William Vanauken - Letters concerning 107th NY Infantry William Vanauken


William (Billy) E. Vanauken enlisted in the 107th New York Infantry on 7 August 1862. The 107th was engaged in numerous battles, including the battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, as well as the battles of Resaca and Dallas which took place in the Atlanta campaign. William was killed on 25 May 1864 during the battle at Dallas, Georgia, where he was shot in the hand, arm, and head. A letter written by a fellow soldier, Dean West, on 27 May 1864 describes how his body could not be retrieved and buried until the next morning. Although there are only four letters in the Archive written by William and one written by his brother-in-law and sister, he was a prolific writer and chronicled with much detail his experiences during his 21 months of service. In other letters, which are not part of this collection, William describes in great detail the horrors of Antietam as witnessed by him as he lay on the ground near the infamous Cornfield. He wrote this letter on 18 September 1862 from the battlefield even as the fighting continued.


20 JUNE 1863
In his letter of 20 June 1863, William describes in detail the execution of three men on 19 June 1863 for desertion. He gives a first hand and graphic account of the event and discusses its impact on him emotionally. A description of the execution was also published in “Harper’s Weekly” on 8 August 1863, in which the newspaper reported that, “The first execution for desertion that has yet taken place in the Twelfth Corps, and we think the first in the Army of The Potomac, took place near Leesburg, Virginia, on Friday June 19.” An original copy of the newspaper is now in possession of the Archive (See image 1 and image 2). The three men executed were William Grover (Groover), William McKey, and Christopher Krumbar.

The American author, Walt Whitman was moved to write in a scrapbook his own notes and commentary entitled “William Grover Shot for Desertion.” It reads, “The Horrid Contrast and the sarcasm of this life–to know who they really are that set on judges benches and who they perched in the criminal’s box–to know; While all this grand and tinsel shines in people’s eyes …amid all this show of general’s stars and the bars of the captain’s and Lieutenant’s–around all the wind and puffing and infidelity —amid the swarms of contractors and their endless contracts and the paper money–and out from all this---

--stalks like a phantom that boy, not yet nineteen years of age, who had fought without flinching in twelve battles (no veteran of old wars better or steadier) stalks forth…that single simple boy out of all this huge composite pageant with a bandage over his eyes–the volley–the smoke–the limpsy, bully body and the blood streaming in stains, splashes over the breast.” (From the New York Public Library-Digital Gallery)

24 August 1862
In this letter, William writes to his brother-in-law, Ezra, and sister, Elizabeth, to inform them of a hard march that his regiment has made. He speaks of having seen Abraham Lincoln, “I have seen old Abe. He is a big tall swarthey old cuss.”

17 August 1862
William writes to his brother-in-law, Ezra, and his sister, Elizabeth. He writes that he is in Arlington and camped in a war cemetery. (He is most likely speaking of the cemetery that was to become Arlington National Cemetery). He writes, “We can see the capital anytime we have a mind to…I have just been swimming in the Potomac River that is just half down to Washington.”

11 September 1862
William writes his brother-in-law and his sister. He writes that he is marching to engage the enemy, a march that will take him to Antietam. In the letter he makes a few “farewell comments” to his younger brother, James, should he not return.

25 October 1863
This is a letter written by Ezra O. Sawyer to William. Ezra and his wife, Elizabeth, (William’s sister) discuss politics and their sentiments about the War.

The paper is a copy of “Harper’s Weekly” from 8 August 1863. In it there is an article (image 1) describing the execution of three soldiers in Leesburg on 19 June 1863, the same execution that William Vanauken witnessed and describes in his letter of 20 June 1863. There is also a half page engraving of the soldiers sitting on their coffins awaiting the firing squad (image 2).

At this writing there is very little known about the Vanauken or Van Auken family. We do know that Ezra O. Sawyer and William’s sister, Elizabeth Vanauken, the couple to whom the letters were written were married on 23 December 1859 in Breeseport, by John Nichols, Esq, at the hotel of Ulysses Brees.