Manuscript volume, 1 February-7 May 1864 and 15 December 1864-1893, contains diary entries of Union soldier Lucian A. Voorhees (1843-1864) and miscellaneous entries including store accounts of Lexington County, S.C., native Milledge Rivers Gunter (1845-1931).
Lucian Voorhees served as a sergeant in Co. A, Fifteenth Regiment, New Jersey Infantry, during the Civil War. His entries detail life in camp near Brandy Station, Virginia, during the winter of 1864 and his participation in the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864.
Throughout his service Voorhees maintained a desire to obtain an officer’s commission and many of his entries describe steps he pursued to that end. These included being tested before the colonel of his regiment on 18 and 19 February 1864. After the first day of examinations on “Regulations and Tactics,” Voorhees commented that he “made several mistakes” and though he tried to “keep it still,” his poor showing “soon became generally known.” Despite the deferment of the remainder of the exam for a week following several more mistakes on 19 February 1864, Voorhees remained “confident of success.” Two months later, Voorhees was still considering applying for a commission, but was contemplating leaving his regiment and attempting to secure a place as an officer in a newly formed African-American unit. On 21 April 1864, he noted that there was “much talk on a recent order to allow men to be examined for admittance into the military free school of Phil[adelphia] to become qualified for commissions in negro regiments. I have a notion to apply.”
Voorhees also commented regularly on the interaction of officers and enlisted men in camp and freely offered his opinions on the regimental commander, Col. William H. Penrose (1832-1903). Immediately following the conclusion of his dinner on 29 February 1864, while his unit was in the field, “the order arrived to advance as skirmishers arrived and in double quick time we moved forward having scarcely time to put on our things. Cannonading was heard in front, but our move proved to be founded on Col. Penroses drunkenness and we fell back part way.”
In contrast, Lt. Col. Edward Livingston Campbell seemed to be held in high esteem by members of the regiment. On 26 March 1864, Voorhees described a “highly interesting ceremony” during which “a splendid sword sash & belt purchased and presented by the enlisted men ($200.00)” to Campbell. He concluded his description by reporting that Campbell “sent his compliments to the men... and hoped the time would speedily come when we would all be on the same footing.” Two days later Voorhees wrote a letter “to Trenton papers on the sword presentation”; however, he reveals that he was forced to do so under an assumed name “as it was very cutting on Col. Penrose.” The letter was evidently published, for on 10 April 1864, he remarked somewhat gleefully that there was “quite a stir about an article in True American of my production, sarcastic, on Col. Penrose, as relating to the sword presentation to Lt. Col. Campbell.”
In addition to his daily tasks and studying for a commission, official duties of the regiment included taking part in drills and parades. In his entry of 18 April 1864, Voorhees described a review of the entire Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. “We moved out early and arrived upon the field somewhat tired being double quicked into position... the whole corps wearing white gloves presented a fine appearance. Saw U.S. Grant and he looked upon us very pleasantly. Fatigued we were led back to camp a distance by the way of about 3 miles.”
The men also found time for activities outside of their official duties. For Voorhees these included letter writing, sporting events, participation in a debating society, and attendance at church services and prayer meetings. He does not seem to have kept up a regular correspondence with family members, but he does occasionally mention letters written and received from young ladies in New Jersey. On 14 April 1864 he notes that he had received a “rather loving letter from Gay M. Rockhill,” then remarked that he feared “I am leading her too far.” Members of his brigade also used sports to pass the time while in winter quarters. On 18 April 1864, Voorhees “practiced some with boxing gloves,” and on 2 May a “grand match game” (presumably an early form of baseball) took place between the Second New Jersey Volunteers and the “Harris Light Cavalry.” He reported a victory for “our boys... by 18 rounds.”
If sports were a way to get much needed physical exercise, the “Literary Society,” which met on Wednesdays and consisted of a debate and the presentation of an essay, offered a chance at mental stimulation. Topics debated at the weekly meetings included “Will the war end this year” (17 February 1864), “Should Capital punishment be prohibited by Law” (9 March 1864), “Should the main aim of punishment be the reformation of the criminal or the prevention of crime” (30 March 1864), “Does this war tend to improve us as a people” (6 April), and “Does Memory affect the minds of men more than hope” (20 April 1864).
Voorhees was an active participant in nearly all of the debates, and seems to have influenced the judges’ decisions on certain occasions. On 30 March 1864 he “talked my time out and we gained the decision... adjourned in excellent spirits.” According to Voorhees’ entries these affairs could become quite heated. On 9 March 1864, a dispute arose between Voorhees and Thompson, “I was on the Aff[irmative side] and took strong grounds to sustain my side, and in refuting... what Thompson of the Neg[ative]s had said effecting the leader of this Rebellion, he gruffly & angrily called me to order but I was sustained by the President.” He and Thompson had another disagreement on 6 April 1864 when the former “rather insulted me... but I took it in good part.” On 20 April 1864 it was not Thompson but an individual named Bullock with whom Voorhees almost came to blows. He described it as coming close to being “a Brooks affair,” an apparent reference to the 1856 caning of Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks in the chamber of the United States Senate.
Essay topics included “The sacred soil of the Old Dominion or Virginia mud” (23 March 1864), which Voorhees reported “was well received as it was comical and sensible,” and the “Mutability of the human race” (20 April 1864), given by “Cordell of the cattle guard,” which he declared “excellent.” Voorhees, the featured speaker on 9 March 1864, delivered his “oration” on “Man,” and in describing his speech said he struck out “as though I would smash slavery when lo! I ended on ‘the true type of a man’ Abraham Lincoln President of the U.S.”
The literary society also took an active roll in improving camp life for soldiers. One example of this was their collection of money “to help pay for a mule to carry the Chapel tent” on 23 March 1864. The next day Voorhees noted that they had raised $11.25. Most of the time religious services were conducted by regimental chaplains, but on 22 April 1864 Voorhees described two sermons preached the day prior by the Rev. William Ives Buddington, in camp from Brooklyn “at the option of the ‘Christian Commission,’” during which “tears were brought to the eyes of many.” Buddington’s message was to assure the soldiers that they “were not forgotten but are prayed for at home.”
During maneuvers which spanned 27 February-2 March 1864, there was no fighting but enough marching through mud to warrant Voorhees to comment that he “stripped and washed from head to foot” upon returning to camp. This was followed by “a good drink” since “rations of whiskey had been dealt” after which he went to sleep. This was the only military action that Voorhees’ saw until the Overland Campaign which commenced in May 1864. The first conflict in this campaign, fought between 5 and 7 May 1864 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, became known as the Battle of the Wilderness and was described in detail by Voorhees.
The Fifteenth New Jersey Infantry began packing for a move on 3 May as a part of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac after receiving an order from Gen. George G. Meade “imbueing confidence in the men in the coming conflict, telling us to remember our relatives at home and above all our country.” Voorhees awoke at two o’clock in the morning on 4 May 1864 and set out at day light. His unit marched eighteen miles that day over a road “strewn with blankets and clothing mostly from the 10th New Jersey,” and he was so fatigued when they stopped that he “‘threw up’ (vulgarly speaking).” This exhausting march did little to dampen his spirits, and he remarked afterwards that “the scene is indeed picturesque, myriads of freemen going forth to battle the enemies of our Country.”
The following day they again set out at daylight and “had a hard tramp to and fro... through almost impenetrable woods.” And though there was “skirmishing in front” and the “firing on our right and left was incessant all the P.M.,” Voorhees indicated that his regiment “did not fire.” Though he missed the actual fighting, he was witness to some of the awful sights of the battle - “Dead and wounded lay around of both armies... in some instances the leaves had caught fire and threatened to burn men alive and did burn dead men. The groans of the wounded was awful some yelling to be moved from the fire.” Dead soldiers could provide some comforts, however, including “Corn cake,” which Confederate soldiers “seem to have plenty of... as found in their haversacks and the boys eat it with avidity.”
Firing commenced at dawn on 6 May 1864, but they were able to brew coffee in the morning, “4 men at a time being allowed to go to the rear for that purpose.” They piled their knapsacks and “waited for the word ‘forward’” but seem to have spent most of the day “lieing here among the dead” where they felt their “close proximity to Eternity & pray[ed] for our souls as well as for victory.” Voorhees’ unit finally moved forward and occupied breastworks erected by a New York regiment, where “dead Rebs were rifled indiscriminately.” At dusk a charge by Confederate forces broke the Union line but was finally repulsed. Voorhees noted impatiently he “only waited for the command to fire” which never came. At ten o’clock that night his unit was moved to the rear where “they stacked arms and slept till morning.”
Voorhees’ entry of 7 May 1864, his last in the diary, began by reporting that Co. A was “deployed out through the Wilderness” where they had an “awful time getting in a right position.” After getting “turned around” they finally joined with the Tenth New Jersey Volunteers and “laid down.” Some men from his company were wounded during the confusion including “a recruit out a few days only.” From the diary it is not clear when Sgt. Lucian Voorhees died; outside sources indicate that he was killed on 8 May 1864 but due to the abbreviated nature of the entry and description of fighting near his position on 7 May it is possible that he was killed later that day.
Following his death, Voorhees’ diary came into the possession of Confederate soldier Milledge Rivers Gunter, a private in Co. F, Palmetto Sharpshooters. After the conclusion of hostilities Gunter operated a store on Chinquapin Creek, outside of Batesburg in Lexington County, S.C. For roughly the next thirty years, he used the remaining pages in the diary to keep records of the store, compose lines of poetry, and make notes of family births and deaths. Milledge Rivers Gunter died on 17 January 1931, a few months short of his eighty-sixth birthday.