Mourning a Friend

Peter Vredenburgh, Jr. died almost 130 years before I was born. And yet, as I read his letters from the Civil War, I found myself identifying with Vredenburgh and thinking of him as a close companion. Which perhaps explains why, when I recently read how he came to be killed, I felt like I had lost a friend.

Born in 1837, Peter Vredenburgh joined the 14th New Jersey and trained at Camp Vredenburgh, named for his father, an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. By 1864 Vredenburgh held a major’s rank and served on the staff of Brig. Gen. James Ricketts.

Maj. Peter Vredenburgh, Jr., checked on the refugees in the Thomas home's basement during the Battle of Monocacy.  (NPS)

Maj. Peter Vredenburgh, Jr., (NPS)

 

And that was how I found Vredenburgh; as a major in the summer of 1864 as part of the Federal force fighting the Battle of Monocacy. In the midst of the battle, Vredenburgh’s actions constituted, in my opinion, one of the starkest human-interest stories of the action. Having been garrisoned near the Monocacy River in 1862, Vredenburgh knew the family of the nearby Thomas farm and as the bullets whistled overhead, he made his way into the home’s basement and found its occupants “in the cellar frightened to death.” Gathering the family’s silver and a bucket of water, Vredenburgh bid the Thomases goodbye and went back outside to resume fighting.[1]

 

Following the battle, Vredenburgh left Ricketts’s staff to assume command of the 14th New Jersey, whose ranks had been devastated at Monocacy. With the rest of the 6th Corps, Vredenburgh waited for orders that would send them into combat in what would become the Valley Campaign, pitting Philip Sheridan against Jubal Early. Vredenburgh’s reputation preceded him, writing “Hundreds of persons speak to me whom I hardly recollect having ever seen and even the little children along the sidewalks sing out ‘there goes the Major.’”[2]

On September 19, 1864, the first pitched battle between Sheridan and Early broke out on the fringes of Winchester, Virginia. The Third Battle of Winchester would be Vredenburgh’s last. I had always known that Vredenburgh was killed in action, but not until I read Scott. C. Patchan’s The Last Battle of Winchester did I know how.

Patchan writes,

“Major Peter Vredenburgh’s 14th New Jersey. . . straddled the Berryville Pike and served as the unit of direction for Sheridan’s attack. . . . The 14th New Jersey had barely reached the skirmish line when a solid shot struck Major Vredenburgh, who at that very moment was the most important man along the Union battle line. The iron projectile ripped into the left side of his neck and burrowed through his torso before exiting his right shoulder. His arms flung reflexively into the air, and he fell back headfirst onto the hard macadam surface of the pike. Lying in the middle of the road, Vredenburgh reflexively threw his hands over his face and took his last breath.”[2]

Reading that passage caused me to pause, and I even read it two or three times. Vredenburgh would write no more letters to his parents, which had proven so useful to later historians, and personified his humorous and kind nature. He was exactly one week past his 27th birthday when he was killed on the outskirts of Winchester.

Peter Vredenburgh's jacket on display at the Monocacy Battlefield Visitor Center (Ryan Quint)

Peter Vredenburgh’s jacket on display at the Monocacy Battlefield Visitor Center (Ryan Quint)

Two days after Vredenburgh’s death, a friend of his from Frederick, Maryland wrote to Vredenburgh’s mother. “I hope you will not deem it an intrusion that in this your time of sorrow I write to express our sympathy in the deep affliction of your bereavement,” Charles Ramsburg’s words to Eleanor Vredenburgh reach out 150 years later. “It was the heart so noble and true, beneath his often gay and light interior, that was for him our affection—his kindness to those around him—his forgiveness of those who had done him injury, that made him beloved wherever known. . . We cannot restrain our tears when we think of our friend as no more on earth—but hope with purified spirits to meet him in that better Land where the battle cry is heard no more and the word of parting shall never again be spoken.”[3]

Earlier this week in a posting about Joe Johnston’s wounding, Doug Crenshaw finished by writing, “And that, my friends, is why I love history.” Well, the stories of people like Vredenburgh are why I love history. I believe that too often the study of history is mis-characterized as remembering when treaties were signed and memorizing the order of presidents. Rather, it is the story of people who came before; how their memories pass down to us, and how it is our job to tell those stories. And that is an absolute privilege.

______________________________________________________________

[1] Peter Vredenburgh, Letter July 12, 1864, in Upon the Tented Field: An Historical Account of the Civil War as Told by the Men Who Fought And Gave Their Lives, edited by Bernard A. Olsen. (Red Bank: Historic Project, Inc., 1993), 253.

[2] Peter Vredenurgh Letter, August 5, 1864, published in Upon the Tented Field, 258.

[3] Scott C. Patchan, The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7-September 19, 1864 (El Dorado Hills: SavasBeatie, 2013), 245-246.

[4] Charlie Ramsburg to Eleanor Vrendeburgh, September 21, 1864, published in  Upon the Tented Field, 270-271.

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8 Responses to Mourning a Friend

  1. ncatty says:

    “Gathering the family’s silver…(he) bid (them) goodbye..” Open to interpretation there.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Thanks for reading and the comment.

      To clarify, the actual quote from Vredenburgh is “I rushed into the house as soon as I got there, to see what had become of the family who had extended to me many acts of kindness. I found them in the cellar and the house open. I locked the doors, and brought down stairs a basket of silver they had packed up.” So any fear of nefarious purposes can be discarded.

      Thanks again for reading.

  2. Meg Groeling says:

    I feel the same way about Elmer Ellsworth, and a couple of others.An honor and a privilege indeed!

  3. Doug Crenshaw says:

    This was really good!

  4. garyschoen1 says:

    GREAT ARTICLE, THANKS FROM A 14TH NEW JERSEY REENACTOR

  5. lOOKING FORWARD TO READING YOUR BOOK AND THEN GOING BACK TO THE BATTLE FIELD. MY BELOVED 36 VA WAS THERE .AND LIKE YOU LOOKING FOR ANY NEW INFO I CAN GET .THANKS FOR THE POST

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