Private Cornelius Van Houten, 1st New Jersey Light
Private Cornelius Van Houten, 1st New Jersey Light Artillery, Civil War Archive
Bearing a good old-New Jersey name, just twenty years old and newly married when the war broke out, Cornelius Van Houten enlisted in Battery B of the 1st New Jersey Artillery in September 1861, serving through the end of the conflict. As part of the Army of the Potomac, Van Houten’s Battery saw action in 26 battles, including nearly all the major affairs from the Peninsula through Appomattox. Although not numerous, Van Houten’s letters are evocative reminders of how an average soldier progressed from raw recruit to old soldier, learning “the trade” by hard experience, from learning how to cope with death and danger to staying healthy by keeping beds off the ground. More than most soldiers, Van Houten seems to have been able to observe the worst of war and maintain perspective.
In a characteristic letter written from the battlefield (possibly Seven Pines), June 13, 1862, Van Houten described the carnage in clinical terms: I wish you would see this Battlefield there where so many men killed that we could not bury them all. Some we throwed a little dirt over and those who laid in piles we laid brush on and burned them, some are not burned or buryed, they lie out full of worms like a lot of dead horses.... Showing that he had a mind for the larger strategies at play, he described the situation they faced near Washington, DC, on Oct. 3, 1864, equally coolly: There is a break out in our front, so we cannot lye down and know we will have a good nights rest, but we have to sleep like the Rabbits with one eye open for our fort is only a few yards from the Picket lines and we have to jump at the first shpt. All the army is either on the left or right, and we are about in the center. Our line is consequently very thin. There has been some very hard fighting for the last few days. First Genl Grant caught Mr Lee on his left flank and almost entered Richmond and before Lee know were he was Grant had him by the right. I think Lee has just as much as he wants to do now for Genl. Grant does not publish his movements a month or two ahead...
The collection includes three letters regarding a promotion for Van Houten, including a nice recommendation for promotion to Lieutenant from former Lieutenant George Woodberry, Aug. 27, 1863, citing Van Houten’s admirable service on the Peninsula and along the Rappahannock. A highly literate, observant, and fervent soldier. Characteristic wear and tear.