the first Federal forts; Fort Bross followed, anchoring the far left flank on the rear line (which was considered defensible by about mid-July). The following phase of fort building reflected a new defensive line, which began at Fort Dushane and generally ran east. Forts Davison, McMahon, Stevenson, Blaisdell and Kelly were constructed at that time. The finishing touches on this line were completed in late fall of 1864, connecting with the earlier entrenchments just west of Fort Bross. Now, the Federal line was 25 miles in length, from the Appomattox River on the right, to the left firmly anchored on the Blackwater Swamp. With the new year of 1865 came new considerations by the Union high command for the security of its defensive lines. It ordered a survey of the condition of the fortifications, and Van Buren was one of those detailed to actually inspect and assess the situation. He visited Forts Prescott, Baisdell, Kelly and Bross, and entered notes on their status is his journal, then reported his findings to higher command. As a result of this survey, in late January the Army of the Potomac strengthened weak points in the lines and added one last fort. Then, with his lines well protected, Grant ordered a sweep to the left, fighting in February the battle of Hatcher's Run, which began the war’s final phase. The quality of the Federal lines is made evident by the failure of Lee's desperate attempt to break them at Fort Stedman on March 26, 1865; this led directly to the end of the war. For his services before Petersburg, Van Buren was breveted a brigadier general in April 2, 1865.
Here are his original notes: “Fort Prescott January 5/65. Revetment undisturbed. Abattis broken on front and gone on west face and rear - magazines all with some inches of water on bottom. Insufficient earth covering; Blaisdell - Revetment parapet abattis same as always has been, to wit no magazines visible. (Here he has inserted a drawing of the fortification); Patrick Kelly - in excellent condition - no abattis whatever, revetment and magazine perfect; Bross- g'd of segt. and 10 men. In good condition with exception of magazine which requires attention. Abattis on front side perfect, none on rear and part of side.” (Here he has inserted a drawing of the fortification).
Death of the Hero. Following the war, Van Buren was in such poor health that he ran up the then-sizeable bill of $802. His physician, Dr. E.T.P. Fowler, sent him the following letter, January 1, 1866, addressing him as general. “You have given me your services, your health and almost your life, in helping to preserve for me the integrity of my country. So, whilst wishing you a Happy New Year and a restoration to health, allow me, so far as it goes, to cancel your indebtedness by presenting you with the enclosed.” Dr. Fowler included a receipt for his “Professional services rendered,” marked “Received Payment.” A kind gesture to a man who had but months to live. From His General, Ambrose Burnside There are two letters from General Burnside himself. The first is a small note on personal matters dated April 28, 1863, which addresses Van Buren as major. The second is to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Van Buren, and is dated April 14, 1866, just after he died. “You and your family have my heartfelt sympathy in the terrible affliction which has fallen upon you. The son you have lost was one of my most valued friends and faithful, efficient assistants in the field- not only his friends but the country has met with great loss in his death. The same loyalty, courage and intelligence that made him one of the most brilliant staff officers in the army would have won for him a high place in civil pursuits...God bless and comfort you and yours in this great affliction.” What Is Included in This Group The journal, with its extraordinary description of a staff officer’s role in battle; his camp chair (the carpet seat has been replaced); two letters from Gen. Burnside and one from Dr. Fowler; three photographs, two of him in uniform and one of a colored regiment; his appointment as Major “on the Staff of Major General George B. McClellan,” dated July 7, 1862, and signed by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton; his appointment as Brigadier General of Volunteers by Brevet, dated June 15, 1865, signed with a stamp by Stanton; his appointment as Brigadier General of Volunteers by Brevet, dated April 9, 1866, signed with a stamp by President Andrew Johnson; a lengthy hand-written oration he gave to the Clionian Society (a a debating club) of the New York Free Academy, entitled “The Value of True Sentiment”; and a good content letter from the general about the Battle of Roanoke Island. There are also numerous letter fragments, transcriptions of letters he wrote home (the originals are not present), some signatures of Van Buren, newspaper clippings relating to his military career, and other miscellaneous papers. A unique group and interesting group.